Georgia Original: This is the sixth in a series of stories spotlighting area residents who have contributed to the betterment of Northeast Georgia through their community works. In this series, The Times will highlight one person or persons each month.
Whenever Mark Fockele visits a new building his eyes are immediately drawn to the nearest window. It’s a subconscious habit he’s developed over the past 20 years.
As the founder of The Fockele Garden Company in Gainesville, he has learned to pay special attention to views. Many of the gardens the company has created can be found in and around Gainesville including the Pope Family Garden at The Northeast Georgia Medical Center.
The idea is simple and natural, Fockele explained in his soft-spoken way. People want landscaping to enhance their property and the views from inside their buildings, he said.
“I crave being outside,” Fockele said. “It just has a powerful effect on me, the fresh air and the sounds you hear outdoors. I think it’s built into the human psyche. I think we’re built to feel at home in nature. I don’t think we’re built to feel at home in a windowless room.”
His love of fresh air and sounds of nature are evident in the Smartville Garden at Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy and the Freedom Garden at the Northeast Georgia History Center in Gainesville. He points out both of those gardens are among his favorites.
Julie Carson, education and volunteer coordinator for the history center, praised the company for its design of the Center’s veteran memorial, the Freedom Garden, and for Fockele’s assistance in building the Victory Garden in 2010.
Carson said while the gardens are a point of pride for the center, her own personal experience with Fockele speaks volumes.
“He’s got such a great reputation and is so skilled,” Carson said. “He does landscaping and maintenance for so many places that I would say are among the elite of Gainesville. But about a year ago, I got him to help me correct an erosion problem at my house. He saw me later at the center and said ‘Thank you for the opportunity to work at your home.’ He’s a very humble man for what he does.”
Fockele isn’t one to let an opportunity pass him by, especially if it involves the outdoors.
Fockele often volunteers his time clearing trails for the Atlanta Botanical Gardens satellite in Gainesville at the Smithgall Woodland Gardens. His wife, Mildred Fockele is the vice president of horticulture there.
The Fockeles are also very involved in assisting with the Smartville and Science gardens at Enota Academy.
Principal Matt Maynor said the Fockeles have “always gone above and beyond” for the school. Maynor said the gardens are an invaluable resource for teaching students about nature and science.
While Fockele seemed predisposed to work outdoors knee-deep in plants, his path as a landscaper didn’t start until he stopped to look back after a decade in the wrong career.
Fockele worked as a “normal, small town practice” lawyer in Gainesville for nine years and in Atlanta for one.
“I’d spent 10 years practicing law and I’m grateful I had the opportunity, but it really just wasn’t the right thing for me,” he said. “I finally realized that I didn’t want to look back at the end of a 30-year career practicing law and see that I was doing something that just really wasn’t right for me and something I wasn’t thrilled to be doing. So that really forced my hand and I decided I’m going to do something I would really like to do.”
That “something” wasn’t difficult to find.
“Every weekend I was outside working in the garden at home or at the office,” Fockele said smiling as he looked down at his hands. “I’d be standing in the driveway, waiting for it to get light so I could start working on the yard all day until dark. I knew I had something there that I really loved to do.”
While some families might be less supportive about leaving a successful law practice to start a landscaping company, Fockele said his was, thankfully, very supportive.
Fockele laughed and said if he had known just how ignorant he was to professional landscaping work he probably wouldn’t have gone through with it.
Fortunately, Fockele was blissfully unaware as he and his two newly hired employees drove off in his used Econovan to their first client in 1990.
Through a fair amount of trial and error, Fockele’s business grew. A few of Fockele’s favorite projects can be found at The Northeast Georgia History Center and Northeast Georgia Medical Center.
Fockele credits his upbringing to igniting his passion for the outdoors.
Fockele, son of the late Lou Fockele, longtime publisher of The Times, grew up on Longstreet Drive in Gainesville. He smiles slightly at the memory of his childhood. It’s a memory children today don’t share, he said.
Every morning after breakfast, Fockele and the other neighborhood children ran out of their homes to play with one another. They stayed outside until lunch and after eating, ran back outside until the sky darkened.
“It was just an entirely different way of growing up than it is now,” Fockele said. “I really, really loved it. I’m very grateful for having that kind of experience as a child. It was safe. We all walked to school back and forth without parents. We’d walk a mile to school, walk a mile home and had fun on the way. Nobody ever worried about a kid being kidnapped or something like that. It was a different world. It was relaxed and fun. It was a great way for kids to grow up.”
Fockele’s young life wasn’t limited to roaming the neighborhood streets and wooded lots. He spent “weeks and months” every year camping with his Boy Scouts troop.
In a way, Fockele never left that part of childhood behind. He still takes to the woods every chance he gets and often hikes the Appalachian Trail, taking note of how rock outcropping and native plant combinations appear in nature.
But even after 23 years, the Gainesville native admits he still feels like he has the “tiger by the tail.” But he’s enjoying the learning process.
Gardening itself is a continual process that requires regular maintenance.
“I always feel like a landscape is kind of like a baby,” Fockele said. “When you get home from the hospital you’re job is not finished, it’s just beginning. That’s the way it is with landscaping. When the last plant has been planted and the last bale of pine straw laid out, it’s not over. It’s hardly even started.”