John W. Gardner was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 8, 1912. He earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in psychology from Stanford in 1935 and 1936, respectively. In 1938, he received a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley.

Gardner began his working life teaching psychology at Connecticut College for Women. As the United States entered World War II, he was asked to head the Latin American section of the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service and, in 1943, he joined the Marine Corps. After the war ended, he joined the Carnegie Corporation, becoming its president in 1955. Gardner also was named head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and, in that capacity, laid the groundwork for establishing the White House Fellows program in 1964.

From the 1960s onward, John W. Gardner played a major role in civil rights enforcement, education reform and campaign finance reform. He was instrumental in the creation of Medicare, in establishing the public television network and supporting community volunteer service. In 1964, Gardner received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civil honor. He founded Common Cause and headed the Urban Coalition, chaired numerous presidential task forces and commissions and mentored many public service organizations.


1965—President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Gardner secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, playing an important role in enforcing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, launching Medicare, passing the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act and creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

1968—Gardner resigned from HEW and became chairman of the Urban Coalition, an organization that brought together leaders from labor, industry and government to tackle the underlying problems that fueled riots in cities nationwide that year.

1970—Gardner founded Common Cause, a citizen’s advocacy group that aimed to make political institutions more open and accountable. Common Cause was instrumental in gaining adoption of landmark legislation that placed limits on political contributions and instituted disclosure requirements for electoral campaigns.

1977—Gardner retired from Common Cause to become chairman of the Commission on White House Fellowships.

1979—Gardner co-founded Independent Sector, an organization that supported hundreds of non-profit groups nationwide.

2000—the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities was established at Stanford, in honor of Gardner’s lifetime of public service. The center’s mission is to conduct research, educate the public and persuade diverse groups such as schools, law enforcement and government to work together to seek more effective solutions to the problems facing youth.

Excerpted from Stanford University’s John W. Gardner Center for Youth and their Communities.