Sunday Profile: New Castle man rings in the reason for the season
Growing up, Herb Gardner knew his mother Florence Gardner could not afford to buy Christmas gifts for all her kids.
The mother of nine children barely scraped by working at a Laundromat in upstate New York where she wrung out laundry using a hand-operated mangle.
“It’s a very, very hot job,” Gardner said. “Horrible job.”
But each year when Gardner and his siblings awoke Christmas morning, presents were always waiting for them underneath the tree.
One Christmas Eve, Gardner discovered where the gifts came from.
“We were in bed and I looked out the window and there was this old station wagon out in the driveway,” Gardner said.
Gardner and his brothers and sisters watched as a group of men quietly carried an assortment of holiday food and Christmas gifts into their small home.
Although not pulled by eight tiny reindeer, the vehicle had a bell on it, the memory of which Gardner has carried for over 60 years.
Gardner later discovered that the bell on the station wagon belonged to the Salvation Army.
“I said, ‘Someday, I want to do that,’” Gardner recalled.
LOVE, ‘WAY OUT IN THE BOONDOCKS’
Herb Gardner was raised in Dresserville, New York but usually just tells people he grew up in the nearby city of Cortland.
“Dresserville is so small that nobody knew where it was,” Gardner said. “It’s a little old country town way out in the boondocks.”
At the time, Dresserville had a population of just 30 people.
It was in that little town, though, that Gardner met his wife of the last 52 years, Debbie Gardner.
The two became friends in third grade and remained in each other’s lives even after Herb Gardner moved to San Marcos, Texas, for Job Corps.
Well over a thousand miles apart, the two stayed in touch the old fashioned way – by writing letters.
Living in a lonely dormitory in the Lone Star State, Gardner cherished the postcards addressed to him from Dresserville.
Especially when they were from Debbie.
“You looked forward to a mail call,” Gardner said. “It was nice to listen to somebody other than a bunch of young men talking and carrying on.”
After earning his high school diploma and vocational training in machine work through Job Corps, Gardner returned to Dresserville as quick as he could.
And, after a year and a half of dating, tied the knot with Debbie Gardner.
“We had little to nothing,” Gardner said. “But, together we had so much happiness.”
RINGING IN THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT
Following a lengthy career with Dr. Pepper, Herb and Debbie Gardner in 1986 moved to their dream state – Colorado.
“We’ve been here ever since,” Gardner said of their New Castle residence.
Although a long way from Dresserville, the memory of those Salvation Army volunteers delivering food and presents to his family has stuck with Gardner for over half a century.
“He understands,” Karen Lee, Glenwood Springs Salvation Army coordinator, said. “He’s been there and he’s seen it.”
When the opportunity arose for Gardner to ring the Salvation Army bell for the local Lions Club, he pounced.
“Herb has gotten a callus on his hand from ringing the bell so much,” Lee said.
For the better part of eight years, Gardner has rung the bell and collected money for the Salvation Army’s red kettle, knowing that it would go toward families in need.
On several occasions, Gardner’s daughter April has stood beside her dad to help raise money for the Salvation Army’s red Christmas kettle.
Two years ago, while on their way to ring the bell in front of the Rifle Walmart, April Gardner noticed a man that appeared down on his luck.
“She looked at me and said, ‘Daddy, that man out there, do you think he really needs help,’” April Gardner asked.
Taken aback, Gardner told his daughter that it was hard to tell.
“If you feel like they need help, then they do,” Gardner replied.
The response inspired the 11-year-old to bring her dinner – a McDonald’s cheeseburger – to the man in need.
Shocked and grateful, the man gave April Gardner a hug before she returned to help her father continue collecting donations.
“We started ringing the bell again and she looked at me and said, ‘Dad, a hamburger is not good unless you have French fries,’” Gardner said. “So, she took her French fries and gave it to him, too.”
PAYING IT FORWARD
Watching April unwrap her presents on Christmas morning has certainly brought Herb and Debbie Gardner great joy over the years.
“You want your children to have it better than you had when you were a kid,” Gardner said.
However, seeing their daughter volunteer to ensure that other, less-fortunate children also have presents to open on Christmas morning, has perhaps brought the proud parents even greater joy.
After all, Herb Gardner was one of those children.
“We’ve been through so much in our life,” Gardner said. “But, so many people have showed us kindness.”
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