Thomas cultivates more than just vegetables

By Haley Mitchell Garden

Gary Thomas, affectionately known as “Gooch” by his friends, has happily resided at Luverne Health and Rehabilitation for almost seven and a half years. This past spring, Thomas embarked on a new endeavor from the comfort of his residence, setting out to cultivate a small vegetable garden.

Thomas said gardening is a renewed interest that has not only supplemented his meals and enriched his life, but also serves as an opportunity to educate others. He expressed concern that many children today are disconnected from the origins of their meals, assuming that everything simply comes from the grocery store.

“These days a lot of kids don’t even know where their food comes from,” Thomas said. “They think their chicken or steak or potatoes comes from the grocery store. I sit outside a lot and kids and others often look and ask questions. So not only do I get to supplement my meals, I get to maybe help keep agriculture alive in at least a very small way, perhaps making folks a little more knowledgeable about where their food comes from.”

Reflecting on his childhood, Thomas said he experienced a different reality than most youth of today. He fondly recalled his family’s self-sufficiency and his father’s annual two-acre garden, where they grew an array of vegetables, including peas, corn, cucumbers, squash, peppers, tomatoes, and almost anything else found in what is now the rare “typical southern garden.” He and his siblings helped in the garden from a very young age and were very familiar with the effort and dedication it took to get a meal onto their plates.

Frequently sitting outside, Thomas attracts curious onlookers who inquire about his gardening activities. Their questions create opportunities for him to share a little education and a lot of joy with others like Donald Hilburn, a retired farmer from Rutledge.

“Gooch is always upbeat and ready to talk,” Hilburn said. “I admire him because of all the kids that look up to him from when he coached little league and peewee football. He’s still a big supporter of sports in the county and of all our children. Gooch is happy to be there and happy to be alive. I stop almost daily and talk for at least a few minutes, not because he needs me to, but because I enjoy it, and because he gets suckers from me to share with all the employees on duty,” Hilburn said with a laugh.

“So, when he mentioned growing some tomatoes and such, I jumped at the chance to help my friend “farm” a little, and remind him of the good ol’ days because it certainly did just as much good for me as it did for Gooch. Sometimes it is the little things, even when it comes to creating a little more interest in agriculture.”

Hilburn played a significant role in facilitating Thomas’s vegetable-growing project, his support manifesting in the form of pots, soil, and plants, as well as a sign he arranged to have made.

In his pursuit of gardening and life, Thomas has found support from many individuals like Hilburn and William Simmons, whom Thomas considers a brother. Unlike most other residents, Gooch is his own sponsor and has the freedom to come and go as he pleases. So, Simmons, along with others, regularly takes Thomas to eat and attend ballgames, providing companionship and support for all parties. Gratitude can be heard in Thomas’s voice when he speaks about the support he receives from individuals like Simmons, Hilburn, and so many more.

Thomas’s nephews, Cole Roper and John Austin Roper, are actively involved in Crenshaw County agriculture, managing chicken houses and raising cattle near Highland Home. Their commitment to farming and the agricultural industry brings joy to Thomas’s heart as he recognizes the importance of agriculture to the local economy, noting that farming was once a significant driving force in the area.

“In the past, every peanut consumed during the annual peanut boil originated from Crenshaw County,” Thomas said. “The peanut house was always busy and agriculture was really what fueled the whole county. Supporting and revitalizing farming practices is really essential for the community’s well-being, I think.”

Emily Maddox, Administrator at Luverne Health and Rehabilitation, L.L.C., said that the garden was a wonderful idea that enriches the lives of all the residents. According to Maddox, Thomas cultivates knowledge, appreciation, and a sense of wonder in the hearts and minds of those who cross his path.

“The vegetable garden has given Gooch a bigger opportunity to speak to people who might not normally stop by and talk,” Maddox said. “In my years of knowing him, I’ve learned he has a love for teaching. Where in past years he has been able to teach through coaching baseball. Now he is able to reach a new generation with this garden and I am all for any type of activity that will enrich our residents’ quality of life.”

A 1977 graduate of Highland Home School, Thomas has always had a strong connection to his community. He coached youth leagues in both Highland Home and Luverne, leading three different Dixie Youth groups, in three different seasons, to the state competition. From 1990 to 2008, Gooch served as the announcer for Highland Home Football, and under the direction of Mr. Alvin Bland and Mr. James Morgan, wrote a weekly sports article about each game, both roles he embraced wholeheartedly. During his 18-year tenure, he rarely missed a game, only absenting himself on five occasions due to a blood clot that ultimately resulted in the loss of his leg.

When asked if there was anything he would tell his younger self or the younger generation today, Thomas emphasized the significance of perseverance and dedication in pursuing one’s passions. He regrets not fully comprehending the necessary steps to achieve his goals while in high school.

“I wished 1,000 times I could have been either a fulltime sports journalist or professional announcer,” Thomas said. “But often when you’re in high school, you don’t fully realize what it takes to meet your goals. If you are passionate about something, make it happen no matter what.”

Thomas encourages young people to buckle down in school, emphasizing the importance of education in realizing one’s dreams. Although his career aspirations didn’t materialize, his passion for sports and the community has led to an enriched and fulfilling life with deep connections to the people of the county. He encourages anyone with a genuine passion for something to pursue it relentlessly, regardless of the challenges that may arise.

In a world where convenience often takes precedence over understanding, Gooch’s efforts stand as a reminder of the importance of reconnecting with our food sources, and our community, and that the food we consume has a story to tell. His small vegetable garden serves as a testament to the dedication of those who toil in the fields, nurturing the soil and tending to the plants that sustain us.

Thomas and his garden stand as a powerful symbol of the significance of self-sufficiency,  the joy that comes from cultivating one’s own food, and the transformative potential of education and compassion to unite people and foster a broader understanding of humanity.