John W. Gardner was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 8, 1912. He earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in psychology from Stanford in 1935 and 1936, respectively. In 1938, he received a doctorate from the University of California Berkeley.
Gardner began his working life teaching psychology at Connecticut College for Women. As the United States entered World War II, he was asked to head the Latin American section of the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service and, in 1943, he joined the Marine Corps. After the war ended, he joined the Carnegie Corporation, becoming its president in 1955. Gardner also was named head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and, in that capacity, laid the groundwork for establishing the White House Fellows program in 1964.
From the 1960s onward, John W. Gardner played a major role in civil rights enforcement, education reform and campaign finance reform. He was instrumental in the creation of Medicare, in establishing the public television network and supporting community volunteer service. In 1964, Gardner received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civil honor. He founded Common Cause and headed the Urban Coalition, chaired numerous presidential task forces and commissions and mentored many public service organizations.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Gardner secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. As the engineer of Johnson's "Great Society" program, he played an important role in enforcing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, launching Medicare, passing the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act and creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. At one point, Fortune magazine estimated that Gardner supervised programs that affected 195 million Americans.
In 1968, as opposition to the war in Vietnam increased and urban violence erupted at home, Gardner resigned from the Johnson Administration. A few weeks later, he became chairman of the Urban Coalition, an organization that brought together leaders from labor, industry and government to tackle the underlying problems that fueled riots in cities nationwide that year.
In 1970, Gardner founded Common Cause, a citizen's advocacy group that aimed to make political institutions more open and accountable. When the group sued President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign in 1972, Gardner was placed on Nixon's infamous "enemies list." In 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Common Cause was instrumental in gaining adoption of landmark legislation that placed limits on political contributions and instituted disclosure requirements for electoral campaigns.
In 1977, Gardner retired from Common Cause to become chairman of the Commission on White House Fellowships. Two years later, he co-founded Independent Sector, an organization that supported hundreds of non-profit groups nationwide.
In the fall of 2000, the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities was established at Stanford, in honor of Gardner's lifetime of public service. Speaking at the Center’s opening, Gardner said the public had finally understood the importance of youth development. "If you want to train leaders you have to start early," he said. "If you want to keep kids out of prison you have to start early. But it isn't easily done." The center's mission is to conduct research, educate the public and persuade diverse groups such as schools, law enforcement and government to work together to seek more effective solutions to the problems facing youth.
"It's a simple, easily forgotten truth that we need one another," Gardner said in the PBS documentary John Gardner: Uncommon American. "I sometimes think that history might easily say about this nation: ‘It was a great nation full of talented people with enormous energy who forgot that they needed one another.'" The documentary aired on the Public Broadcasting Service in the fall of 2001.
Gardner wrote several books, including, Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? The 1961 book argued that the United States must strive for excellence and equality at every level of society. It caught the attention of President John F. Kennedy, who asked Gardner to edit his 1962 book, To Turn the Tide.
In 1964, Gardner wrote Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society. In this book, his most popular, Gardner reflected on individual renewal and the renewal of society. "Failure to face the realities of change brings heavy penalties," he said. "Individuals become imprisoned in their own rigidities. Great institutions deteriorate. Civilizations fall. Yet decay is not inevitable. There is also renewal."
In 1965, the Stanford Alumni Association honored Gardner with the Herbert Hoover Medal for Distinguished Service. He served on the Stanford Board of Trustees from 1968 to 1982. As an undergraduate, Gardner set a number of Pacific Coast intercollegiate records in swimming and, in 1976, he was awarded the Distinguished Achievement Medal of the Stanford Athletic Board. In 1984, Stanford Associates awarded him the Degree of Uncommon Man, the university's highest honor. In 1989, Gardner was named the first Miriam and Peter Haas Centennial Professor in Public Service. In 1991, he delivered the keynote address at Stanford’s centennial commencement ceremonies and, in October 2012, Stanford celebrated the centennial of his birth with an event hosted by the Gardner Center. He was a consulting professor in the School of Education at the time of his death.