Left, Harry Downing accepts a first-place award for equitation at a horse show in Homosassa, FL; Center, Harry and wife Diane; Right, Harry waterskiing on Hunter’s Lake in Hernando County.
A Florida native with a love of the outdoors, Harry Downing was drawn to work in support of the environment.
Downing was born in St. Petersburg and moved with his family to Brooksville at age 10. He took to his new environment right away, naturally favoring the outdoors and open spaces. He remembers his move from the city to the country as an easy transition.
“To me the rural setting of Hernando County was exciting and mystical,” Downing recalls. “The hammocks sometimes were so silent you could hear the animals walking.”
He spent a lot of his childhood outdoors with his father and mother, who showed and trained horses.
One winter, Downing’s father was hired to train a horse during the making of “El Blanco,” a Walt Disney movie that was part of a Sunday night series. It was about a horse that was orphaned at a young age and left to grow up alone. Downing, who was 11 at the time, was fortunate to have shadowed his father on the movie set.
One of Downing’s most memorable times on the movie set was when the crew filmed a jaguar swimming the river while chasing the horse. After the scene was complete, he thought the crew had caught the jaguar. A few moments later, Downing was nudged in the back.
“When I turned around, there was the jaguar and I thought I was a goner,” said Downing. “The owner, who was right there, said to me ‘don’t worry, she loves children.’ ”
After high school, he attended the University of Florida (UF) where he earned a bachelor of science degree in animal science. However, rather than pursuing veterinary school, he continued to study at UF. Shortly after earning his first degree, he earned a second bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering and then a master of science degree in environmental engineering.
Throughout college, Downing stayed active with many activities, including motocross sports, running and working out. He also attended an on-campus church, which is where he met Diane, his wife of 32 years.
After college, he and Diane settled back in Hernando County, where they raised a son and a daughter.
As a family, they have spent a lot of time waterskiing on weekends and vacation. They have skied on the majority of large lakes and rivers in Citrus and Hernando counties, as well as the Suwannee River, Lake Ivanhoe in Orlando, the Harris Chain near Apopka, Crooked Lake in Polk County, Glenville Lake in North Carolina, Lake Lanier and Hartwell Lake in Georgia, and many others.
Nowadays, Downing still enjoys running, working out and even slalom waterskiing.
“At my age, people are surprised that I still enjoy waterskiing, or even can for that matter,” Downing laughs. “My wife, on the other hand, has retired her skis and drives the boat for me.”
Downing’s first job out of college was with an engineering firm doing site development. After three years at the firm and a desire to work in support of the environment, he accepted a position in the District’s agricultural permitting section.
When Downing began working at the District over 26 years ago, there were less than 300 employees, compared to the 800 people that are currently employed by the District.
“The District hasn’t changed a lot since I began working here,” he says. “There may have been a little more interaction between staff and Board members, and the computers were a little slower; but, prudent use and protection of the water resources was still in the forefront.”
A few years later, Downing moved from the permitting section to the engineering section of resource projects where he managed investigative studies for “Save Our Rivers” projects and floodplain analyses.
Currently, he works in the Resource Management Department as a senior professional engineer. In this position, Downing works on SWUCA recovery projects, floodplain studies and flood insurance rate map projects.
Downing says the best part of his job is the people he works with.
“I feel like the District and its staff really set the standard for the industry and it feels good to be part of it,” he says. “It is the place where natural resources, scientists, mathematicians, researchers and politicians come together to help protect the environment and to gain a better understanding of the water resource challenges we must face.”
When Downing isn’t spending time outdoors, he stays very active at his church, which is also located in Hernando County. He and his wife lead small group studies and participate in many activities within the church community.
“We all need to belong, and a church organization is a way for that to happen,” Downing says. “It helps us get through the storms of life.”