Cover Story

J. Manley Garber: Portrait of a Good Neighbor

Story by Priscilla Knight, Contributing Writer


Photo courtesy of NOVEC

John Manley Garber started life with almost nothing, but he grew up to become one of the most successful, respected, and beloved men in Northern Virginia.

How did he do it?

He says with a humble smile: hard work. But unlike many men who went from rags to riches, Manley Garber has never lost his down-home ways, his mirth, or his eagerness to help others. He’ll be the first to say his riches are his family, friends, church, and community.

To understand what drives this Virginia gentleman entrepreneur to serve, one must push “control, home” on his life’s keyboard and return to his beginning.


Baths and Bottles: Growing Up without Electricity

Being a good neighbor came naturally to Garber. He learned to get along soon after he and his twin brother came into the world in 1925 and joined their older brother and his twin sister. Manley Garber’s parents wove into the family everlasting threads of community.

“Life was very hard without electricity,” declares Garber about growing up on his family farm in Woodbridge, Va., during the Great Depression. “We had many chores. We had to bring in firewood for the kitchen stove and heating stove. We milked cows, gathered eggs, and fed cattle before and after school. We raised almost everything we ate.”

The family had to make do without an electric well and indoor plumbing. “We bathed outdoors in summer in the Potomac River near the farm,” chuckles Garber as he reminisces. “I’ll never forget driving by a farm when I was a teenager and seeing a lady taking a tub bath right there in her front yard!” His innovative neighbor had poured water into an outdoor tub in the morning and waited until the sun warmed it enough to take a bath in the afternoon.

“In winter, we lugged buckets of water indoors for heating on the wood-burning stove: Our parents made us take a bath in the kitchen tub every Saturday night, whether we needed it or not, to get ready for church,” Garber laughs. Also in winter, the family cut ice from the nearby pond. “We packed it in sawdust and straw in our ice house until summer,” Garber recalls fondly. “Then, we crushed it to use in our ice-cream maker.”

Garber’s father and his father’s twin brother began collecting garbage to feed farm hogs. The family, teaming with twins, collected soft drink glass bottles they washed and sold. “Talk about recycling!” exclaims Garber. “By the time we were 14 we were getting up at 3 a.m. and driving trucks to Washington to collect garbage or sell glass in Baltimore for one cent a pound.”

On these Garber garbage runs, the teenagers saw how city folks handled hot summer nights without air conditioning. “City parks looked like enormous patchwork quilts of people sleeping on blankets,” Garber recalls. “It was the only way for apartment dwellers to stay cool. They were perfectly safe back then.”

The garbage business helped Garber save $2,000. With it he bought 80 acres when he was just 18. A few years later, in 1945, he sold the parcel and bought 149 acres. (A Home Depot sits there today.) The young farmer asked the investor-owned utility to run an electric line to his farm where he was raising almost 3,000 hogs. The utility refused. Garber turned to the new Prince William Electric Coopera­tive (PWEC) to run a line and they agreed. By 1950, the 25-year-old was on the co-op’s board of directors.

A lifetime of Cooperative service

As a director, Garber encouraged more community farmers to join the burgeoning cooperative. In 1974, the entrepreneur began his long tenure as the co-op’s board chairman.

In 1983, PWEC consolidated with Tri-County Electric Cooperative and formed Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative. Garber was resoundingly elected NOVEC’s board chairman.

If that wasn’t enough community service, Garber joined the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Coopera­tives’ board. He continues to serve on the VMDAEC board to this day. In 1996, the association honored Garber with the Electric Cooperative Leadership Award for his contributions as a director, including two terms as VMDAEC chairman.

Garber says, “Serving on these boards has been the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my life, helping people get quality electric service at reasonable rates.” In 2008, the 83-year-old turned over the NOVEC chairman’s helm to Vice Chairman Wade House; Garber became vice chairman. This September, he will have served on the NOVEC board for 62 years.

