William Carl Garner was a good-natured and gracious man, but through his many years of hard work became the man who put Greers Ferry Lake on the map and became the heart of the north-central Arkansas lake community.
Garner was born in Sulphur Rock in Independence County in 1915. He graduated at the top of his class in 1933 and later attended Arkansas College (which became Lyon College in 1994) in nearby Batesville on a basketball scholarship. He graduated with a degree in economics in 1938. After graduation, he got a job with the US Army Corps of Engineers. In 1945, he was transferred to the Little Rock District.
In 1959, approaching mid-age, he discovered his life’s calling as construction began on Greers Ferry Lake. For the next several years, Garner carefully surveyed the area and studied every detail of the effort. His efforts earned him promotion to resident engineer in 1962, a position he would embrace for the next thirty-four years. In October 1963, President John F. Kennedy, in one of his last public appearances, came to dedicate the facility, with Garner on the platform with a delegation of state and local dignitaries. In one interview, Garner recounted riding in the presidential limousine afterward with President Kennedy, Sen. John McClellan, and Rep. Wilbur Mills all listening to the World Series game on the radio.
While construction was complete, for Garner, the work was just beginning. Determined to make the lake a success and an economic engine for Cleburne County, he lobbied legislators and members of Congress continually for funding and for awareness of the lake’s potential. He spoke to numerous groups and media outlets and made sure the lake’s facilities were up-to-date, safe, and clean.
He loved the lake and worked to keep it in pristine condition. He wanted the public to enjoy the beauty of the lake area as he saw it, and in 1970, organized a public effort to clean up the shoreline and lake facilities at Greers Ferry and the Little Red River. This would become an annual effort. So impressed by its success, Congress called for similar efforts every year at all national parks and federally-maintained lakes in 1985. In 1995, this became Carl Garner Federal Lands Cleanup Day, to this day marked the first Saturday after Labor Day.
Garner was named the top resident engineer out of 440 by the Corps of Engineers in 1979 and received an honorary doctorate from Arkansas College in 1994. Only in 1996, at the age of 81, did he retire from his official duties at Greers Ferry. He had served 58 years, one of the longest careers in the federal government. More importantly for Garner, the lake had become a multi-million dollar attraction for the area, a place of recreation and joy for thousands, and local citizens would continue preservation and pollution control efforts through the Save Greers Ferry organization and other efforts.
Even after his retirement, Garner would never stop his work with the lake. He continued to work with state and national leaders for funding and would speak with any organization about the many benefits of the lake. In June, just after his ninety-ninth birthday, the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission named Garner one of its top 25 inspiration leaders for his work with Greers Ferry. He would pass away quietly a month later, surrounded by a loving family and revered by a community forever altered by one man’s love for the beauty of the natural world.