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Leisure Services

Posted on: February 6, 2020

Long-time Leisure Services recreation programmer calling it a career

Mildred Garrett retirement

COOKEVILLE – Mildred Garrett was the child who saw pictures in the sky.

“I would study the clouds, the different formations,” she recalled.

They inspired her to create.

Over the years, Garrett cultivated her own special style of painting, drawing and sculpting. She takes pride in her ability to see beauty where others may not, be it in a peculiar tree limb, rock or even discarded plastic or cardboard. With the proper shaping and the right splash of color, the object becomes art.

“I love color,” she said. “I love colors that seem to explode.”

Garrett’s passion for art led to a long career that offered an outlet for her creativity – recreation programmer for the City of Cookeville Department of Leisure Services.

For the past 37 years, she has planned and presented a variety of classes, programs, workshops and events for the community. Anything she could dream, she could do. And Garrett dreamed big – holiday decorating, photography, ballroom dancing, foreign languages, quilting, floral arranging, scuba diving, gardening, backpacking, rock climbing… the list goes on.

“I had all of these opportunities to just create and let my imagination run wild,” she said.

But Garrett’s last few weeks on the job have been a little different. In addition to coordinating upcoming tai chi, chair yoga and belly dance classes, she’s been going through filing cabinets, looking at old photos and taking down the artwork that defined her workspace for so many years at Cane Creek Recreation Center.

When she leaves her office on Feb. 10, she’ll hang up her recreation programmer hat and put on a new one – that of retiree.

It’s been a time of reflection and reminiscing.

“Looking back on it now, if I had known in the beginning what I would be able to accomplish, I don’t think I would have thought it was possible,” Garrett said.

While her employment with the City of Cookeville officially began in 1983, Garrett’s work in local government goes back to 1979, when she was hired by Putnam County Parks and Recreation to teach arts and crafts at West End Community Center in western Cookeville.

Neighborhood children and families would gather in and around the small white building, which stood on what is now the site of West End Park, to play basketball and ping pong, listen to the juke box and enjoy social activities from time to time. The first Breakfast with Santa, an event that continued several years at various locations in the city, was held there.

“It was a fun place for the youth to hang out,” Garrett said.

Garrett’s work with the county had actually been a joint venture with the city. When the county and city divided recreation services in 1983, she became a city employee but continued working at the community center. In 1987, Cookeville developed its own leisure services department, at which time Garrett moved to city hall and began creating recreation programs for all citizens.

In those days, there was no internet – no easy way to learn a new skill except by face-to-face instruction. To that end, Garrett diligently sought skilled, knowledgeable instructors so that citizens would have the opportunity to engage in a wide variety of recreational activities.

One of her best resources was the phone book.

“I would study the yellow pages just to get ideas,” she said.

She would look through the different business listings, considering whether or not a related class or event could be developed. One day, her eyes fell upon the golf section.

“I thought, ‘Oh, golf classes!’” she said.

But who would teach the classes?

Garrett set her sights high – asked Cookeville professional golfer Bobby Nichols if he would. And he did.

“I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask,” she said.

Similarly, Garrett never shied away from tapping into the resources of Tennessee Tech University. She credits TTU for the success of many of her programs.

“The university played a large part in the work I have done,” she said.

Not only could she recruit instructors, she’s been able to use the facilities from time to time, for it wasn’t until 2005 that the city built its own recreation center near Cane Creek Park. Even to this day, Garrett has continued to partner with TTU to offer accredited courses, including self-defense and martial arts, at the rec center.

Garrett has experienced a lot of firsts during her time with Cookeville Leisure Services.

One of her proudest achievements was establishing Father-Daughter Date Night, which has since become one of Cookeville’s most beloved events. This month will mark the 33rd annual event. She was also part of the first Kids Fishing Derby at Cane Creek Park in collaboration with TTU’s Student Fisheries Association and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. The 32nd annual derby is coming up in June.

Another career highlight involved a partnership with the Putnam County Health Department. The result was a program known as Power of 10, which in 2010 garnered a Shining Star Award in the Where We Live category from the Tennessee Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Health. That program had challenged participants to walk 100 miles in 10 weeks.

Garrett is also a long-time supporter and coordinator of the local World Tai Chi Day, held each year on the last Saturday in April. Through her efforts, Cookeville Leisure Services received Tennessee’s first proclamation for a world health day program, signed by Gov. Bill Haslam in 2014. State and local proclamations have continued each year since.

One of her latest achievements was reviving a holiday home exterior decorating contest that originated in the 1990s through a partnership with the Upper Cumberland Association of Realtors. The fourth annual Merry and Bright Holiday Home Challenge is planned for 2020.

Garrett said it’s been challenging at times coming up with fresh ideas for recreational activities as community interests have shifted through the years. Classes that were once popular for one generation may not hold the same appeal for the next. But through it all, she has always been open to input and striven to offer high-quality programs to meet the community’s needs.

While sifting through decades-old files over the past few weeks, Garrett has been reminded of many good things. She sees pictures and thinks, “That was a fun class!”

She also thinks about the people she’s gotten to know – coworkers, government officials, people in the business and education communities, and the countless citizens who have participated in Leisure Services activities.

“I can wholeheartedly say I have met so many wonderful people,” she said. “I do not want to lose that contact.”

Garrett is still exploring ideas on ways to stay active in the community. One way is by volunteering with a new Veterans Affairs program called Whole Health to help educate area veterans about health programs available to them, including some offered by Cookeville Leisure Services and other area agencies.

She also wants to delve into art – hopes to create more, view more, and also find places to display her work.

Spending time with family is also a priority. They include a daughter, Nina, and grandchildren, Mya, Maleeya, Desmond and Skylar.

As Garrett looks ahead to retirement, there are smiles and even a little uncertainty.

But she knows some things won’t change.

She will continue to look for pictures in the sky.