Life beyond the Co-op

While helping Virginians obtain reliable electric service, Garber and his wife, Jeannette, kept busy raising four children and 45,000 turkeys, running a camper/ trailer business, and building a mobile home park. Jeannette passed away in 1997.

A few years later, Garber married widow and family friend Kay Kim (left). Between them they have seven children, 16 grandchildren and — as of spring 2012 — 22 great grandchildren.

Today, Garber buys and leases commercial property. His passion for buying and selling cars for clients takes him to car auctions weekly.

Garber has served on the Prince William Hospital, Bridgewater College, and Church of the Brethren boards. He helped form the old First Manassas Bank, and the Common­wealth Savings and Loan.

When he hasn’t been sitting on a board, Garber has often been marching on a path: Garber is the top earner for the Prince William County March of Dimes March for Babies. He has raised many thousands of dollars for the charity for 22 years as he has led his NOVEC team marching through Old Town Manassas.

Handyman and Snowman

Garber’s rural roots and his good-neighbor ways spread everywhere he goes.

“I was in a hardware store the other day when a man came in and started looking at plumbing parts,” Garber recounted with a smile. “We started talking and he said he had a plumbing problem, but didn’t know how to fix it. I asked him some questions, found the plumbing parts he needed, and explained what to do with them. You see, I learned how to fix things growing up on a farm. I learned to be a mechanic working on machinery and trucks. I learned to do carpentry, electrical work and plumbing. At 87, I still do most everything around the home. With all I’ve learned, I like to help people fix things. It saves them a lot of money!”

When it snows, Garber climbs aboard his Kubota tractor, revs up his snow blower and clears his neighbors’ driveways. “After the February 2010 snowstorms, I bought a bigger Kubota with a bucket on front and a 72-inch blower on the back,” Garber says with obvious delight. “The cab has a heater and stereo to keep me happy. After the Jan. 26, 2011, ice storm, on my 86th birthday, I cleared neighbors’ driveways and a shopping center parking lot for 16 hours.” In early January of this year he announced with excited anticipation of snow, “Both tractors are fueled and ready to go!”

This rural Renaissance handyman and entrepreneur reflects on his life: “I was born when cars and airplanes were just arriving. The roads weren’t good. We had no electricity, no TVs, no computers. Life was hard, simple, but rewarding. After a lifetime of working, raising a family, and serving my community, I feel like I’m one of the most fortunate persons in the world.”

Tell Us About Your Good Neighbors!

Concern for community is one of the seven principles that form the foundation of all cooperative business operations. So in this, the international year of the cooperative, your co-op publication is reviving its Good Neighbors feature, a staple of the magazine for several years during the 1990s.

Each issue, we’ll profile people who influence their communities in ways that make them better places to live.

In this issue we kick off the series with our cover story about Manley Garber. Manley, who turned 87 in January, is the type of human dynamo who often puts younger folks to shame with his energy and enthusiasm. The Woodbridge-area resident is a self-made man who has volunteered countless hours of his time in endeavors ranging from fundraising walks to neighborly good deeds such as clearing snow-covered neighborhood driveways.

Manley Garber and others like him are the people who strengthen the fabric of their communities, and these are the people we will profile in ensuing “Good Neighbors” features.

There are good neighbors in every community. If you have one you’d like to be considered for Cooperative Living’s Good Neighbors feature, let us know in a letter or an email including your name, your cooperative, your phone number and email address, and the name and contact information for the neighbor or neighbors (it can be a couple or a family) you’d like us to consider.

With this information, let us know in 100 words or less why you are making this Good Neighbors nomination. Your reasons for nominating good neighbors can be as simple as someone’s kindness in bringing food to shut-ins, or as elaborate as someone’s work in organizing a major community benefit.

Mail your nomination letter to Good Neighbors, c/o Cooperative Living Magazine, P.O. Box 2340, Glen Allen, VA 23058, or email your nomination to and include “Good Neighbors” in the subject line. We’ll consider all nominations and feature a different person (or persons) with each new issue of Cooperative Living.

Thanks, and we look forward to receiving your Good Neighbor nominations!



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