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Dare to Be 100: John Gardner, Uncommon American

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By Walter M. Bortz II, M.D., Clinical Professor of Medicine at Stanford University

Every life can be measured by the friends that one makes along the way. My life is incredibly richer because of the friendship of one man, John Gardner.

A PBS special on his life work described him as “the quintessential American hero, a man who transformed this nation through ideas and actions that improved the lives of millions of Americans and shook up American politics. He was a leader, activist, author and reformer.” Wally Stegner, the American author, wrote: “His clock was set on pioneer time. He met trains that hadn’t been built, beside tracks that might never be laid.”

He was awarded our nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1964. He served as Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of health, education, and welfare, and as such he helped introduce Medicare and other programs of the Great Society. His influence on Johnson helped extricate us from Vietnam.

His career started with an undergraduate degree from Stanford, and a Ph.D. from Berkeley in sociology. Early on he taught at Mount Holyoke College, followed shortly by becoming the president of the Carnegie foundation. This jumpstarted his devotion to the improvement of the American educational system.

I first met John when he returned to Stanford from his duties in Washington in the early 1990s. I sought his counsel in my capacity as chairman of a group of citizens concerned with Stanford’s anticipated building of a senior citizen’s retirement facility. I asked him to advise as to the best course. He answered powerfully, “I’m not interested in age sequestration.” He abhorred the idea of “old age ghettoes,” in his words. I quickly backed off.

This first encounter initiated a deep friendship that was sustained by nearly weekly lunches at the Stanford Faculty Club. I realized that I was in the presence of a great man. I immediately picked up on a suggestion brought upon by his producing a white paper entitled “Experience Corps” that expressed his insistence that Americans cannot sit idly by in the rest of their post-work careers. They should be organized to form a national organization to continue participating in community affairs. This then became the Experience Corps with excellent community participation. The Experience Corps continues on in a reconfigured format as Encore Inc. headed by another John Gardner acolyte Marc Freedman, who shares an intense devotion to John’s inspirational life message.

John’s central focus was always on community, recognizing that together we’re much stronger than we are individually. His products included creating Common Cause, the Independent Sector, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the White House Interns. His books on Excellence, Leadership, and Self-Renewal are classics. My favorite John Gardner aphorism was, “We are faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”

During his final days as he was dying from prostate cancer at home, I had the opportunity to introduce Chuck Feeney, another uncommon American, to John. Their philanthropies intersected and generated wonderful interchange. I was a careful listener to their comments. Chuck was particularly fascinated by John’s tales of Johnson’s cabinet meetings. John courageously encouraged Johnson not to seek another term, displaying an incredible armory of guts.

I had the opportunity to introduce John in his last Stanford lecture on Self Renewal that were his favorite bywords:

“If we could only wind back the tape of history say to the Golden age of Greece or to the Enlightenment or to the founding days of America and insert John into that moment, he would have been then what he is for us today, OUR NOBLEST CITIZEN.”

Well said, Dr. Bortz.

Experience Corps and are grantees (via Civic Ventures) of Atlantic’s Ageing programme in the United States.

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Chuck Feeney, Civic Ventures, Encore, Experience Corps