“I tell people that I’m less than seven years from 100,” she said. “It sounds more impressive that way.”
Gardner was born in Kentucky. Her father was an educator and her mother came from a well-to-do family and was used to the finer things in life such as having servants to help with the cooking and cleaning.
“My mother knew that my father insisted on being a school master... and that she would never have a cook and a housekeeper,” Gardner said. “When they got engaged, she went into the kitchen to learn how to cook.”
When she was 3, Gardner and her family moved to Illinois where her father had been offered a position as a principal. Gardner spent most of her childhood there, along with her four siblings. As Gardner grew older, she spent a lot of time camping with the Boy Scout troop that her father oversaw. He was one of the early scoutmasters, she said.
“When I was a child, I was a Boy Scout,” she said. “By the time I was about 13, I had camped in 46 of the 48 states, and all across Canada.”
Gardner graduated from high school when she was only 16, then started college at Southern Illinois Normal University, where she planned to major in art. But toward the end of her freshman year, she was sidelined by an unfortunate accident.
“I weighed all of 98 pounds,” she said. “I was at a church party... a football player tripped... and he fell across my shoulder.”
The fall broke Gardner’s collarbone and shoulder, and ended up keeping her out of school for the following two years while she healed.
She returned to college in the fall of 1939, but in February of 1940 she was offered a job with the U.S. Navy Department in Washington D.C.
“I think I was the first young thing to work there since World War I,” she said. Gardner worked during the day, and attended classes at a local art institute at night.
After the move, Gardner temporarily lived in an international boarding house where she made friends with several other young people from across the world. It was during this time that Gardner met her husband, Ken Gardner.
“He was always the gentleman,” Gardner said.
She said she is still not entirely sure how she caught Ken’s eye, because she didn’t know who he was, but a mutual acquaintance called one day to see if she would meet him for lunch. Despite the fact that she was dating a Navy Midshipman, she agreed to meet Ken.
“The only place you could go was the Navy Department cafeteria,” she said. “And I went there with a lot of people.”
Ken soon began to show up to escort Gladys home after her classes at the art institute, or from the Library of Congress, where she had been doing genealogical research all night.
“They weren’t dates,” she said. “He just showed up to see that I got home all right. He sort of grew on me.”
That was in September 1941. They were engaged by Christmas and married the following April.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t marry Ken Gardner the day I met him,” Gladys Gardner said. They were married for 64 years before Ken passed away. “Those were wonderful years. I still miss him.”
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Ken became active duty in the U.S. Army. He spent much of his time working on the newly developed RADAR program. Because of the top-secret nature of those projects, Gladys Gardner didn’t learn much about what her husband did all those years. In fact, Gardner said that she’s learned more about his work from PBS documentaries than she ever found out from him.
Ken and Gladys had three children, Suzanne, KennCorwinn, and Barbara. When Suzanne was born, Gardner left her job at the Navy Department to stay at home. Ken remained active in the military, and the family moved around quite frequently until moving to Colorado Springs, Colo., in the summer of 1958. Ken was stationed there during the foundation of NORAD and they lived in Colorado for 40 years. When their daughter Suzie and her husband Tom Stengel came to Moab, they liked it so much they bought a piece of property and built a house with a small apartment in the back. They invited Ken and Gladys to move in, so in 1998, Gardner found herself in Moab.
“Utah was one place we had not lived,” she said.
Gardner still keeps busy researching her family’s genealogy, a pastime she inherited from her father. In fact, Gardner refers to herself as a fifth-generation genealogist.
Though she has slowed a bit physically as she’s gotten older, Gardner says that she can still play a “mean” game of Scrabble.
“They tell me I still have all my marbles,” she joked. “Though I wouldn’t know, because the person who loses their marbles is usually the last one to know.”