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A Legacy Of His Own Making: A Tribute To Jack Gardner

I knew one thing about Jack Gardner before I met him. He used to own the Kiowa County Press, which meant, to me, he was a newspaper man. And that’s exactly what I saw when he walked into the office of the Kiowa County Independent that day, held out a folded up copy of the paper and said, “This is good.” His tone wasn’t frivolous or flattering. He said it flatly, bluntly, the way one newspaperman would say it to another. And then, pointing the paper at me for emphasis, went out the door as quickly as he’d come in.

I remember thinking he was like the real life version of a reporter in a black and white movie from the 1940s. With his deep and slightly gravelly voice, his quick one-liners, the way he seemed to be on the move even when he was standing still, all Jack needed was a Fedora slightly pushed back on his head, a tie pulled a little loose around the collar, a camera around his neck and a notepad in his hand to complete the picture.

It’s a good image. But to stop there would be both inaccurate and unjust, for Jack was not a man to be painted in the single pen strokes of a caricature.

I didn’t meet Jack until he was in the last years of his life. Yet, even then, it didn’t take long to sense that, beneath his almost deliberately animated surface, there were memories, convictions and feelings that ran through him with all the force and strength of deep, old rivers.

When Jack agreed to speak to me about his life, he began by speaking of his father. That’s not unusual in a county where a man’s last name is almost more important than his first. But it was different with Jack.

He simply placed a photo on the table before me. Black and white and fading, it was taken almost three quarters of a century ago.

John Gardner, Jack’s father, stands next to the carcass of a large buck he just shot and hung from a frame. Tall, strong, broad shouldered and stoic, he looks to be in his late thirties, his cowboy hat pulled low, casting his features in shadow. With his right hand, he holds up the antlers of the deer, more like he’s been asked to do so than showing off on his own. A shotgun, barrel pointed to the ground, rests loosely in the crook of his left arm, freeing up his hand to hold the hand of the tiny three year old boy whom he’s pulled to stand in front of him for the photo.

John looks off to the left, the camera catching an expression that seems a mixture of frustration and concern. At the same time, the little boy stares straight at the camera, his stocking cap slightly askew, his lip bleeding as if he’s just fallen. He doesn’t look sad or angry. He doesn’t even look hurt, despite his split lip. He looks…disturbed, an unusual look for such a little boy.

Photos taken of people no longer here to explain the circumstances are always open to interpretation, some of which may be quite wrong. And yet, with that said, the expression on the man’s face seems to mirror the expression on the boy’s.

Jack pointed to the man in the photo. “That’s my dad,” he said.

“And that’s you,” I said. He just nodded.

Such a tiny boy standing next to such a tall, solemn man. A man that tall must have cast a very long shadow.

Born on November 13, 1937, Jack grew up with his sister, Faye, who was 10 years older. He spoke of her with such loyalty and affection; he said they were close, and there’s every reason to believe they were. Yet, with their difference in age, there was only so much they could share. When Faye married and moved out to begin her life, Jack was still a young boy and became, in many ways, an only child. And his early childhood was one time in his life about which Jack, the consummate storyteller, had very few stories to tell.

He never said so, but life could not have been easy as the son of John Gardner. They were different people with different sensibilities. Jack paid a price for that, sometimes at the hand of other boys who mistook his sensitivities for weakness. Yet, Jack spoke of his father with a mixture of awe, respect and love. It just seemed to be love that was felt from a distance.

One of the few childhood stories Jack told was about a time when he’d fallen and hit his head. It was a bad cut, bleeding profusely, and, when his father couldn’t get the bleeding to stop, he brought Jack into town and to Weisbrod where they had to wait for 45 minutes while the doctor brought back the body of a patient who had died.

“He finally got there, and my dad told the doctor, ‘take care of my boy’”, Jack recalled. “The doctor saw all the blood, took me right inside the hospital and got to work on my head. Me? I was thinking, boy…I sure hope he does better with me than that guy he brought back.”

When Jack was ten years old, his father died a sudden and completely unexpected death from a heart attack. Jack described that night this way.

