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Finding Our Folks: Gayle Townsend Watring

Ambitious, hard-working, intelligent people aren’t hard to find throughout Emanuel County. From lesser-known citizens to well-known leaders, Swainsboro and other municipalities in the area are fortunate to call these folks, the ones who make a difference, “ours.” Of course, some of “our folks” have moved off and shared themselves with the world in various respects. The “Finding Our Folks” part of The Crossroads Chronicle aims to track down and catch up with our hometown people.

This week’s profile features Gayle Townsend Watring, whose interview was conducted by Halei Lamb.

Okay, start at the beginning. Give a little background about yourself. Tell our readers about your early years—where you went to school, what you were involved in at the time, etc. Also, fill us in on your family life today and how you would describe yourself as a person.

Watring: My name is Gayle Townsend Watring. I’m 42-years-old. I grew up in Kite and Swainsboro. My parents are J.W and Heather Townsend. I have three older sisters, Dina Miller, Kimmy Sanders, and Wendy Duncan, who passed away in 1985 at age 18. I graduated from Swainsboro High School in 1997. One of my passions in high school was volleyball, and I was captain of the Emanuel Volleyball Club coached by Cole Sullivan. I’m married to Ryan Watring, and we have a 9-year-old daughter. I have two stepsons, ages 18 and 15. I’m a bit of a thrill-seeker. I’ve loved roller coasters since I was a kid. I always wanted to skydive, and my mom told me once I turned 18, I could do it. As soon as I turned 18, I went to California to visit my aunt, Bonnie, and she took me skydiving. I’ve been twice more since then, and I’d go again tomorrow. (Who wants to do it with me?) I’ve also been ziplining, scuba diving, and surfing in Hawaii, and I took a solo trip to London on my 30th birthday. I love hiking, camping, and all things outdoors. I’m always ready for an adventure!

Sounds like you’re a go-getter! Tell us about your educational background (beyond high school). Where did you go to college? What did you study and why? What degree/s/ do you have today?

Watring: I attended East Georgia College from 1997 to 2000. I also took a few classes at Georgia Southern that I needed for pharmacy school that weren’t offered at East Georgia. I attended Mercer University Southern School of Pharmacy in Atlanta from 2000 to 2004.

I hold an Associate of Arts as well as a doctorate/PharmD today, and I decided to study pharmacy because both my sisters were pharmacy technicians at Shop Rite Pharmacy when I was growing up so I spent a lot of time there. Kimmy eventually went to pharmacy school and became a pharmacist for them. As soon as I was old enough to work, I got a job there also and quickly realized I was interested in it and enjoyed it. I saw that I could play a direct role in helping people feel better. I always knew I wanted a career where I could directly help people, one that provided me financial independence but also flexibility to allow a healthy work/life balance and allow me to raise a family. Pharmacy was the perfect choice. I could even work part-time and still make a decent income. Pharmacists were in very high demand at the time, so I knew I’d never have to worry about finding a job. It is a very versatile career, meaning you can explore opportunities in a variety and areas and not be bound to a certain type of job. There’s retail, hospital, clinical, research, education. I liked that it was a very respected and trusted profession and that pharmacists were much more accessible to patients compared to other healthcare professionals.

Full transparency… Was this always your plan?

Watring: It wasn’t actually. Growing up, I wanted to be a defense attorney. My uncle, Steve Harmon, was a high-profile defense attorney in Riverside, California and I was in awe of him. I was able to go to work with him a few times and see him in action; it was just the coolest thing to me. He coached a mock trial team, and I was able to watch them in their national competition in Chicago, which they won. In high school, I joined a mock trial team in Swainsboro coached by Kathy Palmer and was awarded Most Effective Attorney during one of our competitions. Eventually, even though I was still very much in awe of the profession, I realized that career path wasn’t for me, but I knew that I still wanted to do something that allowed me to directly help people, just maybe a little more “behind the scenes.”

That makes sense. Once you got to college, were you part of any organizations? Win any awards? What “life lessons” did you learn during this time of your life?

Watring: I was a member of Kappa Epsilon sorority in Pharmacy School. It was a wonderful thing to know you belonged to a group of like-minded, strong women you could count on. I made solid friendships and connections. It also taught me the value of volunteer work and helping your community.

Explain your career path to date since becoming a pharmacist.

Watring: Of course, I worked at Shop Rite Pharmacy throughout high school and undergrad school. I moved to Atlanta in 2000 for pharmacy school and started working as an intern for Kroger Pharmacy, and I worked at the Kroger in Dublin during the summers when I came home. I moved to Savannah in early 2004 to finish up my clinical rotations for pharmacy school and continued as an intern for Kroger there. I got my pharmacist license in 2004 and was a floater pharmacist for all the Kroger pharmacies around the Savannah area, even traveling as far as Waycross. They opened a brand new Kroger near Berwick in Savannah, and I took a position there as a staff pharmacist and remained there until I moved to Missouri in 2012.

