In a business where it’s better to keep your friendships at arm’s length, Gene Gardner was my friend.
It didn’t start out that way with me nosing around the county and ultimately coming to a dead end with Gardner, who was executive director of the Hillsborough County Civil Service Board.
He looked a little bit like Mr. Clean but had a stare that could stop anyone in his tracks.
I don’t think it was until he found out I was a veteran and that I could actually stand a few rounds of his beloved “Rocky Top” that the Tennessee grad and I began to buddy up.
Gardner was director of the Civil Service Board for 26 years during a time of tremendous change, not only with new technologies but with a continuing reorganization of the county’s departments.
More important was that, from everything I’ve ever heard, he was the complete professional and did his utmost to run a balanced and fair organization. The words I heard were pretty much “stickler for detail.” I don’t say that lightly. Civil Service was always a target, and when you are dealing with people’s lives, the ability to be consistent is never easy.
So I was gratified to discover he also loved tacos (extra crispy) at Miguel’s, where I could get the straight story on some of the county machinations while also getting a great chili relleno.
Gardner was an Air Force veteran, flying B-47s and B-52s across the globe as a navigator-bombardier. His service went from Vietnam to the Cuban Missile Crisis and continued with Cold War deployments everywhere there might be a runway.
He graduated from the Air War College in Alabama while getting his master’s degree at night from Troy University. His wife, Joan, said, “He always said that was probably the toughest thing he had ever done, spending all day at the War College and then beginning all over at night on the master’s.”
If Korea is the forgotten war, the Cold War was a time when most Americans may not have realized the terribly dangerous movements of the military going on.
Gardner was a part of that. Gardner knew what combat was all about. He earned the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star. He was on deployments that took American bombers to the brink and long, tough trips on nuclear-loaded bombers that also stretched the endurance of the bomber crews.
Closer to home, then-Col. Gardner was one of the architects of something called the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force at MacDill Air Force Base. The command would eventually evolve into today’s United States Central Command, where he served as director of personnel.
There’s a memorial service for Gene at 10 this morning at Stowers in Brandon, and he will be buried at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.