“I was young when my dad died. Twelve years old. He just died in his bed in the night, out there on the ranch. My mother, of course, went…well, the way she did. She called for the doctor to come to the house right away. But I had to see for myself. I had to see just what happened. I waited until she left the room, and the door was open just a little, letting in just a little light. And I went over to the bed and pulled back the sheet. And…” Jack’s eyes fill with tears. “Yup. He was dead. Dead and gone. I looked at him for a long time. A long, long time.” Jack stopped talking at that moment, as if he wanted to say something more. But he didn’t. “When the doctor came, I was hiding in my room,” he continued. “It was…Stoner? I think that’s right. That doctor came into my room and said something to me that night. He said, ‘Now, don’t you worry, Jackie. Your dad’s fine. He’s in a much better place.’ He asked me if that made me feel better. I said yes.” Again, he seemed to want to say something but something stronger inside of him kept him silent. He then pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his eyes, folded it neatly and put it away. “I miss him,” he said.

Everything changed with the death of Jack’s father. Ranch life and all that involved faded into the past as he and his mother, Juanita, moved to Hugo. The difference felt profound; where once there were four people in the family and then three, now there were only two. And the hole left by John Gardner’s death was vast.

Yet, as the saying goes, life does go on. Mary remarried to a man named Glenn who, as Jack describes it, worked day and night to give her all that she wanted. And Jack entered a period of his life that would determine the rest of his life in a myriad of ways.

He discovered photography, thanks to the son of the druggist who owned the store where Jack worked. In high school, he worked on the yearbook. He took classes in both band and dance band. He acted in plays. After he graduated, he took a job in a print shop where he learned to set type and run a printing press. Free, in a way, of both the blessings and burdens of being known first as the son of John Gardner, those aspects of Jack that had been there from birth were finally brought to life. Once there, they flourished and grew.

Even with experiencing so much somewhere else, Jack returned to Eads where he married his wife, Linda, and had a daughter. There were happy years. Jack developed a close relationship with his grandson, Nathan, and provided him with all the experiences that he himself had never known as a boy. But, as time went on, the relationship with his wife and that he had with his daughter would bring—in their own different ways—the deepest kind of pain and difficulties that would last for the rest of his life. As he said of his time with Linda, “Life just got…knocked out of her, and so it got knocked out of me, too.” Jack bore that pain, largely in private, and remained loyal up to the day he died. As he said to Megan, “Your grandmother was my one and only.”

And in this town where he lived as a boy and returned to as a young man, Jack carved out a role for himself. He owned and published the Kiowa County Press for more than 9 years. He bought the Plains Theater and ran films on the weekend and used it for the Jamboree that ran to packed houses. He was known as a businessman and became the local expert on the history of the town, never failing to share what he remembered with others.

As may be said of us all, despite his inner turmoil, Jack also found great joy in his life, especially in his 3 great-grandchildren: Sydney, Hunter and Jack. From the time they were born, Jack took delight in seeing them, talking with them or even just hearing how they were. Best evidence? Photos of them were prized above all. And Megan’s role in his life cannot be underestimated. They first connected at a time in the mid90s when she was looking for guidance and found it in the advice of her grandfather. But later, when she returned to Denver as an adult, they grew truly close. “He was my best friend,” she says, simply.

At the end, Megan took care of him better than any best friend ever could. She saw him nearly every day, made him home cooked meals, brought music back into his life, promised to take care of things after he passed. As Jack’s connection with the world grew weak, Megan was the tether that kept him grounded until that time he finally let go.

In thinking of Jack’s life, I can’t help but go back to the beginning. From the moment he started talking, Jack seemed to see himself as…less…than his father and was tortured by the disappointment others had in him and he had in himself. If there is any tragedy in this, that is where it’s to be found, for Jack “was the eye who did not see himself”.

Despite being raised in country that was sometimes harsh and unforgiving surrounded by people who, sometimes, did not understand him or his interests and passions, Jack, nonetheless, stayed true to who he was. With his appreciation for the art of conversation and intricacies of a well told story…with his love of beauty and color and the tenderness of innocence…Jack expressed himself with the same persistence present in his father who left Oklahoma as a boy and became a self-made man. Despite what he believed, Jack did, indeed, keep alive the legacy of John Gardner. And, like John Gardner, he did it in his own way.