It takes a special person to be willing to clean up the messes that other people make.
At an early July meeting, Henderson County Fiscal Court surprised and recognized someone who has been observed routinely doing that very thing and providing an extreme display of good citizenship.
For about 20 years, Phil Rowland, a resident of The Hills subdivision located on Wathen Lane near U.S. 60-East, has taken a daily three-mile walk — and has picked up roadside trash while he’s at it.
District One Magistrate Keith Berry, who made the presentation at the county government meeting, has witnessed it many, many times, including recently when he saw Rowland in a deep ditch along Wathen Lane with some 40-gallon trash bags.
On a typical day, Berry said, Rowland gathers two to three bags of debris and sometimes even more.
The magistrate said the magnitude of Rowland’s volunteerism hit home one day recently when Berry himself volunteered with county employees to help pick up litter.
“Believe me, that is a job,” he said, noting that the stakes go higher when it’s a hot, muggy summer day like some of the ones we’ve had lately, or a frigid one.
Berry mentioned that in addition to the usual fast-food cups and bags, aluminum, plastic water bottles, loose paper and every type of trash imaginable — and some more unsavory than others, such as dirty diapers — Rowland has found wallets, keys, cell phones, credit cards, shoes and other items.
“He always tries to find the owners of those lost items,” the magistrate said.
Rowland said he’s lived in Henderson about 20 years and started his trash-collection practice from the very beginning of his residency.
He takes his trash bags and typically walks to Henderson Fire Station No. 3 on Starlite Drive. He collects cups (the white Styrofoam ones are particularly annoying to him) and small items. He’s on the look-out for larger items to report, and he’s been known to clear dead animals from the right-of-way.
“I guess I’m kind of a perfectionist,” Rowland said. “Trash is something that has always offended me. I feel guilty when I don’t do it. We have a lot of it today.”
Berry said Rowland also has kept trees and bushes trimmed and neat at the entrance and public areas of The Hills since the subdivision doesn’t have a homeowners’ association.
“As a citizen, I’ve just always done something like that,” he said.
Berry is grateful to see it. He said the presence of trash can leave a bad first impression of a community, so Rowland’s volunteer work in a gateway to the city is especially valued.
Rowland, who thought he was attending the Fiscal Court meeting on a different matter, said he doesn’t understand the mindset of habitual litterers.
“I kind of wonder why people do that,” he said, speculating if it’s a by-product of a faster-paced world and a society with an “everything’s disposable” attitude.
“People are always in a big hurry,” he said. “It’s kind of like ‘If I don’t want it, this is where we put it.”
Rowland said he knows that city, county and state governments don’t have the funds to keep the landscape pristine, free and clear of litter. He said he thinks more education about re-using and recycling could be beneficial and perhaps reduce the number of things that end up by the side of the road.
Meanwhile, he takes that step outside every day to do his part.
Berry said it like this in his remarks to Fiscal Court:
“There are things we pass every day, and they blend into our surroundings to the point that we don’t really pay attention to them. However, if we paid attention, we might see individuals going about their day doing phenomenal feats that makes all of our lives more pleasant and our surroundings more appealing.”
Rowland said he was honored that the fiscal court recognized his efforts, although he said he certainly doesn’t do what he does for recognition. People recognize him, however, in a different context when he’s out and about.
“People know me. They honk at me,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of people walking, so it’s a social outing, too.”
Soon people might be able to recognize Rowland because of new items added to his daily walk “equipment.”
At the July 11 meeting, Henderson County Fiscal Court gave him a new pair of trash grabbers and a safety vest that County Judge-Executive Brad Schneider said will be personalized.
“We want you to stay safe,” the judge said.