Words by Terrell Manasco | Images by Blakeney Clouse
Ryan Mullinax loves being outdoors.
As a boy growing up on Providence Loop in Oakman, Ryan was always outside. One of his earliest childhood memories is swinging on the swing set and singing country songs. “I’m sure the neighbors [remember], because I was trying to sing louder than the squeak on those old swings,” he says.
Ryan, who teaches landscape horticulture at the Walker County Center of Technology (WCCT), remembers spending hours of those pre-internet days playing baseball. Some days he’d go exploring with his cousin and best friend, Matt Woods. “We’d meet each other on the loop and ride bikes, shoot BB guns, or go fishing,” Ryan says.
A 2000 Oakman High School graduate, Ryan dreamed of being an architect since he was 8. While attending Wallace State Community College on a leadership scholarship, he worked at Southern Accents Architectural Antique Store. “They were instrumental in helping me see that I really liked something that had to do with design,” Ryan says. “We dealt with architectural pieces, like old mantles, old doors.”
After earning a degree in science, Ryan transferred to Auburn University with plans to study building science. Then, a conversation with friends in the horticulture program changed his mind. “I was interested because I could still do the design aspect, but it’s more with nature, it gets me outdoors,” Ryan says.
In 2004, Ryan graduated from Auburn with a bachelor’s in landscape horticulture, 10 days before he and his wife, Britney, were married. The following week, he started a new job with a company called GradeCo. “The commute was killer!” Ryan says, recalling the long drive from Jasper. “It was down 280 on Highway 119, so it was about an hour and 20 minutes.”
After four years of enduring long hours and bumper-to-bumper traffic, Ryan was exhausted. Eager for a change, he began looking for work close to home. “Faith was the most important reason why I came back home,” he says. “It was hard to be involved in church and do what I felt was the most important thing in my life.”
Ryan had enjoyed teaching a teen Bible class and found he had a gift of connecting with young people. He had never considered teaching as a career, but now it seemed an obvious choice, so he enrolled at UAB to get his degree.
After graduating in 2008 with a master’s in education and science, Ryan taught chemistry, physics, anatomy, and physical science at Oakman High School. Teaching suited him,but his dream was to eventually combine it with his first passion, agriculture.
Four years later, Ryan got a phone call. “I was informed that the agriculture program here, which had been closed, would be reopened, and that this job would be posted,” he says. “I thought, this is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for.”
Now in his seventh year, Ryan enjoys mentoring his WCCT students through various projects, like building planter boxes with the Jasper Herb Society for Brookwood Baptist Health-Walker Baptist Medical Center cancer patients. Their current project is constructing a 48-foot x 24-foot pavilion area for an outdoor classroom.
It’s fun to plan projects and see them realized, but Ryan admits he really thrives on helping young people find success. “You design a landscape, and it gets installed,” he says. “It’s self-fulfilling to see a plan come together, but it’s even more fulfilling to see it come together in somebody’s life.
“If I can do one thing that helps the students, that’s all I want. Sometimes they just need somebody that believes in them, that cares about them, that’s willing to put in the effort because they have potential. That’s what I love about what I do, seeing these young people grow into adulthood and become successful.”
At home, the self-described “sci-fi/sports nerd,” and father of four loves watching baseball and hockey, particularly the Atlanta Braves and Nashville Predators. “My ideal Saturday would be having the Braves on one TV, the Preds on one, and Lord of the Rings on another,” Ryan says.
He also collects vintage baseball cards because he likes the history behind the sport. (“You can learn a lot about our country through baseball.”) Two favorites are a 1951 Dan Bankhead (a Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher from Empire, Alabama) and a 1955 Hank Aaron. “He was such a humble person,” Ryan says. “It’s just a great story of who he was and what he had to deal with.”
Ryan often tells his students that success isn’t about wealth, but about being happy and content in your life. He urges them, find something that fuels your passion.
Like being a teacher. “If I can do something to make a difference in somebody’s life, that’s where I find success,” Ryan says.
No doubt he’s found it numerous times. 78