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Attorney, who died Sunday, called 'pillar' of area
Martinsville attorney Ben Gardner died early Sunday. He was 65.
Monday, September 10, 2007
By GINNY WRAY - Bulletin Staff Writer
Ben Gardner was remembered Sunday as a "giant" and "pillar of the community" who inspired others, provided a voice of reason and found the positives in any situation.
Gardner, 65, of Martinsville, died at 4:50 a.m. Sunday at his home after a long battle with cancer. He had practiced law in Martinsville for more than 30 years and served in numerous civic, business and economic development roles throughout that time.
George W. Lester of Martinsville went to see him a week ago to try and cheer him up.
"When I left, I was cheered up," Lester said Sunday. "He brought out the best in everybody."�
Mark Heath, president and chief executive officer of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp., agreed. Gardner was a founding member of the EDC and remained on the board despite his illness, missing only the last meeting, Heath said.
"He just had the same kind of fighting spirit and positive spirit in life that he brought to the EDC," Heath said. "We need to clone Ben Gardner. We need a thousand of them."�
Gardner was instrumental in bringing Heath to the EDC.
"I still remember the Saturday afternoon when my wife and I met with him and Butch (Hamlet, also an EDC board member) to talk about the job and the opportunities," Heath said. "I came away thinking that was the kind of guy I wanted to work with. He was sure the organization was structured right, that things were in place to give whoever was in the role a chance to be successful."�
And when Heath had a bad day, Gardner would not let him get down.
"He'd say "˜No whining allowed. We're not going to have a pity party,'" Heath said. "I like to think of a glass half full; his is running over all the time."�
In 2003, the Henry County Board of Supervisors appointed Gardner to the Coalition for Economic Progress. Gardner chaired that coalition, which led to the creation of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp.
In May 2004 he gave up the chairmanship, saying the organization needed a leader with skills, time and good health he did not have. Yet "he was there every day since" then, Hamlet said.
"That's his baby," Hamlet said of Gardner's relationship with the EDC. "His spirit will be there forever and ever."�
Gardner was the right person to lead the effort to unite the economic development efforts of Henry County and Martinsville, according to Hamlet and H.G. Vaughn, chairman of the Henry County Board of Supervisors.
"He was a good, level-headed person. He had a way about him that he did things without emotion. He was concerned about the community. He was passionate about trying to see the economy turned around. He appeared to be liked by everyone. He was someone the whole community spoke highly of," Vaughn recalled Sunday.
And when people complained that the economic turnaround was not happening fast enough, "Ben would come up to bat to explain that it took time to put it in motion. He had a way about him that calmed people when they were upset," Vaughn added.
"Everybody realized the importance of that role, and he fulfilled it like no one else could or has since," Hamlet said. "I tried, but I still had him to turn to for advice. It's never been the same since. We've got good folks on that board and we will persevere. But there's a big void."�
Heath said one of Gardner's strengths was his ability to summarize a discussion.
"He would listen during a meeting and in two minutes he would summarize what the rest of us spent 30 minutes talking about," Heath said, adding that he was left wondering ""˜Why didn't I say it that way?'
"He was a great board member and very well respected on the board. He will be greatly missed," Heath said.
The supervisors will name Gardner's successor on the EDC board, whose members serve three-year terms. Vaughn said he expects a discussion of possible appointees will begin at the next board meeting Sept. 25.
"It's going to be hard to find someone to fill Ben's shoes," he added.
Gardner's contributions were not limited to the EDC. He served on numerous other boards for businesses and civic groups in the community. One of them was the Lester Group, where he was on the board for about 20 years, Lester said, calling Gardner a "pillar of the community."�
In 2006, Lester, then chairman of the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce, presented Gardner with the chamber's highest honor, the Heck Ford Award. He also was given the chamber's Fred Herring Award in 2004 and the EDC's Ambassador of the Year Award last May.
At the Heck Ford Award presentation, Lester described Gardner as an "individual who exemplifies ... what being a statesman really means."� In addition, Lester said, Gardner was honored for his "leadership, commitment and dedication."�
Lester explained Sunday that Gardner would listen to all the facts and make a recommendation. He "was a peace maker. You could go into meetings that were tense. After Ben came, he was able to provide leadership and wisdom. He was an outstanding person, a giant of a person. He's going to be very difficult to replace" in the community.
Martinsville Commonwealth's Attorney Joan Ziglar said Gardner was a "true friend, great supporter and a Christian. ... From the moment Ben knew my name he was there for me as a defense attorney and prosecutor. He loved to help young people starting out in the world."�
Hamlet said his respect for Gardner was second only to that for his father. Gardner was smart, and his character was beyond any scale of measurement, he said.
"He touched so many people in the community. ... From business leaders down to folks who didn't have enough to make it to the next day, he would take them under his wing, guide them and give them thoughtful advice. People like that just don't come along but once in a lifetime," Hamlet said.
Henry County Commonwealth's Attorney Bob Bushnell knows that well. He had known Gardner since 1957, when Bushnell was 5 and his family moved from Richmond to Rocky Mount and across the street from the Gardner family. "Ben's dad and my dad pitched horseshoes every afternoon. Our families have been extremely close ever since," Bushnell said Sunday.
"Ben inspired me to become a lawyer, he inspired me to go to VMI, he inspired me to return home to this community. In pretty much everything I've ever done, he either inspired or encouraged me. No one outside my own family has had near the influence on me that Ben Gardner did. I will miss him terribly."�
Bushnell described Gardner as "brilliant without being showy, truly compassionate without being maudlin or soft-hearted. He could be as firm as he needed to be when the situation called for it and was never one iota too firm."�
He said Gardner was "an extremely effective attorney." When his client was acquitted, the prosecutor felt justice was done, Bushnell said. And if his client was convicted, Gardner knew how to effectively argue for as good an outcome as possible for everyone, he added.
In addition, Gardner always found positives in any situation and a compromise, if one was possible, Bushnell said.
"In a world that is too often crowded with darkness, Ben Gardner was always able to provide the light and find the light," Bushnell added. "I never met a finer man."