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Putting down roots

After 23 years abroad, Jack and Julie Winn chose to settle down in Southern Indiana.

ON A SEPTEMBER afternoon in 2007, Jack and Julie Winn were about to spend their first night together in their new home. For most of their married lives they had lived and worked overseas, spending 23 years in the diplomatic services. Their homes had always been assigned, furnished and temporary.

On this day, though, they had only a set of towels, a set of sheets, two folding lawn chairs and a newly purchased mattress in their 92-year-old farmhouse on 22 acres in southern Brown County.

Julie looked around her new home and was struck by how different things were going to be here. They didn’t have a household staff as they did in the African countries where they lived. They didn’t have 10-foot walls topped with broken glass surrounding their property as they did in all of their foreign homes. And they certainly didn’t have a ready-to-move-in furnished home.

But after a while, Julie no longer saw what wasn’t there. She saw what could be. Their home was a clean slate with so much potential. The valley that ran behind the house was flanked by tree-covered hills. “It was wide open in both senses,” Julie says. It was just another new environment, Jacks adds, and the only thing they could do was keep moving forward.

THAT SAME YEAR, the Winns retired from careers with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department. They had lived in Yemen, Cameroon, Mali, Washington D.C., Haiti, Ethiopia, Kosovo and Guinea, each for around two to three years.

Today, ten years after that first uncertain night, they’ve made the 1925 farmhouse a home. They grow fruits and vegetables in the garden beds they planted behind the house. They raise bees and bottle honey for friends. They’ve become an integral part of this rural community. The same resilience that served them so well in Africa, Europe and the Caribbean has enabled them to put down new roots – this time in the soil of Brown County.

DRIVING UP Jack and Julie’s driveway is like entering a secret place, with trees and flowering bushes framing the way. As I pull up, Julie is the first to greet me, standing at the back door. We talk for a moment before I hear Jack chime in from behind me. I didn’t even notice him pulling weeds from a garden plot. Their dogs Dilly and Rolando run up to greet me, and nothing’s much better than opening your car door to a dog furiously wagging its tail.

“Well, should I show you around first?” Julie asks me.

We start at the garden. It’s still the tail end of winter, so not much is growing, but asparagus has been planted. Julie tells me she grows a variety of tomatoes – Brandywine, Mortgage Lifter, Nebraska Breakfast, cherry and Roma, to name a few. They also grow peas, salad greens, green beans, grapes, hazelnuts, okra and tons of raspberries, Jack says.

Jack and Julie like to work together in the garden, both sharing responsibilities, but Jack seems to enjoy it just a little more, favoring the solitude.

They also have a small apple orchard on the east side of their property, along with a few other fruit-bearing trees. They’ve lost count on how many trees that have been planted, died out or been replaced, but currently they have Winesap, Jonathan and Granny Smith.

When they’re not serving their crop on their dinner table, they send it home with friends, and occasionally Jack takes some to the soup kitchen. They’ve also explored different means of preserving, canning and drying their produce. “We didn’t know much about gardening when we started,” Julie says. “We’ve learned quite a few things while doing it.”

After losing crops to local wild animals, they keep simple plastic fencing wrapped all the way around their main garden plots. The fencing helps keep pests like deer and rabbits out of their plants, Jack says. Even more difficult than hungry foragers are the parasites. Jack and Julie try to find a balance between using pesticides and going organic, and recently they’ve been more successful. After all, facing challenges and solving problems are what they did for most of their lives together.

JACK AND JULIE met in 1982 when Jack was coaching a women’s recreational softball team organized by the Chicago law firm where he worked as a CPA. Julie was a young lawyer. “Julie was horrible at softball,” he says, “but I kept inviting her back just so that I could see her.”

Around that time, Jack applied for a position oversees with the USAID, and a year later he was offered the job. So Jack went to Julie to share the news. “I just said, ‘Hey I’m going to Yemen. Do you want to get married?’” Jack says. She said yes. And that was the beginning of their international adventures.

They arrived in Sanaa, Yemen, early in the morning in 1984. The city, she says, was a uniform dust color. Unfinished buildings stood everywhere, because in Yemen you could only charge property taxes on finished buildings. That was the first morning Jack had heard nothing but silence from Julie. “It was an ugly place,” she remembers.

Fearful they might have made the wrong decision, the Winns moved into their new home, and Jack started work with USAID. But the more time they spent in Yemen, the more they grew to love it. At first, Julie was bored and wanted to work. So she passed the foreign service exam and picked up some legal work at the State Department. They worked just a few offices apart from one another.

