After moving to Rabun County in 1996, Joe immersed himself in the region and its mountain heritage. He served on the boards of Georgia ForestWatch and the Highlands Biological Station, and helped several other local groups over the years.
Joe was proud to be the first certified organic grower in Rabun County and was a founding member of the Simply Homegrown weekend farmers market in Clayton, where he was known as “the Garlic Man.” Customers also sought out his delicious homemade mango peach chutney, which his wife said he often noisily made at 4 a.m. Joe said his contact with the earth was through his garden in the summer and by making pottery in the winter. His booming laugh and tenacious defense of his opinions often gave a gruff first impression. But friends loved him for his integrity, loyalty and steadfastness.
Born in New York City, Joe grew up in France and Atlanta and was introduced to this mountain region when his family traveled to Lake Burton for vacation. He delighted in the rugged history of Rabun County, from its early settlers to the moonshining days, and he actively sought out members of the county’s founding families for their personal recollections.
After he retired in 1996 from a 21-year career as a well-respected and award-winning reporter and editor at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia, it seemed natural to Joe and Fran Gatins to seek out a large wooded plot bordered by national forest in Rabun County. Joe loved the mountains and delighted in discovering abandoned mines and forgotten trails. He could identify 25 different native plants and would eagerly point them out during hikes he led.
An avid hiker, Joe joined Georgia ForestWatch in 2001 and became increasingly active with the group, taking a leadership role and serving as president, district leader and board member. He brought his relentless personality and skills as an investigative reporter to bear on the U.S. Forest Service to ensure that woodland preservation regulations were followed. He monitored for all-terrain vehicles in Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests and actively opposed efforts to allow boating on the wild and scenic Upper Chattooga River.
Joe merged his love of research, writing and history by exploring his own family’s colorful past in a book published in 2009 titled “We Were Dancing on a Volcano: Bloodlines and Fault Lines of a Star-Crossed Atlanta Family 1849-1989.”
In recent months, he had fought esophageal cancer with radiation and chemotherapy and appeared to be winning the battle. A far-flung group of well-wishers derived and provided support from Joe’s always upbeat updates on his cancer fight. He took up watercolor painting and was fearless in exploring the medium, from which he received enormous pleasure.
Joseph Francis Miguel Gatins was the oldest of six children born to a French World War II veteran with deep family roots in Atlanta and a Colombian mother. He was a graduate of the University of North Carolina and served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War as an intelligence officer. He is survived by his wife, Fran; his son, Demian; two sisters, Sophie Mason of Atlanta and Egle Weiland of Columbus, Ohio; and a brother, Miguel, of Guadalajara, Mexico.
A private ceremony to honor Joe’s memory will be held later this week at the family’s Rabun County home.