Friends, Community Gardens and Loss: Saying Goodbye to Wray Witten

A view of the Handmade Garden, a community space behind Hill First Baptist Church near downtown Athens. 

A view of the Handmade Garden, a community space behind Hill First Baptist Church near downtown Athens. 

Last week, my friends, family and I said goodbye to Wray Witten, a water rights lawyer, a whip-smart curmudgeon, and one of the most inspirational people I've ever met in Athens. He died last Wednesday after a long battle with cancer.

The details of his life are included in the obituary I wrote for him posted below. One day soon I will writer with greater voice about his amazing voyage and incredible character, but for now it's just the sober facts.

I will offer this: Some of the first stories I wrote about Athens concerned the city's community gardens, and that's how I met Wray. His wife was the real green thumb, raised on farms and ranches in Colorado. But together they were a community-building force, turning a kudzu-filled ravine used for years as a neighborhood landfill at the corner of Reese and Hancock near downtown Athens, into a verdant vegetable garden that brought disparate neighbors together. Here's one story I wrote about their trash-clearing, garden-loving activities. Here's another related one. 

I remember the first time I approached Wray. I was making the connections for the first story I was writing about their Handmade Garden, and I walked up to his tall, lanky frame at a sidewalk art gallery and explained my intentions. Oh, that's fine, he said, with only one caveat: Leave him out of it. He refused to be interviewed or mentioned. It's all the doing of his wife, Karen, and Tommy, the homeless man discussed in the links above.  That was only partly true. I also remember a few weeks later sitting at a community meeting between citizens and our city's Leisure Services department. Wray gave the what for to the department's director, a new hire from Florida, who didn't know how to handle Wray's knowledgable and pointed questioning. It was good civic theater.

My wife and I soon became dear friends of the Wittens. 

Without Wray and Karen, I would have never completed much of the renovation of my home. I was furiously trying to gut the old, old, old house we live in now before our daughter arrived. I had no money and little time. They came every day and demolished, lifted lumber, painted, whatever. I am forever indebted, but not just for their handiness. 

The real thing about Wray, and his wife for that matter, that truly affected young people like myself, my wife, and our other few friends that looked up to the man, is that he, especially once you considered his biography, was a person that we all wanted to be: dedicated, caring, hard-working. And much more. When my wife and I consider our life goals and our legacy, Wray and Karen Witten are always the first we think of as a template.

Anyway, here's the obit, which runs in the Tuesday, Dec. 9 edition of the Athens Banner-Herald: 


That's Wray, second from the right, with his academic peers in Ethiopia.

That's Wray, second from the right, with his academic peers in Ethiopia.

M. Wray Witten, 66, died Wednesday following a battle with cancer. He passed in the company of his wife, Karen Witten, in the apartment they shared in the Cobbham neighborhood near downtown Athens.

Witten moved to Athens in 2008 after spending more than a decade abroad in Ethiopia and Scotland. The Wittens quickly became fixtures within political and social circles here by walking door to door registering voters for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and attending the historically African-American Hill First Baptist Church. 

A water rights lawyer by profession, Witten served on the Athens-Clarke County’s Greenway Commission, and on the board of the Oconee River Land Trust. He was also a board member for the Cobbham Neighborhood Association.

The Wittens spearheaded a large community garden project within the Reese Street and West Hancock Avenue historic district, turning a kudzu-filled ravine behind Hills First Baptist Church into a productive vegetable garden that fed many nearby residents. The garden, known informally as the Handmade Garden, earned a Community Revitalization Award from the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation in 2010 and an Alec Little Environmental Award in 2013. Witten often downplayed his work in the garden, letting his wife and their homeless friend and fellow gardener, Tommy Chester, hold the public spotlight.

Witten, who is white, worked with graduates of Athens High and Industrial to partner with the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation to create a historical marker noting the site of Georgia’s first African American high school, located at the corner of Reese and Pope streets.

In honor of the “volunteerism and community spirit” shown by the Wittens, the Athens Land Trust established the Wray and Karen Witten Award, given each year to a dedicated volunteer who exemplifies those traits.

Witten was born in Scarsdale, N.Y., on Oct. 20, 1948. He attended Amherst College in Massachusetts. He met his wife, who attended nearby Mount Holyoke College, during an inter-campus social during freshman year. 

“We never spent a day apart after that,” Karen Witten said. They were married in 1971.

After graduation and a wedding, the Wittens held odd jobs in Vail, Colo., and in Switzerland, before returning to Karen’s home state of Colorado. Witten soon found work as a clerk in a natural resources and water rights law firm, paying his way through law school in the process and eventually becoming partner. 

In the early 1990s, Witten helped found a nonprofit working to establish a rural water supply in northern Ethiopia, a region torn apart by a 20-year civil war. His efforts received support from UNICEF. In 1991, the transitional Ethiopian government invited Witten to join redevelopment efforts in the country, helping the new leadership move from a long-standing rule of the gun to a rule by law. The Wittens moved to the Tigray region of Ethiopia and stayed for 12 years. 

With European Union-derived funding, Witten, working with a dedicated team of Ethiopian educators, established Ethiopia’s second school of law at Mekelle University. He served as the law school’s first dean. It is now named in his honor. 

After a dozen years, enough Ethiopian lawyers had been trained that Witten could step down as dean. Witten’s wife, Karen, a medical doctor specializing in malaria research, then accepted a position at Aberdeen University in Scotland, where the Wittens lived for three years. 

Witten also taught the management of organizations at several American universities, including Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He also guest lectured at the University of Georgia. 

The Wittens did not have children, but, as is custom in Ethiopia, have one honorary Ethiopian daughter, whose U.S. education they financially supported, and 10 honorary Ethiopian grandchildren.

The Wittens lived in Athens only during the fall and winter. They visited their grandchildren in Ethiopia every summer. In the spring and late summer, he worked on his brother-in-law’s Colorado organic vegetable farm and ranch. Witten often weeded potatoes and packed vegetable boxes.

Karen Witten will continue to call Athens home at least part of the year. She will still make the couple’s yearly trips to Colorado and Ethiopia.

As per Witten’s request, a public memorial will not be held in Athens. 

The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa have scheduled a public memorial in his honor in June 2015 in northern Ethiopia.