Gardner remembered for humor, kindness

Former governor Chris Gregoire choked back tears. Congressman Denny Heck wiped his away.

“We all knew this day would come,” Gregoire said, pausing before going on, “that Booth would find a better place. We just didn’t know how hard it would be.”

But friends and family used a strong dose of humor to pay tribute to Booth Gardner, Gregoire and Heck’s old boss and Washington’s 19th governor, at a Saturday memorial service a day after a family funeral. Gardner died at 76 at his Tacoma home March 15 of complications from Parkinson’s disease.

Close to 1,000 people, many of them old Olympia hands from the years when Gardner occupied the Governor’s Mansion, 1985-1993, filed into the University of Puget Sound’s fieldhouse. The crowd heard about Gardner’s quirks, including many tales revolving around junk food:

• He didn’t remember his daughter’s home phone number but could rattle off the number of Tacoma hamburger joint Frisko Freeze, according to grandson Jack Nettleton.

• He would pick food off fellow diners’ plates, half-brother Bill Clapp said. And once, joining friends at a nice restaurant, he ordered a chocolate sundae for his main course and followed it up with a stuffed baked potato for dessert.

• A millionaire but never one to carry a checkbook, he asked a campaign aide to loan him $12,000 when they were setting up an office, Clapp said. He didn’t carry cash, either — so he needed another loan, of $2.50, to buy Girl Scout shortbread cookies from Gregoire’s daughter.

• He pulled aide Gregoire away on a “secret mission” to get a hamburger — secret because the hypoglycemic governor was supposed to be eating healthier. When they returned to an angry security detail, he watched with a smile as she was chewed out for spiriting him away and he even joined in the finger-wagging.

Some of the troopers who formed his protection detail showed up Saturday for one last assignment. Gardner detested being constantly accompanied, said retired trooper Ron Collins, who remembered having to surreptitiously follow him to a meeting. The governor caught him waiting in the lobby. “He got really mad about it,” Collins said, “then for three days he apologized to me.”

That kind of kindness was trademark Gardner, his friends said.

“You could disagree with Booth,” Gregoire said, “but you could not be disagreeable with Booth. He would disarm you every single time.”

His friendliness and interest in knowing more about people extended beyond top officials such as Gregoire, who led his Ecology Department, to rank-and-file state employees and people he had met just once.

“Booth had time for everybody, absolutely everybody,” said Heck, his chief of staff.

Another chief of staff, Dean Foster, said before the service that when the governor would talk to one Cabinet official he would always stop with concern for the official’s secretary. “Every time, he would say, ‘Mary, have you quit smoking yet?’ ” Foster said.

Speakers rattled off the policies seen as Democrat Gardner’s legacy: sprawl regulations; standards for students; landmark agreements on nuclear waste and tribal relations; health insurance for adults and kids.

An early advocate of health care reform, speakers gave him a share of credit for President Barack Obama’s health law. Gardner pushed the state’s Basic Health Plan into law, an idea that had been championed by his primary opponent, Jim McDermott. That “would never had occurred if he had not been governor,” Congressman McDermott said by video.

McDermott was one of two political heavyweights Gardner beat in 1984 to become governor. The other, John Spellman, also appeared in the video, one of a parade of governors with praise for Gardner — concluding with current Gov. Jay Inslee taking the podium.

Inslee presented the flags that had flown at half-staff on the Capitol Campus in Gardner’s honor and read a letter from former President Bill Clinton. “Throughout our three decades of friendship, he made me laugh and think,” Clinton said in his letter. “And he never stopped showing me what a noble profession public service can be.”

Inslee said he hoped to accomplish half of what Gardner did.

Gardner’s family requests any memorial contributions go to the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation.