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Longtime leader of Lake Martin volunteer organization passes the gavel

John Thompson has plenty of perspective when it comes to Lake Martin.

As Renew Our Rivers wrapped up its 2022 Alabama cleanups with the traditional year-end event on Lake Martin, in coordination with the Lake Martin Resource Association (LMRA), Thompson was wrapping his 10-year tenure as LMRA president.

But Thompson’s involvement with LMRA – a member-supported nonprofit dedicated to protecting the reservoir and preserving quality of life across the Lake Martin community – stretches back a good distance farther. And no doubt, his legacy around the lake will last for years to come.

Case in point: Thompson, who just celebrated his 80th birthday, recently made a stop in Montgomery to pick up a 2022 Alabama PALS (People Against A Littered State) Governor’s Award for the LMRA/Renew Our Rivers cleanups. It was a fitting culmination to Thompson’s decades-long volunteerism and dedication to Lake Martin. And yet, Thompson was quick to emphasize that it is the many community supporters and volunteers who make the cleanups successful.

“We couldn’t have done what we’ve done without all the wonderful partners,” said Thompson, who has been involved with LMRA almost since its beginning in the early 1970s.

This year’s annual fall cleanup was No. 16 for the organization. Over those 16 years, Thompson said, the organization and its partners have collected more than 160 tons of trash and debris from the lake, including more than 1,000 tires.

Lake Martin Resource Association works to preserve natural resources from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

“John has been a tremendous advocate for Lake Martin,” said Mike Clelland, program coordinator for Renew Our Rivers at Alabama Power. I have really enjoyed working alongside him and the thousands of volunteers on cleanup events at the lake,”

“Thanks to John’s leadership at LMRA, the cleanup at Lake Martin is consistently one of the most successful events Renew Our Rivers supports each year,” said Jason Carlee, Water Field Services manager at Alabama Power. “He has been leader and visionary for all things that benefit Lake Martin.”

John Thompson (contributed)

The Lake Martin cleanup always takes place in early November, when the water level has dropped, making it easier to get into the multiple sloughs and inlets around the lake and remove trash, Thompson said. But it’s hardly the only activity coordinated by LMRA through the year.

In the spring, LMRA members and their partners conduct another cleanup – along the roadways around Lake Martin. “We’ve got over 800 miles of shoreline at Lake Martin. If we can remove trash from the roads and out of the ditches, we can keep an awful lot of trash out of the lake,” Thompson said.

Another initiative that Thompson notes with pride is LMRA’s Treasured Mile program, in partnership with Alabama Power and Russell Lands. Through the program, individuals, families, schools, houses of worship, civic and youth groups, and businesses can adopt a section of shoreline or an island to help keep litter under control. To date, some 25 islands have been adopted.

It’s a far cry from a half-century ago, Thompson said, when the lake was less populated, more remote and far less cared for.

“People buying property on the lake now, they just see a beautiful lake. They don’t know the history.”

Indeed, when he first moved to the Alexander City area in the late 1960s, Thompson said the lake was known among many by another name: the “backwater” – a place of rutted dirt roads and rustic weekend cabins that often fell victim to break-ins. Visitors would encounter piles of half-burned trash and broken bottles – the ragged remnants of rowdy shoreline parties.

In 1970, an organization was formed, led by local business leader Ben Russell, to try to address safety and vandalism issues around the lake, and to advocate for a more stable lake level. That group evolved into LMRA, which officially celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020.

Some of LMRA volunteers’ handiwork following a Renew Our Rivers cleanup. (contributed)

Thompson also takes pride in LMRA’s buoy program, which began in the 1980s. Over the years, the organization has placed hundreds of safety and no-wake buoys around the lake, and is in the process of updating many to lighted buoys as more boaters take to the waters in the evenings to visit lakeside restaurants and other attractions.

“We have over 400 hazard buoys out there now, and we want to get 200 of them lighted; we’re up to about 110 now,” Thompson said.

He marvels at how Lake Martin continues to evolve and develop, especially as technology improves and more people want to live and work remotely from homes around the reservoir. That, in turn, has driven more development, which makes it even more important to continue working to protect the beauty, the water quality and the overall allure of the reservoir.

He said the years of cleanups, and education and outreach about protecting the lake, have made a difference. With more people aware and vigilant about keeping trash out of the lake, volunteers on cleanup days are having to go deeper into sloughs and farther upstream to find it. And that’s a good thing.

Thompson remembers the first time, decades ago, that he steered a boat up a slough and saw piles of junk and garbage. “Once you saw it, you couldn’t forget it. I couldn’t let it go.”

Now, Thompson acknowledges it’s time for a younger generation to take the lead. He praised incoming president Jodie McGirt, who co-owns Lake Martin Dock Company with her husband, Dave. Lake Martin Dock is another longtime LMRA supporter and partner.

Jodie McGirt, incoming LMRA president, with Thompson. (contributed)

McGirt, who has lived on Lake Martin going on 23 years, said it’s been a process to try to download and absorb the immense amount of knowledge that Thompson has accumulated over the years. She described Thompson and wife, Sandra, as “sweet in so many ways, and passionate about what they do around the lake.”

Thompson, she said, was “the right person at the right time” to lead LMRA as it expanded its reach and positive impact across the lake over the past 10 years.

“John is just one of those people that is always looking – for ‘what can we do, how can we help?’” McGirt said. “He knows so much. He has a great heart and great focus. He’s just an amazing person.”

And while Thompson is stepping back from a leadership role at LMRA, don’t expect him to put up his trash-picker and fade away. Because the passion is still there, and the pride in being involved in the ongoing movement to help keep Lake Martin clean, protected and developing in a thoughtful and positive way.

“It’s pretty impressive when you see a couple hundred trash bags filled up on the shoreline, and the old refrigerators and other stuff,” Thompson said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done.”

Learn more about the Lake Martin Resource Association at