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In a T-Shirt or a Tux, Joe Napoli Makes Athens Bloom


When you get to know Joe Napoli, something about Athens clicks into sharper focus. He leads two lives, and he found a way to make a living while making music and giving our town one of its signature performance groups.

Napoli runs Athens Wholesale Nursery, “a family-owned, quality-driven, customer-oriented container nursery” on 5-and-a-half acres nestled along Shoal Creek out on the Eastside, with customers throughout Georgia, the Carolinas and Tennessee.

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He is also the founding director of the Athens Master Chorale, which celebrates its 30th anniversary with its spring concert this Saturday, May 18, at 7:30 p.m. in Hugh Hodgson Concert Hall on campus.

The music was always there. Napoli grew up with it, got two degrees in it and sang with the Metropolitan Opera National Company during its inaugural season on the road in 1965.

“I couldn’t imagine doing that forever,” he says, so he moved to Florida, got his second degree, married Maggie and taught public school for 14 years, with his students consistently winning regional and state competitions.

Meanwhile, Joe kept “messing around” with plants in the backyard, and Maggie grew increasingly dissatisfied with Florida. At about the same time she decided she didn’t want to live in Florida anymore, Joe realized that his job was interfering with his hobby, and he wanted to do the plants full-time. So, in the early 80s, they took an exploratory trip north, got off on Highway 441, heading for North Carolina and stopped for a night in Athens, which turned into several days and caused them to think, “This is nice.”

They came back a couple of times and then decided to move here, buy the land, build their home and start the nursery. You’ve got to know them to understand how they could make such a gigantic leap of faith. “She’s always been right there,” he says.

They moved in right next door to Wilbur Mull’s Classic Groundcovers in an area that already had its share of thriving wholesale nurseries, but Napoli quickly established the idea that they weren’t competing but cooperating. “There’s plenty of business for everybody,” he says. “If our customer wants something we don’t have, we just call up one of the other guys, and they supply it. It’s good for us all.”

Napoli says all nursery folks like to give advice, “and it’s all different, because we’re all different. We’ve all figured out different ways to make things work. Sometimes something works one year and not the next—like last year we had 74 inches of rain.”

Is there a connection between his two lives? Of course.

“I run the nursery like the chorale. You’ve got a bunch of tools; sometimes something works and sometimes not. Let me say that a different way. Everybody is different. Some need a pat; some not.”

So, whether he’s working in a T-shirt or a tux, Napoli is constantly figuring out how to get the best results. He conjures beauty from the earth and from the air. A spin through Athens Wholesale Nursery, hanging on in Joe’s four-wheeler, teases the eye with color and variety. Attendance at an Athens Master Chorale concert fills the ear with the perfect blending of voices.

If you haven’t heard them, you owe it to yourself to experience the Master Chorale, under the conduction of Joseph Napoli since its inception 30 years ago. This time around features Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor” and modern composer Dan Forrest’s five-movement “LUX.”

A year from now, the Athens Master Chorale will be part of a 125-member festival chorus conducted by Joe Napoli in Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Needless to say, it takes money to put on these concerts, even though the chorale singers and Joe are not paid. This upcoming spring concert, for instance, will cost around $12,000, including the cost of the performance space, the 20-piece orchestra, soloists, etc. Tickets are $12.50 for adults, $7.50 for students and children. You can get them from members of the chorale and from the UGA Performing Arts Center, 706-542-4400, pac.uga.edu. You can contribute to this Athens treasure by mailing a check to 495 Belmont Road, Athens, GA 30605 or online at athensmasterchorale.org/support.

Joe Napoli and the Athens Master Chorale are just one more example of why Athens is such a blooming good place to live.

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