The letter arrived to Mark Padgett's mailbox just in time. He was a successful high school football coach who knew his tenure with one team had ended. When he opened the letter, Padgett realized a new career. His wife, Renee, agreed.
"I went to a job fair and a bunch of rangers were there. It looked like it was the best job. I applied and didn't hear anything back," he said.
A hiring freeze at the time of his application caused a two-year lag between contacts. So he kept on coaching, first in Appling County and then in Elberton where the Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division found him.
"I actually forgot about it. We were sitting there on the porch one day, the letter came and said, ‘If you're still interested call this number,'" Padgett said.
Six months later, he was working for the DNR's law enforcement section as a ranger stationed in Brunswick.
"I didn't even know Georgia had a coast!" said Padgett, who today holds the rank of captain. "I took this job as a career. What other job gives you a vehicle to drive, a couple boats, all the clothes you need to wear and guns?"
Padgett jokes easily but knows he serves with an elite law enforcement team that's vital to the welfare of men and women in Georgia who fish, hunt, boat and simply enjoy the state's plentiful outdoor parks.
In February, Padgett, 53, was named the region supervisor for the Region II Law Enforcement Office, which is headquartered in Gainesville. He replaced Capt. Rick Godfrey, who retired at the helm of the Gainesville office after a long career based in this city.
The leadership change took place in advance of the busy summer season at Lake Lanier, the largest of at least eight lakes or bodies of water and the more than 200,000 acres of Northeast Georgia monitored by the Region II's 18 assigned DNR rangers. "Less than 1 percent of the law enforcement in the nation do what we do," Padgett said.
"There are 188 officers statewide doing this job, 160 (of those) are boots on the ground. These are the guys who are the nuts and bolts."
Padgett's 25 years experience, including time spent covering lakes Lanier and Hartwell as well as Georgia's coastal waters, equips him well to handle the terrain, said Col. Homer Bryson, chief of the DNR's law enforcement section and Flowery Branch resident.
"Mark is a very experienced officer with a wide variety of experiences," Bryson said. "He understands the importance of customer service in conservation law enforcement."
Relating to the needs of the public is a focus the officers developed several years ago as part of a renewed enforcement strategy. Priorities then shifted for the DNR's law enforcement section from a patrol focus on citations to an outfit that responds to complaints and concerns lodged by the public.
"We took a long hard look at ourselves internally," Bryson said, "We thought we would be better positioned to provide a better quality product focusing on the public and the protection of the resources ... I think we provide a much more rounded service to the public than we did."
One of the struggles both men mentioned, however, is staffing. Retirements and transfers have caused officer losses at Lake Lanier in particular, they said.
Filling positions through more transfers is one of the ways Bryson envisions beefing up DNR's presence on the lake between now and June.
"That's our No. 1 priority is to get those positions filled so that we can have a higher visibility on the lake as the summer comes up," Bryson said.
In the meantime, Padgett is asking the public to remain patient and respectful when situations occur or complaints are made.
"We're really lucky right now to get two or three boats on the water, where sometimes we used to run five out there," Padgett said.
"Be safe. Leave plenty of distance between you and another boat. Leave the alcohol at home or at least have a sober operator. There is nothing more tragic than having to go to a family and give that death notification or serious injury notification."