The Keeper of the Flowers

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by Brittany Hall

At the crossroads of the great south, there’s a building that sits on the corner of North and West Main. Adorned with big white columns and vibrant red geraniums that embrace each window, it’s hard not to admire. We call it, City Hall. Many times, you’ll see a man sitting outside on his John Deere Gator, tending to those beautiful scarlet flowers, or making his downtown rounds to ensure that Swainsboro can be cherished for generations to come. His name is Mr. Willie Jacob Butler, and he is every bit the heart and soul of our community, sharing a contagious smile with anyone who passes by, an absolute joy for life and a drive to make Emanuel County a beautiful place to call home. 

“I just enjoy getting up every morning and coming to work. You got to enjoy what you do so that you don’t mind doing it,” Mr. Willie said. 

Mr. Willie spends his days tending to the square as our city’s Maintenance Man and said that, though it’s not always easy, the smiles that beam across the faces of his coworkers and locals after it’s all done make it the greatest occupation in the world. 

“I love everything about the job, and I mean that! Anything they want me to do, I’ll go the extra mile to try to make everything comfortable for the people I work with. I like to see everybody happy. If anybody’s sad, I’ll be sad, so if something needs doing around here, I’m gonna do it, and if I can fix it, I’ll fix it.” 

One of Willie's most prized responsibilities is caring for the flowers around the city, a job that he doesn’t take lightly. 

“About two years ago, our former mayor, Charles Schwabe, said, ‘Willie, we're going to get some flowers and put them around town.’ And he said, ‘You reckon you can keep them going?’ and I responded, ‘I’ll give it a try! I’m not no green thumb now… I’m not no green thumb!’” Willie humbly but happily said, “What helped me was the rain, the good Lord and the ladies at City Hall who encouraged me with their kind words and admiration of my flowers by saying, ‘They’re so pretty and beautiful, Willie!’ I talk to the flowers; I call them my sunshines. When I go to greet them, I always say, ‘Good morning, sunshines.’ They’re about like women I guess, if you treat them with love and kindness, they’ll blossom up.” 

Mr. Willie’s passion for being the keeper of the flowers stems from his roots of growing up on his grandpa’s farm. 

“Back in the day my grandfather used to grow in his garden all the time. He had the most beautiful garden you’d ever see. He always said, ‘That good Lord's water is the best.’ So, I got a bucket that I’ll put outside when it rains, and I’ll let it catch the water and put a little in my spray bottle and spray them with it. My grandaddy could grow a beautiful garden filled with watermelons, tomatoes and corn. I remember I was about 8 years old, and we would get up in the morning like on a Saturday and go out to the garden and put a little salt and pepper in our hands and get a tomato off the vine and dip it and eat it. There was nothing like that way of living, but you got to put your work into it. If you put your work into growing something or another and maintain it, then it will bloom with ease. Plants are just like humans. They need protection and they need lovin’ so you must really take care of them, and they’ll provide for you just like you provided for them.” 

Mr. Willie has been in Emanuel County since 1968. “I was young, but it was nice back then. When I got up to be about 15 years old, I started working around here. I remember one time I was making $32 a week, that was when I was working as a carhop for Sam's Drive-in, a restaurant that was located where Mayor Greg Bennett’s package shop, Mojo’s, sits now. It was a lot of fun. I would carry and service food out to the cars and make me a few little tips. Those were some good ole days.” 

He is also a veteran who served in the National Guard.  "Back in the 70’s and 80’s, we’d go to Fort Stewart for training every summer, and I enjoyed it. I was stationed in Fort Stewart with my brother, Willie Joseph Butler, who did five tours in Iraq, and his son, Willie Joseph Butler Jr., who also served in Iraq. Because we were all named Willie J. Butler, they would say, ‘Wow! We got triplets in here?’”

Mr. Willie also worked at Advanced Metal Components here in Swainsboro. "I loved working out there too, and I had a friend who I worked alongside that told me about this job here. I didn’t want to leave Advanced Metal because I enjoyed working out there, but they asked me about this job to see if I wanted to do a little extra work, so I showed up. It’s not easy, but I just like working with people, so I started working here.” 

A treasure to our society, Willie always exceeds the requirements requested of him with kindness and grace. “I like going the extra mile, not to gain something but because it just helps me get through the day. When I get home, I’m going to feel happy and when I get up in the morning, I’ll be ready to come back to work. Most everywhere that I’ve worked, I’ve never missed any days and I’m about 64 years old. Sometimes people say, ‘Now Willie, you got to take some days off,’ but I'm just a working machine. I enjoy doing what I do.” 

When talking to Mr. Willie about the future, he said, “If everything goes alright and I can stay well, I’d like to still be here taking care of things within the next 10 years, and I would like to keep the same plants going.” 

While his geraniums are his sunshine, Willie is the sunshine to the city of Swainsboro.  His beautiful flowers bring smiles and happiness to residents and visitors alike as they truly thrive in his presence and have since the moment they were planted. No matter the season or weather, they’re sitting pretty in all their colorful glory, ageless and radiant as ever because of the unyielding attention Willie provides for them.

Mr. Willie has been married to his beautiful wife, Emma Jean Butler, for almost 42 years. "We don’t have any children, but we enjoy working out in the yard together. I’ll get home sometimes and sit down with my wife, and I’ll get to talking about my flowers and she'll teasingly say, ‘Oh you worry about those flowers more than you worry about me!’ but she’s the prettiest flower in my life." 

Willie is an ever-constant optimist who effortlessly views life from the lens of rose-colored glasses. “I like to get the most out of life so it’s not about the big or small things. If you enjoy what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life, and I get to wake up in the morning excited to go to work. My flowers enjoy life too, and if I’m taking care of them, they’re happy. That's just like life. When you love something, you got to take care of it, even yourself. It ain't always easy but you gotta enjoy the ride.”

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