Gradually, they began to settle in. Everything was so new to them. Yemen was a spectacular country, Jack says. The capital sits up 6,000 feet. The climate was mild, ranging from 50 to 80 degrees, and the evenings were cool. There was no need for air conditioning. The hand-cut stone buildings were lovely once they were finished. They stood seven to eight stories tall, and each stone was precisely cut and hand-placed.

Yemen is a mostly Muslim country, and the local women lived by strict rules. But, as a foreign woman at the time, Julie didn’t have many restrictions. She was able to hike and play tennis with Jack, being sure to wear a full-length cotton skirt. And when Jack wasn’t around, Julie got to know the local women. She loved how their personalities came out when they were away from the men. To Julie’s surprise, the women were very fashionable, too.

Yemen ended up being Jack and Julie’s favorite assignment. From the terraced mountains used for farming to the cities perched atop those same mountains, Yemen was like nothing either of them had experienced before. Most of all, though, Yemen taught them they could adapt to new surroundings together.

Other assignments followed. They spent time in Mali and Cameroon, then moved to Haiti on the last commercial flight before the U.S. embargo in 1994. Haiti was a difficult assignment, Julie says, and it was a trying time politically. Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been ousted by a military coup three years earlier, and economic sanctions had worsened poverty in the country. There was an oppressive atmosphere and a clear divide between the wealthy and the poor, she says.

[quote about death threats] DEFINITELY ADD THIS

After Haiti, Ethiopia was a breath of fresh air. It was the sole country in Sub-Saharan Africa to not be colonized by Europe, Jack says. The people were proud of their country and heritage and were warm and welcoming.

In 1999, they moved to Kosovo, which was embroiled in a civil war. “We went in right after the bombing,” Jack says. USAID was sent in to help ease the tensions.

ack and Julie’s final overseas assignment was Guinea. Julie was the deputy to the ambassador, and Jack was the director of foreign aid for both Guinea and Sierra Leone. They enjoyed their time here, Jack says, but they knew their careers were coming to an end. As they moved up within their agencies, it was becoming more difficult to find assignments in the same countries. So, now in their early 50s, they decided to retire.

JACK AND JULIE didn’t have a dream retirement plan, as some couples do. They had spent two decades together being spontaneous, and this decision would be no different.

Jack woke up one morning and headed to work in Conakry, Guinea. As director of the office, he occasionally had some downtime as he did that day. So he started searching for a place to retire on the internet.

Jack and Julie had already discussed what the two of them didn’t want. They didn’t want a home too far east or too far west in the United States. Jack didn’t want cold, and Julie didn’t want hot. They also knew what they did want.

So Jack sat at his desk and Googled three stipulations: 1) affordable, 2) rural but near a city and 3) near a university. Southern Indiana popped up in the results. Centered between Columbus and Bloomington and near Indiana University, Brown County was a rural area filled with parks and public land, beautiful scenery and wildlife.

Originally, the Winns house-hunted closer to Bloomington. They even put an offer on one house, but the inspection came back with a long list of needed repairs. They decided against it. Still in Guinea, they contacted a real estate agent here who came up with about a dozen houses for them visit on their next trip to the States.

On a Thursday night, a week before Thanksgiving in 2006, the Winns left Guinea and traveled to Indiana. They arrived in Cincinnati on Friday night, drove a rental car to Bloomington and stayed in a hotel on Lake Monroe. Before checking into the hotel, they grabbed the first American-styled food they saw, at Cheeseburger in Paradise.“We just needed a cheeseburger and a beer,” Jack says.

That Saturday, Jack and Julie visited the houses, and the farm in Brown County was the last on the list. It was late in the afternoon, around 4 p.m., and they were tired and not feeling terribly positive about the search. They walked into the home together, crossing a threshold of possibilities.

The house itself was a project, no question, but in a way that intrigued the Winns. And even though the house wasn’t perfect, the property had two ponds, established fruit trees, a grape arbor and a fantastic view of the valley.

Still, the visit was quick. In and out. Afterward they went back to their hotel room, without any intention of the house being their future home.

The next day they drove back to a couple of the homes. They stopped back by the farmhouse, walked around the property and hiked a nearby trail. Before leaving Bloomington to visit family for the holidays, they left a blank check with their agent, just in case. After Thanksgiving, they returned to Guinea.

