Brenda Garner walks from her home in Pecan Acres Saturday to make her usual rounds through town. Garner has lived in Starkville for more than 40 years, and her heart for her community makes her an avid patron of community events and someone who is never shy about getting to know her neighbors. Photo by: Zack Plair/Dispatch Staff
April 8, 2019 11:47:02 AM
Brenda Garner sat in her living room in Pecan Acres pondering the term. An administrator with the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District made special note to call her that last year, Garner recalled, though she hadn't really thought of herself as such in almost a decade.
"I guess that's what I am," Garner conceded. "But my kids say I'm just nosy."
Garner has lived in Starkville for more than 40 years. She's put four children through the public school system, the youngest graduating in 2002. She's held several jobs but hasn't worked since 2012.
But Garner's continuing contributions to her community -- at once deliberate activism and simply an exercise in doing what she likes -- manifest as a series of little things based on one much larger principle Garner said is often forgotten these days: being a good neighbor.
"We've strayed so far from the days of knowing your neighbor," Garner said. "I can't be like that. It's too ingrained in me to look people in the eye and say 'Hello' and 'Good morning.'"
Garner, though, does a far sight more than that.
At least three days a week, Garner leaves her home in the housing development right off Highway 12 on foot. She walks through downtown and other areas of central Starkville, rarely taking the same route twice in a row.
She sees what she can see, checks on her friends and neighbors and strikes up conversations with strangers.
"People often ask me if they can walk with me," she said. "I don't mind, but I tell them, 'Every time you see me walking, I'm going somewhere.' I just leave a little early so I have time to stop and talk to people."
"Somewhere" usually is the library, post office or grocery store (Vowell's sits about a quarter-mile from her front door, though sometimes she takes the "long way" to get there).
If her destination is too far to walk, she take Starkville-MSU Area Rapid Transit buses, on which she befriends drivers and passengers, alike -- listening to whatever they share with her and never being shy when it comes to offering free advice.
"You name (a subject), I've had a conversation about it," she said. "Somebody once told me I'd talk to a doorknob."
During the spring and summer, Garner spends her Saturday mornings at Starkville Community Market, supporting the locally grown, farm-to-table lifestyle because, put simply, "I don't eat tomatoes in the wintertime."
If there's a public meeting on an important issue in the community, especially if it's school-related, she'll probably attend. If the Starkville Symphony is playing somewhere, she makes time to go listen.
When she's at home, she's cutting out newspaper clippings chronicling the accomplishments of people she knows -- especially young people -- and mailing them to the honored party, just to let them know someone noticed. You may get a Christmas, birthday or anniversary card from her if she has your address, even if she's only met you once or twice.
"I sent a Christmas card to one of the SMART bus drivers one time, and she sent me one back just addressed to 'Brenda,' because she didn't know my last name," Garner laughed. "I had sent another lady an anniversary card once, and she called me and thanked me for reminding her."
"People like that," she added. "And it doesn't take much out of my day to do it."
She said she does it because she loves Starkville, and she'll continue until she can no longer get around.
Raised by school teacher parents in Cleveland in the Mississippi Delta, Garner first moved to Starkville in 1970 when her then-husband, James, was a graduate student at Mississippi State. They left after two years, but returned in 1977 when James was hired as a professor at MSU.
Intermittently a stay-at-home mom, she's worked as a bank clerk, 11 years at the now-shuttered Vincent Boot and Shoe, and a short stint as afterschool program and summer camp coordinator for the Brickfire Project.
Garner's last job, however, brought her full circle.
"My parents were teachers and I always said I didn't want to be one," Garner said. "But I've been a teacher for a long time. I'm just not certified."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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