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Kingsport’s Virgil Peters honors late grandson with memory garden

Suzi McKee • Jun 12, 2019 at 10:30 AM

Memories created over a lifetime are usually captured in photographs. But for Kingsport’s Virgil Peters, a 93-year-old World War II veteran, his are being kept in a memory garden dedicated to his grandson, John D. Morton, who was tragically killed in an accident in September 2009 when he fell from a cliff into Boone Lake.

Virgil and Johnny had a special relationship and, when the young man died, Virgil decided that he wanted to honor the memories that he had made with Johnny.

“I began to think a year after his death about doing something that I knew he would love,” began Virgil. “He loved nature so it seemed only fitting that creating a waterfall with goldfish would be appropriate.”

Virgil began by constructing a rustic waterfall and then as time went on, he would add new features to the ever-growing Memory Garden. In the pool at the bottom of the waterfall, you’ll find three large goldfish named Tennessee, Fred and Little Bit. “I added a nice cover for the first area that I developed and used ferns to adorn the structure itself,” he continued. “I have made this entire garden area by hand; in fact, it’s been therapy for me at different times in my life.”

Virgil and Johnny enjoyed building projects together, playing golf at the family outings, and watching Tennessee football games.

“Johnny was a great golfer,” Virgil shared, “and he certainly loved UT football.” Johnny also had a special little dog that he loved. In fact, he kept a replica of it on his nightstand; Virgil now has that same statue placed above the waterfall in the garden.

The garden is surrounded by a rock wall with a special entrance for Pandy, his daughter Linda’s dog that loves to come and sit with Virgil during the evenings.

“I begin my day at 6 a.m. by watering the plants,” Virgil said, “and then at the end of a long hard day at work, I come back to sit in the swing and just enjoy the peace and quiet that I find here. I have a sound system that provides me with soft music that adds to the peaceful feeling.”

There’s a unique memory lane that winds through the garden that has statues honoring Johnny and his other grandchild, Joy. The winding path also passes a giant rock that was used as a step onto the porch of his grandfather’s home as well as one from his old homeplace in Scott County, Virginia.

“Back years ago, people didn’t use fancy steps to lead onto their porches,” Virgil explained. “We used rocks that we found on the property. The rocks that I have here along the path have been used for over 150 years by my family as steps. I thought it added a nice touch to the garden.”

Memories abound as you walk along the path that winds through the back of the neatly-groomed landscape. There are special plants, birdhouses, and whimsical items that he uses to tell stories to the children in his life. One of his favorites is the bird tree. “I have two little dogs sitting beneath the tree and a raccoon just above their heads on a limb. I tell the children that the daddy dog is teaching the son how to hunt so he’ll always have food for his family.” It’s interesting how Virgil takes a simple story and winds it into a life lesson as he teaches those youngsters around him about how to remember the important things in life.

“We learn from our past,” Virgil explained, “and to me it’s important for people to honor the memories that have been made throughout your life.”

This 93-year-old Navy veteran who served aboard a mine sweeper in the Pacific theater saw the flag being raised at Iwo Jima and fully understands the importance of capturing visual images to carry with you each day.

“I’ve had a good and full life,” Virgil added, “and sharing my memories of my relationship with my grandson makes life very special today.”