During my years in Savannah, I also did relief work for Carter’s Pharmacy on my days off from Kroger.

When I moved to Missouri, I really wanted to stay with Kroger so I took the first position that opened up, which was a pharmacy manager position at Gerbes (Kroger owned), but it was a little over an hour away from home. I was very happy there, so the drive didn’t bother me.

In 2019, there was a new independent pharmacy, Hometown Pharmacy, opening only 25 minutes from my house and I was offered the pharmacy manager position there. This was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make as I had 19 years with Kroger, who was very good to me overall. I had lots of vacation time built up, which was important to me for my visits back to Georgia, and my coworkers were my best friends. It was such a huge risk because I knew that even with it being so much closer to home, the new job wouldn’t be worth it if I wasn’t happy there. I also knew I was happy at Gerbes—but it was the best decision for my family for me to work closer to home, I realized that I really loved the atmosphere of an independent pharmacy, and I could get away from the things that I didn’t like about working for a corporation.

That said, I took the leap and here I am three years later, so happy I made the decision. Gerbes allowed me to work a couple days a month to keep my status there in case I changed my mind; I could go back and keep everything I had, like vacation time. I appreciate that more that I can explain. I eventually realized I was comfortable with my position at Hometown Pharmacy and I said goodbye to Gerbes/Kroger for good. I miss my Gerbes family and the customers there, but I know I’m where I’m supposed to be.

Today, as pharmacy manager, I oversee day-to-day operations with three technicians and two other pharmacists. I work with doctors and nurses to maximize health outcomes for patients. I administer vaccines and COVID tests, and I am trained in diabetes management and smoking cessation.

Tell us about any volunteerism/philanthropic work you’ve been involved in over the years.

Watring: Through work, we volunteer quite a bit around the community, although most of it has been on hold because of COVID. We volunteer with the local senior center and food pantry. We visit schools in town and read to the children. We help with our local holiday project, which benefits families in need at Christmas. We are a part of the Mental Health Association of Saline County and its “You Okay Today?” project. We are a member of the chamber of commerce and participate in numerous events through them. We are a drop-off location for blankets and socks for the homeless shelter, and we also provide bottles of water for their care packs. We also host on-site flu clinics for numerous business in town, we partner with the local YMCA during flu season to donate money based on the amount of flu shots we administer, and we have a Kaps 4 Kids program where area schools raise money by collecting tokens from Hometown Pharmacy and redeeming them for cash.

The entire premise of the “Finding Our Folks” component of The Crossroads is to track down our hometown people. Tell us about the various places you’ve lived, why and how you ended up there, what your first “independent” living experience was like, and where you are today.

Watring: I lived in Kite from birth until 1985 when my mom, sisters, and I moved to Swainsboro. I spent most of my free time after that at my granny’s house in Kite, so I still feel like I grew up in Kite also. I lived in Swainsboro until 2000, when I moved to Atlanta to attend pharmacy school. I moved back to Swainsboro for a short time in 2003 to complete a few of my clinical rotations in Dublin and Metter. I moved to Savannah in 2004 to finish out my clinical rotations and to establish myself there permanently.

I absolutely loved living in Savannah. I miss it so much. During this time, I was able to purchase my favorite house in the world, my granny’s house in Kite, where I spent countless hours growing up and which held some of my best memories. This is my proudest accomplishment to date. I rented it out to a close family friend for a couple of years. When they moved and the house was empty, I decided to move into it in 2010, and I still commuted to Savannah for work.

I moved away from home in 2000 at the age of 21 to attend pharmacy school in Atlanta. I have always been independent and loved traveling and experiencing new places, so I never had any nervousness about moving away. I was excited to be on my own, to gain new experiences, and meet new people. My three years in Atlanta was one of the most exciting times in my life. It was full of energy, diversity, and things to do. There was never a dull moment. I probably spent a little too much money, though! I made lifelong friends and memories that I cherish.

Now, I live in Blackwater, Missouri.

Ryan and I had done the long-distance relationship thing for a while. He grew up in Missouri and has two sons from a previous marriage, so he was tied to the area. I moved to Missouri in 2012 to get married and start a family. Blackwater is a small, quiet farming town where everybody knows everybody and there’s always someone willing to lend a helping hand. The winters are the most difficult aspect of living here; I am not a fan of cold weather and the winters can be pretty brutal. Also, the lack of access to things like grocery stores restaurants, hospitals, and gas stations. However, I’m willing to trade those things for the peacefulness of the country.

