Former Elizabeth City Mayor Rick Gardner is being remembered as a builder, community leader, sailor and beloved friend.
Gardner, the city’s three-term mayor from 1993 to 1999, died at home Sunday surrounded by family members. He was 93.
“It’s been a hard couple of days,” said Pauline Berard, who along with her husband were longtime friends of Gardner and his wife, Lydia. “He was a great man who did so much in this area.”
The Berards live in the Machelhe Cove condominiums off the Camden Causeway, just one of the many projects Gardner’s construction company, Rick Gardner Co. Inc., built in Elizabeth City following his founding of the firm in 1983.
Gardner’s firm, which specialized in commercial and industrial construction, also was responsible for numerous building projects on the Elizabeth City State University campus. Because of his work and philanthropic support of ECSU, the university presented him an honorary degree in 1994.
Before winning election as mayor in 1993, Gardner served as a city councilor from the city’s 1st Ward from 1989 to 1991. After running unsuccessfully for mayor in 1991, Gardner was successful in his second mayoral bid. He would go on to win re-election in 1995 and again in 1997 before losing his bid for a fourth term in 1999.
Because of his long service to the city, City Council voted to honor Gardner just before he left office by naming the newly renovated City Hall building at Colonial Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive the H. Rick Gardner Municipal Building.
Councilwoman Jeannie Young, who served with Gardner during her first stint on City Council in the late 1990s, recalled him as a “really strong mayor.”
“Rick had a way of inspiring council to work together for the betterment of the community. He also had good relationships with the council members he served with,” she said.
Gardner also never lost the personal touch. She said she recently saw him out for dinner and Gardner took the time to come over and give her a hug.
“He was just a really great guy,” Young said.
A.C Robinson Jr., who served on City Council from 1987 to 2003, called Gardner “a great leader.”
“He provided the kind of leadership that was needed in order for the city to move forward,” Robinson said.
“He loved everybody,” he added. “He was a great friend of mine even before he became mayor. He loved people. He didn’t mind reaching out to people regardless of race, creed or color.”
Gardner was interested in all aspects of city government, including infrastructure and the full range of city services, Robinson said.
“He always made sure that the council was working together on issues,” Robinson said, adding he didn’t try to twist anyone’s arm to vote a certain way but took time to listen to all members of the council and try to understand their viewpoints.”
Lloyd Griffin III, chairman of the Pasquotank Board of Commissioners, also served as a member of City Council while Gardner was mayor.
“He was a businessman in the community, a leader in the community and a family man,” Griffin said. “I got to see him in all those relationships through the years.”
He recalled Gardner as a leader “who was always there.”
“He always showed up at grand openings, local community events — whatever he felt he needed to be at to move Elizabeth City forward,” Griffin said.
As mayor, Gardner also “never showed any bias” toward or against one group of councilors or faction of council, Griffin said.
“He just wanted what was best for the community,” he said.
Griffin recalled how even when Gardner mounted an unsuccessful bid to return to local politics in 2009 — losing the mayor’s race to Roger McLean —the former mayor didn’t hold “any animosity” toward the new mayor following his defeat.
Berard said Gardner also was an accomplished sailor, spending nearly six decades on the water as captain of his own pleasure craft. She noted that he didn’t stop sailing until he was 85.
Besides his service with the city, Gardner also served stints as chairman of the Coastal Resources Advisory Council, the N.C. Seafood Industrial Park Authority and the Pasquotank Board of Elections. He also served as director on the ECSU Foundation, the Friends of ECSU and the Elizabeth City Area Chamber of Commerce.
Gardner’s survivors include his wife Lydia; his three children, Cathy Arnold, Andrea Gardner Miller and Wayne Gardner; his stepchildren, Kelly Clark, Claudia Boyd and Troy Boyd Jr.; a brother; 16 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.
A memorial service for Gardner will be held at Twiford Memorial Chapel Saturday at 11 a.m. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to Albemarle Hopeline, P.O. Box 2064, Elizabeth City, NC 27906. Twiford Funeral Home, Elizabeth City, is in charge of arrangements.