Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, February 20, 2002

Renowned social reformer John Gardner dies at 89

John W. Gardner, a longtime activist who improved the lives of millions of Americans by helping to implement the sweeping social reforms of the 1960s, died Saturday at his home on the Stanford campus from complications related to cancer. He was 89.

"John Gardner stands as an exemplar of the power of one individual to have a positive impact on society," said President John Hennessy. "His life should remind all of us that education and public service can work together as a powerful force to improve the world in which we live. At Stanford, we are exceedingly fortunate and proud to have called him our colleague -- his name and good works will continue to inspire students, staff and faculty for years to come."

From the 1960s onward, Gardner played a major role in civil rights enforcement, education reform and campaign finance reform. He was instrumental in creating Medicare, establishing the public television network and supporting community volunteer service. In 1964, Gardner received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civil honor. He founded Common Cause and headed the Urban Coalition, chaired numerous presidential task forces and commissions, and mentored many public service organizations.

At Stanford, Gardner served on the Board of Trustees from 1968 to 1982. In 1965, the Alumni Association honored him with the Herbert Hoover Medal for Distinguished Service. In 1984, Stanford Associates awarded him with the Degree of Uncommon Man, the university's highest honor. He was a founding member of the national advisory board of the Haas Center for Public Service and remained active with the center. In 1989, Gardner was named the first Miriam and Peter Haas Centennial Professor in Public Service. He was a consulting professor in the School of Education at the time of his death.

In the fall of 2000, the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities was established at Stanford, in honor of Gardner's lifetime of public service. Its goal is to bring diverse parts of society together to address problems facing the nation's youth.

Former President Donald Kennedy described Gardner as "the most important and most influential national promoter of civic duty." At Stanford, he said, Gardner was "the inspiration for one of the strongest public service movements on any college campus. His influence will last for a long, long time."

Inspiring others

Gardner's focus on civic duty is embodied in the popular John Gardner Public Service Fellowships, which are awarded annually to seniors at Stanford and the University of California-Berkeley. Haas Center Director Nadinne Cruz said Gardner knew how to communicate with his students. "With his inimitable dry humor and quick wit, John would challenge and push," she said. "Within a few minutes, John would draw out the dreams and hopes of the young, then would deftly affirm their significance and potential to make a mark in shaping America's future. He lived the values he espoused, listened to those he wanted to reach and affirmed their possibilities."

Robert Joss, dean of the Graduate School of Business, met Gardner in the late 1960s when Joss was a White House Fellow, a program that Gardner helped establish. More than three decades later, he said, Gardner inspired him to head the Business School. "He had such a tremendous concept of leadership and what it meant to be a citizen," Joss said. "He inspired so many people through his writing and through his personal relationships. He had a warm touch. He cared about you. He gave such wise counsel. We can just try to emulate him."

Jim Thompson, director of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit organization based at Stanford, summed up Gardner's contributions: "His legacy is powerful ideas and empowered individuals," he said. "As a mentor, he was extraordinary. For people trying to deal with some difficult social problem, John would provide support and great insight. Like a lot of people, I've tried to model my life after him." Thompson recalled that he once asked Gardner if he ever got depressed or scared. "John answered, 'No. I don't seem to have that gene,'" Thompson said.

Gardner was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 8, 1912. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology from Stanford in 1935 and 1936, respectively. In 1938, he received a doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley. As an undergraduate, Gardner set a number of Pacific Coast intercollegiate records in swimming. In 1976, he was awarded the Distinguished Achievement Medal of the Stanford Athletic Board.

Gardner began his working life teaching psychology at Connecticut College for Women. After the United States entered World War II, he was asked to head the Latin American section of the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service. He was responsible for analyzing enemy propaganda broadcast to Latin America and became an expert on politics in the region.

Gardner later wrote that he was surprised when he began receiving praise for his management skills. Until that point, he had planned to spend his life in academia. Instead, he seesawed between a life of reflection and a life of action. "It was a fruitful conflict: Action and reflection fed one another," Gardner acknowledged.

