O. Max Gardner Foundation, Inc.The Foundation was formed on August 8, 1942 as the Cleveland Foundation, Inc, a fully non-profit and tax-exempt entity. The objectives of the Foundation were to provide financial support to any institution devoted to charitable, scientific, literary or educational purposes. The two primary institutions that have benefited from the financial support of the Foundation are Gardner-Webb University and the Consolidated University of North Carolina System. Governor Gardner had pushed through the legislation during the Great Depression that created the Consolidated University System and due to the personal financial efforts of the Governor and his wife Boiling Springs Junior College was saved from a financial death and later renamed to honor the Gardner and the Webb families for such efforts.
The original incorporators of the Foundation were Fay Lamar Webb Gardner, Governor Gardner’s wife, and James Webb Gardner, the Governor’s oldest son. The Foundation was funded by large financial donations from Max and Fay Webb Gardner and later from a special bequest upon the death of O. Max Gardner in 1947. Later, in January of 1955, the name was changed to the O. Max Gardner Foundation, Inc.
Following the deaths of Governor Gardner and his oldest son, James, the Foundation was led by his wife, Miss Fay, and his remaining two sons, Ralph Webb Gardner and O. Max Gardner, Jr. Max Junior, as he was known to the home folks in Shelby and to thousands of friends over North Carolina, was struck suddenly and without warning with Multiple Sclerosis in the late spring of 1950. At that time, he was running without any opposition for the State Senate seat which had been occupied at one time by his illustrious Uncle, North Carolina Governor and United States Senator Clyde R. Hoey. A brilliant young man of high character and high ideals, Max Junior possessed the public spirit and obligation to serve of his distinguished father and his life represented the goals and objectives of the O. Max Gardner Foundation. Great expectations surrounded him but fate had an 11 year battle with Multiple Sclerosis in his future. The disease struck so suddenly in the spring of 1950 that he had to withdraw from the Senate race and was not even able to take the State Bar Examination that summer in Raleigh.
Many commentators have noted that Max Junior’s 11 year battle with MS exemplified the spirit and mission of the O. Max Gardner Foundation—a spirit that refused to let human suffering and illness conquer the spirit of man and to otherwise achieve the impossible and to pursue the fight for justice and educational and racial equality and excellence against all odds. Upon Max Junior’s death in 1961, President John F. Kennedy, whose father had been a close friend of the family, and for whom Ralph Gardner had chaired his first post-inaugural birthday celebration, made the following public statement*:
“Usually we look for heroism in places more colorful and exciting than home or hospital sick rooms, but the life of O. Max Gardner, Jr., re-emphasized again and again the truth that beds of pain often are the great battlegrounds of the human spirit. Max Junior, through his long and cheerful endurance of pain, his efforts to serve other sufferers as a guinea pig in medical experiments, his painful efforts to communicate with others and leave a message to humanity by the slow manipulation of the fingers on his left hand over children’s alphabet blocks after he lost his power of speech, his efforts to make public buildings more accessible to handicapped Americans through his formation of the Open-Out Clubs, and his refusal to give-in to his dreadful disease or to ever complain about his condition in life, represent and stand for the true profiles in courage for all Americans. There have been few stories more warmly human and inspiring to me than that of O. Max Gardner, Jr. Although he fell short of the great achievements promised to him by his character and heritage, he has left behind him an absolutely stunning example of gallantry and idealism that will ever thrill and motivate every American. He has left us all a beautiful gift of the power of the human spirit that is beyond fame and fortune and that we should all cherish from this day forward.”
The goals and objectives of the O. Max Gardner Foundation have been directed and molded around the words and statements of President Kennedy and by the examples of seeking human equality and dignity as demonstrated by the life of Max Junior.
Note that the Kennedy letter is in the Papers of Ralph Webb Gardner located in the Gardner Historical Collection at Gardner Webb University at 110 S. Main Street, Boiling Springs, NC 28017 (www.gardner-webb.edu)