All things bright and beautiful

Apr. 20—Editor's note: Earth Day was first celebrated on April 22, 1970, and it has been celebrated on that date every year since. The focus of those events hasn't changed: cleaning up our local, national and global environments, and protecting the Earth from things such as pollution and deforestation. More than 1 billion people take part in the celebration every year.

But just 10 years after those early beginnings, Athens' Joann Christopher joined the local Clean Community Commission and participated in Trash Bash on Keep America Beautiful Day. A year later, in 1981, she served as secretary of that organization, and then went on to serve as president in ensuing years.

Christopher's love for the outdoors and her desire to begin a local recycling program would one day have a deep impact on the beautification of not only Athens and Limestone County, but much of North Alabama.

In honor of both Christopher's legacy and Earth Day, we are publishing here in advance a Spring 2024 Limestone Life magazine story about that impact. The free magazine with Christopher's full story will feature more photos and artwork, and will be delivered in your April 30 newspaper and available at the paper's office, 410 W. Green St., Athens.

The year was 1958 and a young sailor from Athens was stationed in Georgia. One Sunday afternoon, he decided to grab some ice cream from a Dairy Queen — and that decision would be the start of a life of love, family and community, and would have a continuing impact on all the residents of Athens and Limestone County.

Joann Butts Christopher was born in Brunswick, Ga. Her childhood was far from typical, but perhaps it resulted in her passion for always appreciating the world around her and treating it with respect and care.

"She was placed in an orphanage at the age of 5. She was there until she was 11, when she was adopted by her aunt and uncle, who she considered her parents," Joann's daughter, Diane Robinson, said.

Several years later, she met the young man who would sweep her off her feet.

"She was working at a Dairy Queen. I visited the Dairy Queen on a Sunday afternoon, and I took notice of Joann and she made me a real nice banana split. I knew then there was something there," her husband, Jimmy Christopher, said.

Jimmy asked her out and the couple dated for two years. He then learned he was being transferred to New Jersey — and knew he wanted Joann to be with him. He proposed and she accepted. They married and, while in New Jersey, their first son, Todd, was born.

In December 1960, after a year in New Jersey, Jimmy was discharged from the Navy. The young family moved to Jimmy's hometown of Athens and he joined his mother in running Christopher Tire. As for Joann, she hit the ground running and never looked back.

"It didn't take long till she was in the center of all the activities," Jimmy said. "She also helped with the bookkeeping at Christopher Tires."

"Although she wasn't an official employee, she always helped him," Robinson said. "She always kept the grounds looking beautiful with plants. She had a very green thumb and loved the beauty of the outdoors."

Throughout the next few years, the Christopher family grew as Jimmy and Joann had three more children: Nelson, Diane and Michael. Joann was a stay-at-home mom and dedicated herself to all the kids' school and extracurricular activities. Somehow, she still found enough time to enjoy her own activities.

"She was a scout leader — Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, everything. She would save stuff, and if someone needed to make a robot, it's like she had a box for that," Robinson said.

Joann was a charter member of the Athena League, which organized in 1970. In 1977, she was selected as the chairman of Apple Annie, which helped raise money for pediatric equipment for the Athens-Limestone Hospital.

A few years later, she joined the Clean Community Commission, and in 1980, she began helping with school program and participated in the Trash Bash on Keep America Beautiful Day. She served as Clean Community secretary in 1981, and president in 1982 and 1983.

Once her kids were grown, her love for the outdoors led her to get heavily involved in efforts to implement a recycling program in the Athens. She was appointed to the Recycling Sub-Committee, and in 1985, she became the Recycling Board chairman.

Joann's enthusiasm and hard work were recognized well beyond the boundaries of Limestone County. In 1987-1988, she was elected president of the Tennessee Valley Association of Recyclers at its annual meeting at the TVA Solar Institute in Chattanooga.

He husband explained where Joann found her passion for beautification and recycling.

"I think it's just something she took up on her own and went with it. She instilled in me and the kids, and everyone to recycle everything," Jimmy said. "She got curbside recycling pickup started and was a champion for that. She made speeches and traveled. She talked to dignitaries and political people to get help."

Joann was instrumental in Athens-Limestone starting a recycling center and program, as well as curbside services.

In 1988, as chairman of the Recycling Committee, Joann said in regards to Athens' ongoing landfill issues that, "Recycling is the most practical solution offered. Glass bottles will never disintegrate and can only occupy space at the new landfill. Why would anyone bury them when they can sell them?"

In 1989, Joann received the Citizen of the Year Award from the Athens-Limestone County Chamber of Commerce. She was recognized for her many accomplishments, contributions and tremendous character.

"Energy, enthusiasm, longevity, new ideas, study and learn, concern and sharing all describe how this person has contributed in outstanding ways to this community," chamber chairman Jerry Batts said of Joann. "Under her guidance, the Athens-Limestone Recycling Center has grown from an all teacher/student volunteer program to a full fledged multi-material recycling business that recycled 1,919 tons of materials in 1988 with revenues of $200,945 and producing an all-important $90,183 in landfill saving to Athens and Limestone County. From 1979 through 1988, total tonage has been 9,069 tons; revenue $741,494 and landfill savings of $425,821. These astounding facts earned for the center one of the first four National Recycling Awards given by Keep America beautiful in 1987."

In the mid 1980s, Jimmy and Joann moved from Athens to Elk River. It didn't take long for Joanne to find another cause as she noticed trash strewn about the river's banks and roadways and illegal dumps in the area. She spearheaded an effort to begin cleaning up the river. She called on allies from within and outside the county.

On May 6, 1989, the first Volunteer Elk River Launch Site Clean Up took place. That day, approximately 75 volunteers removed enough trash to fill three dump trucks and a recycling trailer. Joann vowed that the Elk River Clean Up would become an annual event. This April, 35 years later, Keep Athens Limestone Beautiful will once again called on volunteers to lend a hand at the annual Joann Christopher Elk River Clean Up.

"I am actually amazed," Robinson said. "I knew she did this stuff, but I didn't realize until she died just how much time and energy and compassion she gave to the recycling cleanups."

Joann passed away in June 2023, yet the passion and efforts she gave toward making Athens and Limestone County a cleaner and more beautiful place to live and play continues in the river clean up named for her. She used her voice and energy to educate local leaders on the importance of recycling and today, Athens and Limestone County each has their own recycling services.

Joann's family couldn't be more proud of her accomplishments, but it's who she was as a wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother that they cherish the most. Jimmy and Joann were married for 63 years and were still madly in love.

"It was ridiculous," Diane said. "They definitely really loved each other through thick and thin. Lots of heartache with losing a child, but they loved big and they loved each other big and that was just obvious. They were great role models for what it's truly like to live out your marital vows."Diane described her mother as "very organized" and "crafty." After the birth of Diane's son, Joann made thank-you cards for her to send out from old greeting cards she had collected. She collected a variety of different things and put them away for her family — just in case.

"I swear she did it all for her family. My daughter just graduated in elementary education. So much of that stuff, mom knew there was going to be a time when a child, a grandchild or great grandchild was going to need something and, by God, she was going to be prepared. It would make her so happy in heaven to see her be able to use a lot of the crafting stuff in her classrooms," she said.

As for what Jimmy would like others to know about Joann, he simply said, "She covered all of the bases. I give her all the credit."