ST. PETERSBURG — Those who knew Evelyn Gardner remember her as a bastion of the nursing community and a compassionate advocate of public health. More than that, she was a trailblazer and a fighter.
Mrs. Gardner died Saturday after a 10-year battle with multiple myeloma.
Mrs. Gardner was born in Albany, Georgia, in either 1937 or 1938. Records in Florida and Georgia differ. Her son encouraged her to pick the later date so she would be younger, but she was never quite sure which was right. She grew up working in the cotton fields with her five siblings and parents. Her parents died when she was young and she and her siblings moved in with their grandmother.
She moved to St. Petersburg and married Julius Gardner in 1960, bringing her younger siblings to live with them. She began working as a secretary at Bayfront Medical Center and had two kids, Julius and Daphne.
She attended Tomlinson Learning Center and obtained her licensed practical nursing certificate and then her associate degree from St. Petersburg College.
Her children remember their mother and her friends studying with books strewn across the floor, while their father, who died in 2014, watched them and her friends' kids, cooking and taking over household chores.
The kids remember her as the constantly compassionate mother, offering an uplifting saying or nugget of wisdom anytime anyone was upset.
The only time her son, Julius, remembered seeing her down was when she didn't pass the exams to become an RN.
"Sometimes failure makes you stronger," he said. "She studied so hard for the state boards to become an RN. She didn't pass it right away, but she never gave up."
Mrs. Gardner eventually did earn her RN, bachelor's degree, master's and nurse practioner's license in geriatrics at the University of South Florida.
Janie Johnson, who later co-founded the St. Pete chapter of the Black Nurses Association with Mrs. Gardner, said Mrs. Gardner quickly became a friend, mentor, sister and mother figure all at once, encouraging her to further her own education, as the two completed their bachelor's and master's degrees together.
"Her thing was to reach out and help others, to help them better themselves and help them move through," Johnson said. "It didn't matter who they were. ... She was someone who knew me, even if I tried to come in with a facade of some nature, she would say 'No, Janie, you need to rest' or 'Janie, you need to do this.' Many people don't have a friend of that nature. And if you have someone like that, that's a diamond."
In 1991, Mrs. Gardner became a faculty member at the Pinellas Technical Education Center, and in 1995 became chair of the nursing program, where she served as a mentor to many, Johnson said. Johnson later followed her to the center.
Lillian Baker, a nurse and founder of Fashion Scrubs Depot and former student at Pinellas Technical, credits her nursing career to Gardner.
Baker's mother had gone to school while pregnant with her at Tomlinson Learning Center to become licensed practitioner at the same time as Gardner.
When Baker went to nursing school at Pinellas Technical, Gardner was her nursing director.
"I tried to drop out of the program three times," she said. "She was almost like my second mother at school so I didn't have a choice."
Baker was a new divorcee who had just given birth and thought continuing school would be too much. She remembered the day she tried to quit and Mrs. Gardner pulled her into her office.
"I thought I was gonna get a whooping," she said. "I said 'I'm grown, I can leave.' And she was like 'Uh, no….Life is not always going to be easy, and you can't always run from it. So get your butt back in class, and quitting is not an option.'"
Her son said his mother had a way of putting people in their place with humor but was always respectful of their feelings and never used profanity.
Baker later started a scholarship for single moms and other nursing students in need who can't afford their scrubs in Gardner and her own mother's name.
"You're blessed to have one person come into your life and mold you like that," she said.
Mrs. Gardner was a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, an active member of the Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church and won several awards, including Nurse of the Year from the National Black Nurses Association, an outstanding teacher award and was inducted into a nurse tutoring hall of fame.
After she retired, she started each morning with a Bible reading and half a banana, oatmeal and coffee, watching religious programs and CNN occasionally, but her passion for the community didn't slow.
She sat on several committees and boards and helped start the Minority Health Council. She was a constant at community health fairs.
"Sometimes it was like, "Mom! You're retired!" her son, Julius, said. "She was always helping others. She just kept going. It wasn't about money. It was just a love for others."
"She was always concerned about the health of the black community," said Rep. Wengay Newton, who knew her from his days on the St. Petersburg city council. "She volunteered and trained almost every RN that came out. She was a pillar of the community."
Her daughter Daphne, who is also a nurse practitioner, said her mother's compassion inspired her and her daughter Nya to become nurses.
"It was something instilled in her," Daphne said. "Compassion comes from the type of person she was. That was her purpose."
Contact Divya Kumar at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @divyadivyadivya.