An Uncommon Man

John Gardner's bipartisan reform efforts altered America.

May/June 2002

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An Uncommon Man

AP Wide World

If you've ever enjoyed a PBS television program, thank John Gardner. If you’ve received a Medicare payment or worried about campaign finance reform, thank John Gardner. If you learned “new math” in grade school or joined Model United Nations during high school, if you’ve attended an open city-council meeting or driven a car with air-pollution controls—thank John Gardner.

Although few Americans would recognize his name, John W. Gardner, ’33, MA ’36, was one of the most important and influential public servants of the 20th century. A tireless worker with a résumé as full as it was diverse—from engineering Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” to founding Common Cause to receiving the 1964 Presidential Medal of Freedom—Gardner embodied the merits of activism and reform. He died on February 16 at his home on the Stanford campus, of complications from prostate cancer. He was 89.

A University trustee for 14 years and a 1984 recipient of the Degree of Uncommon Man, Stanford’s highest honor, Gardner was dedicated to helping people, causes and institutions reach their potential. “John Gardner was that rare leader whose ability to reach large audiences was matched by an equal capacity to serve as mentor to individuals,” former University president Richard Lyman said at Gardner’s March 5 memorial service at Stanford. “He was dedicated to bridging or demolishing the gap between common and uncommon people. We all have it in us, he was convinced, to be uncommon, exceptional, and constructively so.”

Gardner’s optimism was rooted in his early years. Born in Los Angeles, he grew up surrounded by lima bean farms in a rural village known as Beverly Hills. His father died when Gardner was only a year old, and his mother, mentor and guide, Marie, sold houses in the area. At the time, promises of gold summoned the hopeful and adventurous to California and infused Gardner’s early life with an appreciation for possibilities. It was a mindset that would define his life’s work.

Gardner entered Stanford in 1929, joined the swim team and broke several Pacific Coast Conference records. He also met Aida Marroquin—a Guatemalan woman who knew just enough English to capture his heart—and married her in 1934. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Stanford and a PhD at UC-Berkeley in 1938—all in the field of psychology. Later that year, Gardner took a job teaching psychology at Connecticut College for Women, but abandoned his self-described “life of reflection” to enter the Marine Corps in World War II and was assigned to Italy as an intelligence officer.

On his return to civilian life, Gardner joined the Carnegie Corporation in New York, where he helped start Model United Nations programs, launch the use of television in classrooms and establish the Russian Research Center at Harvard and other universities.

In 1955, Gardner became Carnegie’s president and head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He served on presidential panels on education, helped select university presidents, and proposed the White House Fellows Program, designed to identify and train future leaders in government. One former fellow, Secretary of State Colin Powell, once called his experience in the program “the turning point of my life. It was a chance to learn about myself and learn about my country, and it was John Gardner who gave me that opportunity.”

The first of Gardner’s major books, Excellence, was published in 1961 and caught the attention of John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy, impressed with Gardner’s call for excellence and equality at all levels of society, asked him to edit a volume of his speeches and position papers, To Turn the Tide. Gardner’s next book, Self-Renewal (1964), was his most popular, and throughout his life he published other books—Morale (1978), On Leadership (1990)—regarded as preachy by some and inspirational by most.

In 1965, President Johnson asked Gardner, a Republican, to serve as secretary of health, education and welfare and help implement his vision of a Great Society. Gardner called his mission a handful of “breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems,” but immediately went to work with several objectives: to alleviate poverty, promote equality, improve education, rejuvenate cities and protect the environment. He implemented stricter enforcement of the Civil Rights Act, launched Medicare and Medicaid, oversaw the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and helped create the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. At one point, Fortune estimated that some 195 million Americans were affected by programs supervised by Gardner.

Johnson and Gardner learned from one another and enjoyed many successes as a team, but by 1968, Gardner felt the president had stretched his resources too thin. The Great Society and Johnson’s “War on Poverty” were often lost in the long shadow of the Vietnam War. When Gardner realized he could not support Johnson’s reelection, he resigned as HEW secretary. After Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller offered Gardner the New York Senate seat, but citing his age, Gardner declined. Richard Nixon later approached Gardner about a possible vice presidency, but he declined that as well. Instead, Gardner took over the Urban Coalition, gathering the leaders of business, labor and government to repair the urban unrest and social inequality of the late ’60s.

Two years later, Gardner took “the biggest gamble of my career,” and founded Common Cause, the citizens’ lobby for which he is best known. “Everybody’s organized but the people,” Gardner said in a 1972 speech. “Now it’s the citizens’ turn.” On that premise, Common Cause signed up 100,000 members in 23 weeks. The organization helped affix campaign finance reform to the national agenda, lobbied for the end of the Vietnam War, fought for civil rights and higher ethical standards for officials, and stressed the need for voter participation. When Common Cause sued the Committee to Re-Elect the President to reveal its financial documents in 1971, Gardner landed on Nixon’s list of enemies and was harassed by the IRS.

In 1978, at 66, Gardner retired from Common Cause but continued to work for change. He co-founded Independent Sector, which coordinates hundreds of nonprofit groups, helped establish the Experience Corps, which enlists senior citizens to mentor students, and inspired the Positive Coaching Alliance to make sports more enriching for children (see page 41). Gardner was named Stanford’s first Miriam and Peter Haas Centennial Professor in Public Service in 1989 and was a consulting professor in the School of Education at the time of his death.

Gardner’s granddaughter Jennifer Reese remembers a lesson he once shared that epitomized the way he lived. “He told me, ‘Don’t be interesting, just be interested, especially in other people,’” says Reese. “He was always thinking about community and telling us stories about how to be better people.” Gardner is survived by his wife of 67 years, Aida; two daughters, Stephanie Trimble and Francesca, ’62, JD ’65; four grandchildren, including Jennifer, ’88, and Justine Reese, ’90; two great-grandchildren; and a brother, Louis, ’34.

Gardner’s belief in society’s potential was his guiding force, but he was wary of the dangers of complacency and inaction. In John Gardner: Uncommon American, a PBS documentary televised last year, Gardner said, “It’s a simple, easily forgotten truth that we need one another. I sometimes think that history might easily say about this nation: ‘It was a great nation full of talented people with enormous energy who forgot that they needed one another.’”

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