David Gary used to work in the darkroom of his family's photo business as a way to avoid greeting customers.

Now, he's on the speaker's bureau for the Dallas Arboretum and happily drives almost 200 miles round trip to give tours at the facility.

A decision to face fear and the negative thoughts filling his head resulted in a whole new life for Gary, 67, and the discovery of a love for gardening and a gift that he didn't even know he had.

The Vietnam veteran, who served four years in the U.S. Air Force, had spent almost all of his adult life working at his family's photography business. Taking pictures and developing them was what he knew. But when he and his brother sold the business and Gary retired in 1998, he suddenly found himself without purpose. He had no hobbies and was unsure of what to do with his life in retirement.

That was until his wife, Linda, a Tyler Junior College professor, suggested he volunteer at the Dallas Arboretum.

The couple, who were Dallas residents at the time, lived only a few miles from the arboretum, a place Gary had been numerous times to photograph weddings.

He initially balked at the idea of volunteering and came up with many excuses as to why he couldn't do it — he was shy, lacked a green thumb and couldn't walk well because he has Becker muscular dystrophy, an inherited disorder that causes progressively worsening muscle weakness in the legs and pelvis.

However, one day he drove to the arboretum and halfheartedly asked about volunteering.

As he recalls it, he said to Cris Emrich, who was the volunteer coordinator at the time, "You can't use me, can you?"

It turns out she could because a few days later, Gary was learning how to drive a tram from a longtime volunteer.

Even though he knew little about the arboretum, he was willing to learn.

He studied the manual to learn the information he could share with visitors.

Driving the tram became a highlight of his week, according to a first-person account he wrote for Guideposts.

His days as a tram driver have allowed him to meet some celebrities and those close to them, including Vanna White; Alicia Landry, Tom Landry's wife; and Clarence Gilyard who starred in the television shows "Matlock" and "Walker, Texas Ranger."

Gary also got the opportunity to cross paths with people from all over the world who came to visit the arboretum.

It was through the arboretum that he learned about gardening. When he had a question, he asked employees there.

As he got ideas from the arboretum, he was able to implement them on a small scale in his own yard at home.

When he and his wife moved to Tyler in 2005, he transformed their yard, designing the landscape and working to make those designs a reality.

Today, Gary has azaleas, Japanese maple trees, dogwood trees, sweet potato vines, dwarf mondo grass and an herb garden. A walkway allows him to maneuver his power chair throughout the yard and work wherever he needs to.

He has many tools to help him tend the garden, such as long and short rakes, a hand tiller and hand rake, a small axe and more.

"I like being outside," he said. "It's an escape. It lets the pressure out. When you're out there, you don't think about anything else."

In addition, he said when he volunteers and helps others, he doesn't think about himself.

Even though he now lives almost 100 miles from Dallas, he continues to volunteer at the arboretum a few times a month. Since May 2003, he's logged at least 3,500 volunteer hours there.

He is involved in giving tours and is on the speakers' bureau, meaning he speaks to clubs about the arboretum.

He speaks all over this region and the Dallas area about the arboretum, as well as gardening in a power chair.

Locally, he is president of Smith County Master Gardeners. Gary said he plans to continue volunteering for the arboretum as long as he can.

"It's weird," he said. "I'm busier now than I was when I was working."

Pat Prusha met Gary while volunteering as a garden guide at the arboretum. The 81-year-old Dallas resident said she and the other volunteers have seen quite a transformation in Gary "from a shy guy that didn't want to say too much to someone on the speaker's bureau."

She said the fact that he gives tours while in his power chair shows people that a physical disability does not prevent them from enjoying gardens and gardening.

Gary said doctors told him not to expect to walk or live past his 50s, but he has defied their prognosis. He is 67, and he didn't need a wheelchair until he turned 63. However, he's not upset by what the doctors said. It motivated him.

"They did me a favor because I want to prove them wrong," he said, adding that he encourages people to adapt and persevere in whatever situation they are facing.

"The arboretum changed my life," he said. "Starting there, that's why I became a master gardener here."

City Editor

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