Thompson of the Positive Coaching Alliance said that academia is replete with people full of ideas and that Gardner was a match for the best of them. "But he focused on translating ideas into action -- into how they can change the way people learn," he said.

In 1943, Gardner joined the Marine Corps and the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency. After the war ended, he joined the Carnegie Corporation, becoming its president in 1955. Gardner also was named head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and, in that capacity, laid the groundwork for establishing the White House Fellows program in 1964.

Secretary of HEW

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Gardner secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. As the engineer of Johnson's "Great Society" program, Gardner played an important role in enforcing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, launching Medicare, passing the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act and creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. At one point, Fortune magazine estimated that Gardner supervised programs that affected 195 million Americans.

In 1968, as opposition to the war in Vietnam increased and urban violence erupted at home, Gardner resigned from the Johnson administration. A few weeks later, he became chairman of the Urban Coalition, an organization that brought together leaders from labor, industry and government to tackle the underlying problems that fueled riots in cities nationwide in 1967.

Following the 1968 assassination of New York Sen. Robert Kennedy, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller asked Gardner to serve out the remainder of Kennedy's Senate term. He turned down the request and led the Urban Coalition for two years.

Founder of Common Cause

In 1970, Gardner founded Common Cause, a citizen's advocacy group that aimed to make political institutions more open and accountable. When the group sued President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign in 1972, Gardner was placed on Nixon's infamous "enemies list." In 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Common Cause was instrumental in gaining adoption of landmark legislation that placed limits on political contributions and instituted disclosure requirements for electoral campaigns.

In 1977, Gardner retired from Common Cause to become chairman of the Commission on White House Fellowships. Two years later, he co-founded Independent Sector, an organization that supported hundreds of nonprofit groups nationwide.

When the Gardner Center was established in September 2000, Gardner said the public had finally understood the importance of youth development. "If you want to train leaders, you have to start early," he said. "If you want to keep kids out of prison, you have to start early. But it isn't easily done." The center's mission is to conduct research, educate the public and persuade diverse groups such as schools, law enforcement and government to work together to seek more effective solutions to the problems facing youth.

"It's a simple, easily forgotten truth that we need one another," Gardner said in the PBS documentary John Gardner: Uncommon American. "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.'" That documentary aired on the Public Broadcasting Service in the fall of 2001. (For more information, visit

A dedicated father

Gardner's daughters, Francesca Gardner and Stephanie Gardner Trimble, remember their father as a sensitive, intelligent man who played an active role in their childhood.

"Stephanie and I feel we were the luckiest people alive to have had a father like him," Francesca said. "He was always there for us; always paying attention." Even as a college student, Stephanie often turned to her father for advice. "He was so wise," she said. "I would talk to him about anything. He just was that kind of person."

Gardner wrote several books, including Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? The 1961 book argued that the United States must strive for excellence and equality at every level of society. It caught the attention of President John F. Kennedy, who asked Gardner to edit his 1962 book, To Turn the Tide.

In 1964, Gardner wrote Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society. In this book, his most popular, Gardner reflected on individual renewal and the renewal of society. "Failure to face the realities of change brings heavy penalties," he said. "Individuals become imprisoned in their own rigidities. Great institutions deteriorate. Civilizations fall. Yet decay is not inevitable. There is also renewal."

Although all of his goals for creating a better society were not realized in his lifetime, Francesca Gardner said her father remained an optimist to the end. Following the terrorist attacks last September, "he said, 'There is hope. We'll manage -- the spirit of America will survive,'" she recalled.

In addition to Francesca and Stephanie of San Francisco, Gardner is survived by his wife of 67 years, Aida, of Stanford; his brother, Louis, of Carmel Valley; his four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that those wishing to make a gift to honor Gardner's memory contribute "in the spirit of giving that he so believed in" to a cause of their choice; to the John Gardner Public Service Fellowships at Stanford and UC-Berkeley; or to the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and their Communities at Stanford.

A service commemorating Gardner's life will be held at 3 p.m. March 5 in Memorial Church on campus. A reception will follow at the Faculty Club.

John W. Gardner