'She's the gem of my life'
Saturday, August 31, 2013 8:00 PM
There's a reason they are called the Greatest Generation.
The American men and women who helped sustain this country during the World War II era are, indeed, a special group. And we are losing more and more of them every year. Every month. Every week.
We need to embrace them, cherish them and celebrate them while they are still here. While we still have the chance to let them know how much they mean to us.
I had no idea I would be writing my Sunday column about a member of the Greatest Generation this week, but after sitting and talking with Ninety Six's Bill Gardner for a while Wednesday morning, I couldn't resist.
As you might have read in Saturday's paper, Gardner turned 96 last week. Yes, he's 96 in Ninety Six. Photographer Matt Walsh and I visited Gardner at his charming Holloway Court home, where we sat and listened to him spin stories for more than an hour.
This job calls on me to interview and speak with people from all walks of life. Politicians, police officers, judges, business leaders, bureaucrats, everyday folks, you name it.
In most cases, I interact with these folks, write whatever story is at hand, then move on to the next story. Such is the nature of the business.
But, some people are special. Genuinely special.
That is the case with Bill Gardner.
Gardner has led an extraordinary life, filled to the brim with military service, business success, civic duty, church leadership and more. He is the Greatest Generation, personified.
Born in 1917 in Hartsville, Gardner graduated from Clemson University in 1941 with a degree in agronomy. Like many at that time, he headed into the military shortly after college and soon found himself fighting in World War II.
On July 13, 1944, Gardner was wounded in action while fighting in Normandy, France.
As we talked last week, Gardner's eyes drifted to that far away battlefield, and he clearly recalled the day he was shot.
"A machine gun opened up and one lucky bullet hit my left leg, halfway between my ankle and knee," he said. "It shattered both bones. The next three years, I spent in military hospitals."
After being discharged from the military in 1947, Gardner set off in civilian life and never looked back.
He was the president of the Supreme Propane Gas. Co. from 1947-79. He served on Ninety Six Town Council for several years in the 1950s. He was the mayor of Ninety Six in the late 1950s. He was in the Ninety Six Lions Club for 63 years and in the American Legion for 46 years. He is a member of St. Paul United Methodist Church, where he sang in the choir for 45 years, served on the administrative board, served as the treasurer and had a number of other roles.
He received the Order of the Palmetto and the Bronze Star. His next door neighbor and good friend is another World War II hero. Perhaps you've heard of him: former state Sen. John Drummond.
Gardner and Drummond live next door to each other and actually share a driveway on Holloway Court.
Gardner and his late wife, Kitty, had two daughters and two grandchildren. Family is important to this man, and it is his bond with his family that particularly touched my heart.
DESPITE HIS AGE, Gardner appears to be getting around pretty well these days. And, as he sat and talked and told stories with me last week, I found his mind to be quite sharp. He's got that fighting, can-do, matter-of-fact spirit and manner shared by so many of his generation.
While he is doing well, Gardner certainly doesn't mind having a little help from two of his favorite girls.
His daughter, Suzy Farrar, and his beloved granddaughter, Willa Kate, live with him on Holloway Court. Suzy adopted Willa Kate several years ago. The 10-year-old is a student at Ninety Six Elementary.
When you step in their home, you know one thing immediately: A special family lives here. There are family photos, books, framed awards and certificates, all the things Gardner collected through a notable, laudable life.
And then there are Willa Kate's things. Princess dolls, stuffed animals, children's books. Her playroom reminded me of my daughter's playroom, and it made me smile.
They are an interesting family. There's the 96-year-old war vet, his 64-year-old daughter and his 10-year-old granddaughter. Bill and Suzy are white, Willa Kate is black. There is a warmth in their home, surrounding this family, that is simply palpable.
When you mention Willa Kate, Bill's eyes light up like the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.
"She's the gem of my life," Gardner says, softly. He loves that girl.
We are losing the Greatest Generation, day by day. It's sad, to be certain, but it also gives us a chance to remember those who came before us and did such dynamic things. We have a chance to honor those who are still with us, to thank them for what they have done.
They changed this world. Thank God for it.
I can never be Bill Gardner. But, I can talk to him and come back here and tell you his story.
It's one of courage under fire. One of service and business and faith.
It's a story about family.
Happy birthday, Bill. And many more, my friend.
Trainor is the senior staff writer at the Index-Journal. Contact him at 943-5650; email email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter @IJCHRISTRAINOR. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper's opinion.