There was the recitation of a very impressive résumé, of course. And, yes, there were some tears.
But most of all, there was laughter at Booth Gardner’s public memorial service, as one speaker after another shared stories of the former governor’s warmth, his humility and his mischievous sense of humor.
The event drew about 700 people Saturday to the University of Puget Sound, in Gov. Gardner’s hometown, Tacoma. The two-term governor, who served from 1985 to 1993, was remembered as a champion of education overhaul and social services, a sort of anti-politician whose charm and charisma overcame his well-known aversion to fundraising and to digging in and playing political hardball.
Among the speakers was former Gov. Chris Gregoire, who recalled an incident two decades ago, when she was the state’s lead attorney on a major lawsuit. Gov. Gardner called her aside as she and others worked late into the night, saying he needed her for something very important. “No one else can know about it,” he told her.
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When they hopped in the car, she learned he wanted to sneak out for burgers — something she knew doctors didn’t think was healthy for him.
“That’s why it’s a secret mission,” he told Gregoire. (When they returned, she noted, it was she who was scolded by the state troopers assigned to protect him, a situation that appeared to give her boss a certain glee.)
The former governor’s appetite for burgers was so legendary, several speakers mentioned it.
One of Gov. Gardner’s eight grandchildren recalled how Grandpa had memorized the phone number for Frisko Freeze, a Tacoma burger joint, but couldn’t for the life of him recall his grandson’s home number.
“I never let him live that one down,” laughed Jack Nettleton, 22, who spoke at the event, along with two younger grandchildren who read a Bible passage together. A fourth grandchild, who is studying musical theater at the University of Michigan, sang two of his grandfather’s favorite songs: “Edelweiss” and “Beautiful City” from Godspell.
Nettleton, an athlete just like his Grandpa, said the two became very close over endless hours in the car, driving to sports practices and games in his black Chrysler sedan, “littered with Coke cans and Beach Boys CDs.”
He remembers one formative moment, when Grandpa stopped to talk to a gas-station clerk who was distraught about her boss’s treatment of her.
“You deserve better,” Nettleton recalls his Grandpa telling the woman. Nettleton could see that it made the clerk’s day.
“Jack,” he recalls Grandpa telling him later, “everyone is happier when they know they’re valued.
“That’s what Grandpa did; he made everyone feel valued.”
U.S. Rep Denny Heck, who served as Gov. Gardner’s chief of staff during his second term, echoed the sentiment, recalling that when they first met decades ago, Heck was a very nervous, and very lowly, committee clerk. Yet Booth Gardner, then a state senator, invited him to sit down and talk.
“He was very kind,” Heck said.
Though Gov. Gardner was well-to-do, thanks, in part, to inherited wealth, he was known for his simple tastes, and for his humility.
“He really liked people,” former Gov. Mike Lowry said in a video tribute. “He liked all people.”
Sometime ago, when asked about his legacy, Gov. Gardner put it this way:
“I’d like to be remembered as a governor that did well with all the responsibility that was given to me,” he said.
He died March 15, at age 76, of complications from Parkinson’s disease. The diagnosis, years earlier, led him to champion the successful 2008 Death with Dignity campaign, which gave certain terminally ill patients the right to obtain life-ending medications.
In recent years, Parkinson’s took away Gov. Gardner’s ability to drive, to walk and to speak.
“Grandpa loved to talk to everyone,” Nettleton said. “He can do that now. He loved to drive. He’s doing that as well. He can finally be himself again.”
Gregoire noted that her mentor is “in a far better place.”
“We all knew this day would come,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “We just didn’t know how hard it would be.”
In addition to eight grandchildren, he is survived by his daughter, Gail Gant, of Tacoma; and his son, Douglas Gardner, of University Place.
Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562