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Past park manager Garner dies at 62

J.P. Garner is remembered for his sense of humor and his connection with the animals at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park.

By JIM ROSS, BILL VARIAN and BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 2000


HOMOSASSA -- J.P. Garner, a former manager at the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park once described as Citrus County's answer to Dr. Doolittle, died Saturday. He was 62.

Mr. Garner was a well-known Citrus resident, especially in the Homosassa area, where his love of wildlife helped make the park what it is today. Indeed, for many years, Mr. Garner was top man there.

Since the early 1900s, tourists have flocked to the privately owned park site. In 1964, Norris Development Co. bought the property and developed the familiar hotels and other surrounding properties into a one-stop resort area. The attraction was promoted as "Nature's Own Attraction."

Mr. Garner came to work at the park in the mid-1970s while it was still in Norris Development's control. Ownership changed hands several times between 1978 and 1984, when Citrus County bought the attraction and made it a county park, with Mr. Garner as manager.

The state took over five years later and has held the reins ever since. Mr. Garner eventually left the park and pursued his other business interests.

Billy Kalb, 61, knew Mr. Garner as well as anyone. The two met in home room in the eighth grade in Atlanta and remained close friends ever since.

Mr. Garner and Kalb played on the same football teams and fished together at Lake Bishop in Cobb County, Ga.

"We've had some adventures," Kalb said. "This is the hardest thing I've ever had to go through, even though you expected it because of his poor health. There's no consolation at all."

Mr. Garner moved to Homosassa nearly 30 years ago, settling on one of three lots his parents set aside for their sons, near where the Homosassa and Halls rivers meet. Kalb spent several years overseas, and Mr. Garner spent a little more than a year in Brazil.

But they stayed in touch, and 17 years ago Kalb moved to Citrus County to join his friend. In later years they plied the waters off Citrus for trout, redfish, tarpon and sheepshead. Like all things he did, Mr. Garner seemed to have a knack for finding the fish when everyone else's hook was bare.

Asked for stories that describe the man, Kalb says he doesn't know where to begin. "I could fill up books with that," he said.

Because so many people knew him through the park, he obliges with a story set there.

Several years ago a newlywed couple visited, dressed in the wedding clothes. They visited the former petting zoo. There, a male emu took a shine to the bride, tackling her and demonstrating his affection.

The husband was livid, threatening to sue. He demanded to know what Mr. Garner, then the park manager, was going to do.

Mr. Garner thought on it barely a moment, then turned to the husband with a line only he could get away with, Kalb said.

"He said, "I'll give you the pick of the litter,' " he said.

Mr. Garner and the man became fast friends, Kalb said.

Harry Largay accompanied Mr. Garner and Kalb on many fishing trips. In fact, the three were supposed to go out on the boat Saturday.

"The boat's going to be real empty for a while," he said.

Largay and his wife, Erika, co-own the Cottage Framer in Crystal River, where they display several pieces of Mr. Garner's work. One of Garner's more unique creations, says Largay: baskets made of armadillos, the tails fashioned into handles, which he sold by the dozens in Texas.

Mr. Garner had a well-known tendency toward the mischievous. Once being interviewed by a reporter about what he liked to eat, he told her possum and collard greens, figuring that's what she wanted to hear.

"He said afterward, "I wouldn't eat that if you gave it to me,' " he said. "But it made it into the article."

"I don't think they're going to make them like that anymore," Largay said.

Mr. Garner was born in Atlanta and came to Citrus County some 30 years ago from Decatur, Ga. In addition to his work at the park, Mr. Garner also was an engraver, woodcarver and taxidermist.

Susan Dougherty, information specialist for the park, worked with Garner for 12 years there, since before the state bought it out. She said Garner liked to have fun, but remembers him as being astute and intelligent and as having unusual connection with animals.

"I think he really had a lot of love and respect for wildlife," she said. "He could get in the mind of animals."

Once, the park was planning to relocate a spider monkey to Monkey Island on the Homosassa River. But park officials feared that the other monkeys on the island, being territorial, would hurt the new monkey.

Knowing that the monkeys were by nature inquisitive as well, he had the new monkey put in box and dropped on the island while still inside. He figured that in their curiosity, the host monkeys would forget their aggression.

"It happened," Dougherty said. "It worked."

Another time, he was asked to pose for a sporting magazine. He took a huge jewfish he had caught and disguised it as a bass. Friends from the park threw rocks in the water as he pretended to fight the dead "bass" to the surface. The photograph made the cover of the magazine.

"I think this whole town will miss him," she said.

Survivors include his wife, Sandra Peck; a daughter, Dawn Hummer, Austin, Texas; two brothers, Ryan H., McIntosh Co., Ga., and David H., Charleston, S.C.; and two granddaughters.

Wilder-Fountains Funeral Home, Homosassa Springs, is handling arrangements.

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