Tommy Greene steps out of his Madison, Fla., home in a lime-green suit with grass-green suspenders, a tie decorated with leprechauns, pickle-green socks and leather shoes polished to a swampy sheen. He hops into his forest-green GMC truck to deliver green cakes to friends around town.
Sure, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, but Tommy’s green garb wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in May or December. He has dressed gung-ho green every single day for 42 years. So has his wife, Mary Ellen. Their pea-green house is carpeted, draped, wallpapered, furnished and heavily festooned in green. The same color scheme overwhelms the office of their newspaper business. They even named their daughter Emerald and helped name some of their grandchildren—Kelli, Forest, Hunter, Jade and Matthew JohnDeere.
“Every day is St. Patrick’s Day,” says Tommy, 66, a 5-foot-7-inch back-slapping Scot-Irish country publisher and business tycoon, who is colorful all the way down to his green boxers.
“When you see him dressed up in his leprechaun outfit, he looks like he fell right out of Irish folklore,” Madison County Judge Wetzel Blair says. “He’s a character and has one of the most fertile minds I’ve ever met.”
Tommy, who grew up amidst northern Florida’s cypress swamps, hasn’t always worn green. He adopted his green-only dress code and motto—”If it ain’t green, it ain’t mine”—in August 1964 to grab attention and promote his new career.
Tommy worked in his dad’s sawmill at the time, while his green-eyed bride, whom he’d dated since they were 15, taught English at nearby Greenville (pop. 837) High School. After a load of logs shifted and pinned him under a pile for three hours, Tommy decided to find another line of work. He listed two dozen job possibilities on a Winn-Dixie grocery sack and noticed a common thread—all involved advertising.
Mary Ellen, 65, will never forget that life-changing decision. “He woke me up at 3 a.m. and said we were going to publish a newspaper. The first thing I said was, ‘Tommy Greene, you failed English seven times.’”
No problem, he assured her. She could fix his spelling and he could do the figuring. Madison (pop. 3,061) already had a 100-year-old newspaper, The Madison Enterprise-Recorder, but that didn’t deter Tommy. He hit the pavement selling ads and the couple remodeled a vacant beauty shop for an office for the Madison County Carrier. Even Mary Ellen doesn’t know how Tommy dreamed up the newspaper’s name, but he’s been accused of being unable to spell “courier.”
“We survived on sheer ignorance and energy,” Tommy quips.
The Carrier thrived, in part, because Tommy filled the pages with local news, showing up with his camera and scribbling notes in green ink at family reunions, church gatherings, government meetings and local disasters.
“I worked wrecks and fires day and night,” he says. His message to “put Tommy Greene on the scene—call Tommy Greene first” clicked with subscribers. A frantic woman telephoned him one night and whispered that someone was trying to break into her house. “Did you call the police?” Tommy asked. Not yet. She’d called Tommy Greene first.
Ten years after starting the Madison County Carrier, Greene served green grits to members of the Florida Press Association who elected him president. With their three green-clad children, the Greenes attended press meetings and traveled the state.
By age 10, daughter Emerald was proofing ads and doing darkroom work. Today, Emerald Greene Kinsley is publisher of the two weeklies, the Carrier and the Enterprise-Recorder, which Tommy bought from his competitor.
“I sleep with a scanner beside me,” says Emerald, 36. She doesn’t wear green religiously, though, and neither do brothers Harvey, 40, a paramedic, and William, 38, a police officer, who both work in Madison. The whole Greene gang lives on the family estate, which over the years has been home to cats and dogs dubbed Gangrene, Shamrock, Lime and Olive.
Through the years, the Greenes have left a colorful mark in Madison by sporting green garments, gathering the local news and promoting positive thinking.
On the front lawn of the plantation-style Greene Publishing Co. building are four celery-green tombstones inscribed with R.I.P. above the words “Impossible,” “Can’t,” “But” and “If.” Tommy clipped the words from his dictionary and buried them.
“We weren’t allowed to say ‘can’t’ growing up,” Emerald recalls. “Daddy taught us that whatever you put your mind to, you can do it. And he taught us to work.”
Teachers bring students on field trips to the newspaper office to talk about the power of positive thinking. Tommy’s positive, can-do reputation is legendary in Madison, where he promotes not only his own interests, but those of the community at large. “Tommy started the Chamber of Commerce and the Jaycees,” says Blair, the judge. “One of the biggest things he did was bring a meat-packing facility here that at one time employed over 1,000 people.”
Now Tommy is spearheading an effort to build a new hospital in Madison County. “Everything interesting in Madison County, he played a part in,” says local businessman Jimmy Davis.
Lifelong resident Princess Roebuck describes Tommy in grander terms. “He’s the John Wayne of Madison County,” she says. When Roebuck’s husband lost his barbershop in a 1989 fire, Tommy offered one of his buildings rent-free. “Tommy has a heart that is bigger than he is,” Roebuck says. “He tries to leave you laughing, too.”
On St. Patrick’s Day, Tommy Greene notches up the fun and fixes green pancakes or a vat of green rice and chicken for community dinners and fund-raisers. One year, he even colored his hair with green vegetable dye. As the day warmed up, he began to sweat green. “By evening Tommy was green clear down to his belt, which acted like a fire wall,” Mary Ellen says, gesturing with hands that flash green diamonds and emeralds.
But for the most part, it’s easy being matriarch of the Greene family, she says. “It’s been fun. People all over the United States, if they see something green, will send it to us,” says Mary Ellen, who drives a green Lincoln, eats off green plates, sleeps under green sheets and doesn’t fret a bit about the latest color fashion whims.
“When I go into a department store, I just head for the green,” she says, “but if I bring a shirt home and it’s not green-green, Tommy will give it away.”
For funerals, Tommy “dresses down to forest green.” For his installation as a Shrine potentate, he dressed up in a shimmering green tuxedo.
The color green has kept the Greenes in the limelight for four decades.
“They’re just part of our town history and we all love it,” says Marie Mayfield, an English instructor at North Florida Community College in Madison. “I left town for 30 years and moved back and they were still wearing green.”
“No one in town would even recognize us,” Tommy says, “if we wore orange.”