Blackwater is much smaller than Swainsboro believe it or not; our population here is less than 200. And we definitely experience four seasons. There’s always negative temperatures, snow, and ice during the winter.

Speaking of Swainsboro, what do you miss about home?

Watring: What I miss most about Swainsboro are my family and friends and just the inner calm you feel when you’re “home.” I am so grateful for things like Facebook that allow me to keep up with everyone and feel like I’m still a part of their lives. I miss running into people that I grew up with or driving past places that bring back memories of my life. I miss all those things that give me a sense of belonging.

How often do you get to come back? And when you do return, what are some of your priorities?

Watring: My daughter, Savannah, and I visit at least twice a year, sometimes more. It’s important to me for Savannah to have ties to Swainsboro and Kite and be a part of my life there. I want her to know her aunts and cousins. We always make a trip during the summer. We’ve also started a tradition of going for Halloween. My sister, Kimmy, and her husband, Jim, have a huge Halloween party at their house where everyone dresses up, hands out candy, and there’s also a haunted trail in their woods. It’s a lot of fun. When I go my priorities are, of course, to spend as much time as possible with family. I also really try to spend some time with close friends, so it can sometimes be difficult to fit everything in. We always spend a few days with the whole family at Tybee and in Savannah, one of my favorite places. Another priority is to spend quiet time at my house in Kite, just enjoying being there and reflecting. It’s where I feel happiest. It’s such a special place to me. I still can’t believe it’s mine.

How did growing up in Swainsboro help get you where you are today?

Watring: Growing up in Swainsboro gave me a love and appreciation for “small town living.” I absolutely enjoyed the season of my life when I lived in the big city. I adapted and fit in quite well, but being from Swainsboro, I knew that at the end of the day when I reached a time in my life to settle down and start a family, big-city life isn’t what I wanted. I wanted a place where you saw familiar faces at the grocery store. I wanted a yard, a garden, and to go for walks in the woods. I wanted to sit in a rocking chair and watch the sunrise or sunset without the sound of cars. I wanted to see stars at night. I wanted my kids to be able to hunt and fish, play in the dirt, ride their bikes, and build forts in the woods. I have all of that now, and I couldn’t be happier.

Who were some influential people in your life?

Watring: Oh, so many people influenced me in so many ways. Of course, most importantly, is my mom, who I’ve realized is the best friend I’ve ever had. She was a single mom who raised four girls. She worked hard to make sure we had what we needed, financially and supportively. She didn’t make a lot of money, but we never felt less fortunate. She was very strict with me growing up, which I thought was so unfair at the time. I wasn’t allowed to do a lot of things my friends were allowed to do, but as an adult looking back, I agree with every rule she had and every decision she made and I’m thankful for it. It kept me out of trouble and kept my head on straight. It showed me that I didn’t have to “follow the crowd” to have friends or accomplish good things. I believe I have a moral compass today because of it. She also instilled in me a sense of adventure, spontaneity and taught me to “stop and smell the roses”.

Another person I feel is worth mentioning is my volleyball coach, Cole Sullivan. Volleyball was something in my life that I was really passionate about and was good at. He really pushed me to be my best and brought out characteristics in me I didn’t know existed. I never thought of myself as a leader, but Coach Sullivan saw something in me that I couldn’t and made me captain of the team. That entire experience, him believing in me and me excelling, did wonders for my confidence and self-identification. I will be forever grateful for that.

Do you have advice for any young people who might read this interview?

Watring: Dream big, have a desire to “see” the world around you, and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it. Don’t be afraid of change, and don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable. A very wise person once told me, “If you’re comfortable, you’re not growing.” Don’t be afraid to take risks. Know that any struggles can be overcome, but you have to take advantage of every single opportunity. Appreciate where you came from and no matter where life takes you, make a point to keep Swainsboro in your life. Don’t forget to live. One of my favorite quotes is by Jonathan Swift, ”May you live every day of your life.” Oh, and always return your shopping cart!

What’s the key to success, in your opinion?

Watring: There are many keys to success I believe! The single most important thing in my opinion is attitude. Like Charles Swindoll said, “Life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it.” Read his entire statement on attitude and that is the key to most things in life. Also, figure out what you’re passionate about. It’s crucial that you enjoy what you do. Read Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Listen to people. Make the most of your opportunities. Embrace change. Know that you will fail before you succeed, and treat everyone you encounter with respect.

Anything you’d like to say to your community in closing?

Watring: Thank you for nurturing me as a child and young adult and for giving me a place that I can be proud of. Thanks for living up to my expectations and welcoming me with open arms each time I return. Thank you for caring about each other.

Do you have someone you’d like to nominate for inclusion in the ”Finding Our Folks” part of The Crossroads Chronicle? Call Halei Lamb at 478-494-3376, email, or stop by 571 South Main Street, Swainsboro.

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