Text by Lisa McEwen  I  Photos by Taylor Johnson

 

W

hen two people fall in love and commit their lives to each other, there’s no limit to the possibilities of what they will accomplish together.

Such is the case for Johnny and Donna George, two lifelong Visalia residents who will celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary on June 12. As they sat down to an interview in the shade of a giant oak in their expansive, wrap-around yard, their love (and a healthy dose of kidding) for each other quickly became apparent.

They exist harmoniously, finishing each other’s sentences and offering each other sweet compliments as they reflect on their decades of running multiple businesses, raising a family and history of generous philanthropy in Visalia.

Their shared mission is equally reflected in the lush landscape that surrounds their 6,000-square-foot home just a mile east of Mooney Boulevard. It not only showcases their love for each other, but their admiration for the beauty of Tulare County.

For the better part of 50 years, the couple has developed the landscape on 3.5 acres with their own creativity and hard labor, doing 90 percent of the yard work themselves for most of that time.

“There’s no better team than the two of us,” Johnny said.

“Thank you, dear,” Donna said, patting his leg as they sat close together on a bench, the morning light gently warming them.

“Today, we love living here more than we did yesterday,” Johnny said.

HIGH SCHOOL SWEETHEARTS

Coming of age in the 1950s was the best time to be a teenager.

“If you didn’t live in the ’50s, you missed America at her best,” said Johnny, 86. Especially in Visalia. Back then, the city’s population was less than 15,000 people, and it was surrounded by orchards and cotton fields. Mooney Boulevard was anchored by College of the Sequoias and Mearle’s Drive-In.

The evening of Johnny’s high school graduation from Mt. Whitney High School in 1953 was the night that the couple knew that they would be together forever. Donna was a junior and, according to Johnny, she came looking for the guy who drove the shiny black car (a 1952 Oldsmobile that he purchased himself).

With a roll of her eyes, Donna, 85, deadpanned, “I chased him until he caught me!” Soon they were engaged.

Donna graduated on a Friday night with the Mt. Whitney Class of 1954, and the couple married the next day.

They quickly settled into life, with Johnny building their first home on Mooney Boulevard, not far from the yard of the roofing business where he had worked with his father since the age of 14, F.E. George Roofing.

Johnny and Donna raised three sons, Randy, Rick and Rollin, all of whom still live in the area. Randy and Rollin worked in the business and today grandson Cris is at the helm of JF George Enterprises Inc.

In 1967, they built their estate home and have devoted thousands of hours since to their inviting landscape that features ponds, bridges, a racetrack, a miniature train aptly titled the “Donna Jean” and much, much more.

“Everything she planted grows,” Johnny said of Donna’s green thumb. “And it still does today! She has a sense of balance and nature, and there’s been many times when she’s told me ‘Don’t touch it! It will grow.’”

Much of her knowledge comes from her years running the nursery portion of another business that the couple started, F.E. George and Sons Home Center, which helped Visalians beautify their homes long before Lumberjack, Home Depot or Lowe’s arrived in town.

“We planted everything except the giant oak tree,” Johnny said. “This was our outlet.”

Johnny became partners with his father in the roofing business when the couple married and, with the help of dedicated employees, it has grown exponentially with jobs completed across the state. George Roofing is one of the most sought-after commercial roofers in California. Most recently, the company completed work on the first two Dutch Bros. locations in Visalia, as well as big-box stores such as Best Buy and several Starbucks.

The success of their company has allowed them to return the favor to the city they love. “We want to leave Visalia better than we found it,” Johnny said.

In his book, “80 Years: The Blink of an Eye,” which details Johnny’s life experiences, he described how their yard was the site of a Tulare County Historical Society fundraiser in 2004. The goal was to help raise funds to establish a bronze statue of Hugh M. Mooney in Mooney Grove Park. The then-named Tulare County Symphony performed under the canopy of oak, redwood and walnut trees in an event titled “Music Under the Stars.” The 450 guests helped raise $63,000.

But it took Johnny and Donna about two months to get the yard “up to viewing standards.” He explained in the book: “Garages with 15 show cars, streetlights, floodlights, ponds must be up to show condition. Our yard train had to be available for rides. Our 3.5 acres, fully landscaped with ponds, bushes, flowers had to ready for show time.”

A bronze plaque erected under a mature sequoia tree thanks the couple for their generosity.

In 2005, when the Visalia Veterans Committee couldn’t find a suitable location for “The Greatest Generation War Memorial,” the Georges donated land on Mooney Boulevard. They are also benefactors of the Sequoia Council of the Boy Scouts of America, and helped orchestrate the donation of the Fox Theatre to the Friends of the Fox nonprofit group.

“Everything she planted grows,” Johnny said of Donna’s green thumb. “And it still does today! She has a sense of balance and nature, and there’s been many times when she’s told me ‘Don’t touch it! It will grow.’”

ALL ABOARD!

One day, Donna asked Johnny, “Is there anything you would like in the yard that you don’t have?” It just so happened that Johnny was working on a client’s property that featured a miniature train. Not much later, he found a train to purchase and set out laying the tracks himself. It took nine months and six truckloads of clay to prepare for the Donna Jean’s first run, but Johnny got his train. Guests who are lucky enough to get a seat on the fair weather train end up with a miniature tour of Tulare County. Stops feature Lemon Cove and McKay’s Point, a formerly popular river beach and gathering spot, a Springville sawmill, Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park and, especially adorable, the Goshen Depot, a passenger station in miniature.

Interspersed throughout the yard are many benches and arbors, which invite guests to sit and observe the varied features of the landscape. Donna loves to spend time in her fairy garden, filled with blooming plants, birdhouses and a stone walkway. Taking a moment to be outside in nature brings her peace and solitude.

Donna said this spring has been especially vibrant in the entire yard.

“This year is exceptional,” she said.

“I am so thankful for this. I thank God for it every day.”