Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
In Russell “Twister” Garrison’s 97 years, he’s been a husband, a father, a teacher, a mechanic, a Navy veteran, a district supervisor, a roller skater, a golfer, a philanthropist, a storyteller and a poet. Above all, he’s an inspiration.
Garrison was born in a tiny Kentucky town that consisted of a general store, church and school.
“We lived outside of Cane Valley,” Garrison says. “In fact, we lived so far out that when we went hunting, we had to come toward town.”
He got the nickname “Twister” over eight decades ago when he was riding home from school on his horse.
“A big guy in a baseball cap stopped and asked me to come out for the football team,” Garrison recalls. “I’d never heard of football, so I asked him what you do. He said to take the ball and run through all these men and circle those posts at the end, run through them again and come back.”
Garrison did as he was told, then asked how he had done.
“Fine,” the man said. “Now try doing it without the horse.”
Garrison found himself twisting like mad to avoid getting tackled. From that day forward, the name “Twister” stuck. In fact, according to his wife, Barkley, though they lived most of their lives in the bluegrass state, no one in Kentucky knows his real name.
Now celebrating 76 years together, the two met while attending Campbellsville High School. Garrison had a reputation for being a troublemaker, and Barkley’s parents forbid her to date him. But she was enamored. The couple liked to roller skate and dance (Barkley loved the jitterbug while Twister preferred the slow, romantic songs). Before graduating high school, Twister got sent to war.
“When he came home in his Navy uniform, I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to let him go back single,” says Barkley, who ran off and married Twister without her parent’s permission. When she returned home after getting hitched, her mother threatened to have the union annulled. But Barkley replied, “If you do, I’ll just marry him again.”
“You have to understand—I never talked back to my mother,” says Barkley, now 95. “But I was in love.”
The troublemaking stories weren’t completely off base. To fill his time as a youth, Garrison admits to climbing atop the roof of the schoolhouse and covering the chimney so that the structure filled with smoke. He was also caught rolling cigarettes with his brother behind the outhouse. One Halloween, a neighbor’s porch swing mysteriously ended up on a telephone wire.
Garrison can’t fathom kids today who whine about boredom because he and his siblings easily entertained themselves.
“Our favorite sport was using a pitch fork to see who could throw a cow pie the highest up on the barn and make it stick the longest,” says Garrison. “Dad always said that one of us would make a good politician.”
Barkley gravitated towards Garrison’s softer side — the one who kindly picked up hitchhikers and loaned them money. The one who went into the grocery store, bought a handful of stemmed roses, and sat in the parking lot, waiting to see who came out looking like they needed a pick-me-up. The one who lovingly took care of his sickly father-in-law. The one who went into prisons to chat with inmates. The one who openly and frequently invited strangers to Christ.
Garrison spent six years in the Navy. Stationed in 1940 in Pensacola, Florida, for training, he then was transferred to Adak, Alaska, where he was an airplane mechanic. Garrison earned his diploma the year after he and Barkley’s only child, Fran, was born.
He worked for the Tennessee Gas Transmission Company. He also owned Twister’s Service Station before he was hired as a conservation officer and later promoted to Director of Law Enforcement for the Department of Fish and Wildlife in Louisville.
“With all of Dad’s jobs, we moved 23 times by the time I was 13,” Fran says. “We lived like gypsies. But it never fazed me because my parents always made roots at home.”
Garrison raves that his wife got so adept at moving that she could pack up a house, move and have the curtains hung the same night.
After Garrison retired in 1981, he volunteered at a golf course striping balls for the driving range. He shot a 70 on his 70th birthday — par for the course.
“As the years went by, it got a whole lot easier to shoot my age,” quips Garrison, who started writing poetry in his spare time.
“He’d wake me up at night and ask, ‘How does this sound?’” recalls Barkley with a smirk. “It didn’t always sound great when I was dead tired.”
Garrison has been an Avon resident since 2014, when he moved into Countryside Meadows, an assisted living facility on N. Dan Jones Road. He has endured 28 kidney stones, a triple bypass, numerous stints and balloons, two plastic hips and a pace maker.
“We call him the bionic man,” Fran says.
Perhaps “iconic man” is more appropriate given his legion of admirers he’s garnered through the years. When Garrison worked for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, he taught conservation in elementary schools. In 1961, he visited a sixth-grade classroom where he met a tough-as-nails 12-year old named Alex Dunn.
“I was a junkyard boy from the inner city who loved to fight,” Dunn says. “But Twister treated me with respect. He let me know I mattered, that I was important.”
Dunn remembered Garrison telling him that fishing wasn’t about catching fish, it was about sitting by a pond with a pole in his hand, discovering who he was and what he wanted to do with his life.
“Meeting Twister changed my attitude and changed my life,” Dunn says. “I credit him for helping me become the man I am today.”