The York College family was saddened to learn recently of Audrey Gardner’s passing. Her husband, Dr. Don Gardner, was president of YC from 1987-1991. Many remember the Gardners as instrumental in the renewal of the college at that critical time.
Don and Audrey Gardner dedicated their lives to Christian education. While Don frequently received the accolades and titles—he was a president or VP at four Christian colleges and the founding president of the National Christian School Association—Audrey was his help-meet in every position he held and was always a vital part of his work and his success.
Audrey is remembered for her perpetual smile, her love of students, and her tireless efforts to raise money for Christian education.
“She was a hard worker and she supported my dad completely,” says their son John Gardner. She was a very warm person who was always willing to help, he says. Don and Audrey moved frequently, going wherever they had an opportunity to bless others—including South Africa, where they served as missionaries for four years. In a document called “How do I hope my children will remember me?” Audrey wrote years ago, she says that she hopes her children will remember “that as a wife, I was willing to be led about by Don wherever his work took him and tried to create a comfortable home at each place…a total of about 17 homes. And even though I complained, perhaps I didn’t complain too much about being a ‘pilgrim and a wanderer.’”
“She was willing to go and help anywhere,” says John.
When the couple arrived at YC, they were faced with a challenging situation: debt was way up and enrollment was way down.
“They loved their time at York College …They loved the smaller schools,” said John. “They thought there was always a way to solve a problem, even when others thought it was too big. They kept working at it, one thing at a time.”
With that philosophy, in their short time at YC they helped to reduce debt by over one million dollars, increase enrollment by more than 40 percent, and establish four-year degree programs on campus. They worked with the faculty and board members to bring stability back to the college and set the stage for sustainable growth.
Ever willing to join in the work, Audrey was busy with Helping Hands for York College, a ladies auxiliary group that raised money and served students.
Long time YC faculty member Dr. Robert Lawrence recalls the Gardner’s years at YC. “When Don Gardner came to rescue York College from its fiscal burden, she was right in there doing her bit. I never heard her complain about the hard task that Don had accepted at York. That would have interrupted her habitual smile!”
“It was obvious that she was genuinely interested in the work of her husband. This contributed greatly to their oneness as husband and wife. She was ever by his side,” says Lawrence.
After they left YC, they continued to work with the National Christian Schools Association (originally called Partners in Christian Education), which provides resources for Christian secondary schools. From 1981 to 2003, Audrey served in many capacities, most frequently as the organization’s chief communicator and coordinator. For years, she sent out regular newsletters with information about fund raising and other issues pertaining to Christian education. After her husband’s death in 1996, she took over as interim president for one year to keep the organization running while a new leader was sought.
Though Audrey’s chief occupation was that of wife and mother, she did work outside the home from time to time as needs arose. She had a master’s degree in history from Pepperdine University and occasionally taught high school and college. She also served as the financial aid director at Michigan Christian College (now Rochester College). Her goal in earning income was to enable her three children to attend Christian colleges and remain debt free. She led by example and strongly encouraged her children to make Christian education a priority for their children.
Audrey was passionate about providing a Christian education for other people’s children, as well. Nnenna “Christy” (Okoronkwo) Hill ’03, daughter of Nigerian evangelist Stephen Okoronkwo, a family friend of the Gardners, remembers how excited she was when Audrey said, “I’ve found the perfect college for you. It’s in York.” When Nnenna arrived in York, Nebraska, and not New York, as she’d mistakenly understood, she was disappointed. She expected tall buildings and instead found tall corn. However, she had such a deep respect for Audrey that she believed it must be the best school.
“The Gardners really helped and supported me,” said Nnenna, who described Audrey as a mother figure who often called to check on her or sent care packages. Audrey also supported Nnenna financially at YC. “She was the epitome of generosity,” says Nnenna. “She was a great woman. She had a profound love for God and for serving people. She encouraged me to live my life the same way.”
York College was as good as Audrey had promised, says Nnenna, who graduated with a degree in business administration and a communication minor. She had grown up with Christian principles, but it wasn’t until she came to YC that she came to know God on a personal level. She also met her future husband on campus, fellow student Ryan Hill. Today, she is the mother of two and works for a social services company that contracts with the state of Washington, helping at-risk children and families. “I am forever grateful to the Gardners,” she says. “It’s amazing how they have impacted my life.”
Audrey passed away on November 26, 2011, at the age of 84. Her influence lives on in the lives of her children, her five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, as well as the countless individuals she impacted in her decades of support of Christian education.
“She always wanted to do God’s work,” says Nnenna. “She’s gone home now to be with the father. She accomplished what she wanted to do.”