John W. Gardner Spotlight Exhibit

John Gardner and Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office


The Spotlight exhibit on John W. Gardner provides a glimpse at his life and distinguished career in public service, as well as his time at Stanford as a student, trustee, professor, and mentor.

Stanford Libraries is home to many of Gardner’s personal and professional papers and correspondence. There are also numerous recordings of him speaking and photographs from throughout his life, as well as a collection of oral histories with Gardner’s friends, family, and colleagues. Serving as an introduction to the papers and oral histories, this new Spotlight exhibit makes available the material in the collection that has been digitized to date to highlight Gardner’s life and his lasting impact on higher education, public service, and Stanford University. 

John W. Gardner (1912-2002) earned BA and MA degrees from Stanford and a PhD from UC Berkeley. He taught psychology at Connecticut College for Women and Mount Holyoke College prior to his military service in World War II. In 1955 Gardner became the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and from 1965 to 1968 served as Lyndon B. Johnson’s Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. 

As secretary, Gardner was critical to enforcing the 1964 Civil Rights Act; launching Medicare and Medicaid; implementing the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act; and launching the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

When he resigned his cabinet post, New York Times columnist James Reston said, “The calmest voice and the coolest mind in American public life today belongs to John W. Gardner, the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. Here is one man who has come through the tumult of Washington with his philosophy intact, his sense of priorities clear, and his concept of leadership practical and wise, and the sad thing about it is that he is now going away.”

John Gardner did not go away, and never shied away from duty. Following his time as secretary, he continued in public service, leading the National Urban Coalition and founding the advocacy organizations Common Cause and Independent Sector. Gardner remained connected to Stanford throughout his influential career, serving on the Board of Trustees from 1968 to 1982, and spending the last thirteen years of his life on campus, holding the Miriam and Peter Haas Centennial Professorship in Public Service until his retirement in 1996. The John Gardner Public Service Fellowship and the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities are just two examples of Gardner’s lasting legacy at Stanford.

 As his return to California coincided with the early years of the tech boom, Gardner was a valued advisor to Silicon Valley’s philanthropists. His encouragement to focus on being “interested rather than interesting” and commit to something larger than themselves shaped the values of many of the Valley’s emerging leaders. 

At the time of Gardner’s death in 2002, Stanford President John Hennessy said, "John Gardner stands as an exemplar of the power of one individual to have a positive impact on society. His life should remind all of us that education and public service can work together as a powerful force to improve the world in which we live."

To learn more about Gardner's life and the collections at Stanford, you can access the Spotlight exhibit here.