For the past 32 years Virgil Garner has done the same thing every day. All day long he has taken a towel and dried off more cars than you can count at Grant's Car Wash on Ringgold Road. He has done it so very well, and with such a genuine respect for each and every customer, that he has turned what some may consider a trivial job into a true ambassadorship that I long ago realized would rival any consulate in the world.
I never saw him take his East Ridge Car Wash hat off so my eye missed his bald head in his obituary announcement Monday but when I asked about his absence at the car wash yesterday, I was told my dear friend had died after suffering a heart attack on Friday afternoon. The first thing that flew through my mind was that he never failed to be the best he could possibly be and what greater tribute can befall any man at a given task.
I'll go for the rest of my life believing Virgil was the best car washer in the world. More importantly, he was the premier marketing expert, the one who was on "the front line" who made every customer feel just as special as though Mrs. Grant or Chuck or Jake were thanking them for making Grant Brothers Car Wash and Oil Change perhaps the best company of any size in the Chattanooga area.
I wouldn't want to offend anyone else but -- it's true -- no other car wash comes anywhere close. Virgil Garner was a big reason that I have driven out of my way for years to have vehicles washed and cleaned at the highly-acclaimed and award-winning shop. Virgil loved my jokes and I delighted in his laughter. But to watch him "bug" with customers of all sizes, ages and creeds, his compliments forthright and his smile always consistent, was to watch Di Vinci paint, Pavarotti sing or Hemingway write. He was the best I have ever seen at what he did. And that's all that matters.
We talked all the time about cars, trout fishing and things that made us laugh, not always in that order. Once he took me to the employee refrigerator to show me a rare yet gorgeous golden trout he'd bagged up at Tellico. Another time he took some magical concoction and removed dried paint from the wheel well after a can had accidentally tumbled from a truck ahead.
Grant's Car Wash is unique because there are five-gallon buckets outside for tips. Once you get your car washed several times it's easy to see why there is always a pile of loot to be split evenly with every employee at closing time. Mind you, every employee takes pride in the product and Virgil, the manager, was the best kind of leader -- his art came by example.
"When my (late) husband Jim bought the car wash, Virgil came by almost immediately and Jim hired him on the spot. I was the cashier back in those days," Mrs. Grant remembered, "and Virgil was like a member of our family. If a car didn't look perfect, he would usually drive it himself back through. He was an invaluable employee for over 30 years."
Chuck Grant, who now operates the car wash while his brother Jim is over the Fast Lube Oil Change, spoke at Virgil's funeral and delighted the crowd at the Chattanooga Funeral Home. "Once we went fishing together up at Tellico and Virgil left two hours before I did. I thought I would never find him once I got there but I should have known better -- he was in the middle of the stream wearing his East Ridge Car wash jacket and hat! Of course I immediately saw him."
Chuck said Virgil was famous, too. "He not only knew everybody, he knew all about them. He had a great gift of endearing himself to people. He really did. He was a great family person, too. His daughter just graduated with high honors at UT-Knoxville to become the first member of his family to get a college degree. His son is doing great at UTC, too. He adored his family."
He also loved his job. "I can't tell you how many people have said nice things about him or who have wondered where he was in the last few days. He had a great number of customers who considered him a friend instead of employee. He would step out of his way to help anybody and, oh boy, our family knows how blessed we were to have him.
"After he had his heart attack late Friday afternoon, I was at the hospital later and he seemed to be doing fine. We talked about 30 minutes and he didn't remember what actually happened. He wasn't worried about it, telling me instead he had eaten a good dinner and felt like he could go back to work. Later that night he had heart failure but never suffered at all," Chuck said, his eyes finally beginning to mist.
"Somebody at the funeral told me Virgil would be hard to replace and I told them, no it wouldn't. We all know that is an impossibility. We'll get somebody good alright but Virgil Garner will never be forgotten for what he meant to each of us."
That is what made a guy who washed cars as good as the best artists this world has ever known. He was the best at what he did. And that's what matters.