"John Gardner stands as an exemplar of the power of one individual to have a positive impact on society," said Stanford President John Hennessy at the time of Gardner’s death in 2002. "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."
John W. Gardner was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 8, 1912. He earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in psychology from Stanford in 1935 and 1936, respectively. In 1938, he received a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley.
Gardner began his working life teaching psychology at Connecticut College for Women. As the United States entered World War II, he headed the Latin American section of the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service. In 1943, he joined the Marine Corps. After the war ended, he joined the Carnegie Corporation, becoming its president in 1955. Gardner also led the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In that capacity, he helped establish the White House Fellows program in 1964.
From the 1960s onward, John W. Gardner played a major role in civil rights enforcement, education reform, and campaign finance reform. 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 several presidential task forces and commissions, and mentored many public service organizations.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Gardner as secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. As the engineer of Johnson's "Great Society" program, he helped to enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act, launch Medicare, pass the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and create the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 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 that year.
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's name appeared on Nixon's infamous "enemies list." In 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Common Cause helped gain the 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.
Stanford President Don Kennedy recruited Gardner back to the Farm in 1989. He became the first Miriam and Peter Haas Centennial Professor in Public Service, a chair awarded to an inspired and inspiring public scholar and teacher who exemplifies integration of research and teaching with engagement in social issues and public service. He retained the chair until his retirement in 1996. As co-founder and member of its National Advisory Board, he helped steer the Haas Center's development until his death in 2002.
In the fall of 2000, we established the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford. Speaking at the Center’s opening, 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 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.'" The documentary aired on the Public Broadcasting Service in the fall of 2001.
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."
In 1965, the Stanford Alumni Association honored Gardner with the Herbert Hoover Medal for Distinguished Service. He served on the Stanford Board of Trustees from 1968 to 1982. As an undergraduate, Gardner set many Pacific Coast intercollegiate records in swimming. In 1976, the Stanford Athletic Board awarded him with a Distinguished Achievement Medal. In 1984, Stanford Associates awarded him the Degree of Uncommon Man, the university's highest honor. In 1991, he delivered the keynote address at Stanford’s centennial commencement ceremonies and, in October 2012, Stanford celebrated the centennial of his birth with an event hosted by the Gardner Center. He was a consulting professor in the School of Education at the time of his death.