There, they settled on Brown County, making all of the arrangements while overseas. “We didn’t want to waste any more time,” Jack says. “And if we didn’t like it, we knew we could just pack up and move somewhere else.”

The following May, Julie and her mother visited Indiana to clean up the house so they could move in later that year. “I remember my mom seeing all of the lady bugs in the house,” Julie says. “She sent me to IGA for a broom, and she swept them all up.”

Jack moved to the house in August, just a month before Julie. They spent the first year and a half renovating it. “We did everything but the flooring ourselves,” Jack says. “We didn’t have anything else to be doing at the time, so we didn’t mind.”

They put on their demolition gear and tore up the carpet, parts of which reeked of years of pet odors. Julie insisted they finish the entryway first because the odor there was overwhelming. They reconfigured the upstairs, adding two bedrooms. Jack refinished the stairs to match the hardwood flooring they had had installed. “The internet had lots of how-to instructions,” Jack says.

They began the outside transformation, adding beehives, additional apple trees and their garden.

Today, two matching African statues stand in their yard, just one taste of their culturally diverse home. In fact, the Winns’ home is exactly what you would expect it to be, wall-to-wall with memorabilia and photos of their international adventures. Each item has a story: Haitian paintings purchased with armored U.S. soldiers standing nearby, a picture of a Yemeni bridge balancing between two mountains, a framed cartoon of Jack and Julie dragging Guinea home with them. Their home is a reflection of who they are: simple, warm and full of stories.

Once they finally felt at home, it was time to put other skills to use in their new community.

BEANS AND RICE are on the menu at Mother’s Cupboard, the local soup kitchen in Nashville. Jack, the head cook on Mondays, is wearing his usual outfit, a T-shirt, pants and a baseball cap, while plating the meals in the center of the industrial kitchen. He directs a team of three Rotary Club volunteers as they serve the meals.

Jack originally joined the Career Resource Center Board, then started volunteering at the community kitchen. “I was bored with the boards,” he says. Jack creates a menu based on whatever meat the kitchen manager provides him that day. Meatloaf is a favorite here, but sometimes he gets creative and makes something like sweet-and-sour chicken.

Jack runs a tight ship, and the volunteers know how to work with his system. “They don’t come on my side,” Jack says.

Each Monday, he arrives at the kitchen around 10:30 a.m. He does all of the food prep himself and sometimes spends the morning cutting up 70 pounds of chicken. “I don’t like help,” he says.

His strict system pays off when about 120 people eat his meals that day. During today’s four o’clock rush, the kitchen puts out about 50 meals in 15 minutes.

“You’re always wearing your USAID hat, Jack,” says Kathy Anderson, a Rotary Club volunteer, who is helping Jack plate meals.

“Yeah, it’s my career hat,” says Jack, smiling.

WHEN JACK'S NOT working in the garden or fixing meals at the community kitchen, you might find him on a pickle ball court. He plays the game, a cross between tennis and whiffle ball, at the nearly Twin Lakes Recreational Center a few times a week. About once a week, he travels to Indianapolis for fresh competition, a change of scenery and more experienced players. When the weather cooperates, he plays outside.

Jack was athletic growing up and enjoys the challenge of learning something new. He tried to pick up whatever sports were most common in the countries where they lived. “You had to work with what they had,” he says.

As for Julie, she joined the Brown County Literacy Coalition as a tutor and a board member and started attending League of Women Voters meetings. She became the league’s vice president in 2011 and the president in 2013. In that role, she organizes events and invites local legislators to speak at Brown County meetings.

Their volunteer work not only gave them a chance to give back to the community but to become a part of it as well. Julie met their good friends Donna and Bob Ormiston when

Donna was tutoring at the library and needed someone to stand in for her while she went on vacation. Julie was more than happy to help.

Jack was in Nepal on a five-week assignment about that time. Without Jack’s help, the garden was becoming difficult for Julie to maintain. So Julie invited Donna and Bob out to the farm to pick strawberries. The two couples hit it off and spend time together in their volunteer work and at home. “They’re both people that in their professional life were people who had to get things done,” Donna says. “And because of that they wanted to get involved.”

Ten years after they first crossed the threshold of the farmhouse they bought while 5,060 miles away in Guinea, Jack and Julie are definitely involved. And they’re at home. It was one of the biggest decisions they’ve made, and they have no regrets. They have created their own haven in the hills of Brown County.