BRANDON — Longtime Hillsborough County Civil Service director Gene Gardner died Thursday at Brandon Health and Rehabilitation Center after fighting pancreatic cancer. He was 79. His many years of service to the county and the country were testaments to how he "embraced humanity," his wife said.
Mr. Gardner was a decorated Vietnam War veteran who served with the U.S. Air Force for 28 years. His 13 other active duty assignments included postings in the United States and Asia. He retired from his last position, at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, with the rank of colonel in 1985.
Mr. Gardner and his wife of nearly 50 years, Joan, met after her first husband died in Vietnam. The two had mutual friends, and, with her then-12-year-old son, she said, the "family just fit."
She remembered her husband as a man who loved his family and being at home, but also loved to serve.
"He was a people person, and he always wanted to serve and help in any way he could," she said.
Mr. Gardner always was willing to help critique a resume or talk frankly with young people about the ups and downs of military life.
"He was a man who told it like it was," Mrs. Gardner said.
After retirement from the military, Mr. Gardner was selected as the county's Civil Service director.
He hired Dane Petersen, the county's current Civil Service director, to help with technical test development work.
"He was a hard-headed guy, but had a really good heart and always had the best interests of Hillsborough County employees as his main objective," Petersen said.
Petersen pointed to Mr. Gardner's efforts to modernize the office by, among other measures, digitizing county personnel records.
But Gardner wasn't always focused on business. Holidays were a special favorite of his, and he made sure employees could celebrate together.
It was "good family time together," Petersen said.
Claire Wiseman can be reached at [email protected] or (727)-893-8804. Follow @clairelwiseman on Twitter.