Bob Gardiner hoped for a career in aeronautics until advanced mathematics at Colgate University interfered. "My dreams of being an aeronautical engineer were destroyed by calculus," says the 88-year-old resident of Lenox, Massachusetts, one of the jewel communities in the western part of the state. As a lark he took an English literature class, and the teacher changed his life. "It came to me suddenly that I wanted to do what he was doing," remembers Gardiner.
For almost a half-century Gardiner taught English to high school students at Cheshire Academy, an independent school in Connecticut; teaching and his wife Ruth were his life's pillars. "I came alive as a teacher," Gardiner says. "The only other place I came alive was in my marriage with Ruth."
Gardiner attended a grade school with a total of 25 students in it, housed in a one-room schoolhouse. Eight decades later he remembers the influence of one of his boyhood teachers, Emma Heath. "There was one kid who remained in the second grade for three years," he says, recalling the respect accorded to the boy by Mrs. Heath. Her lesson, one that Gardiner tried to impart to the 3,000 high schoolers he would teach, was: "You are important to yourself. You are important to me. You matter."
After Colgate came the Army ("I was supposed to go to Korea, but I ended up in Puerto Rico") and a master's degree. He was given the choice between teaching and a job that offered him three times a teacher's salary. His father advised him that he should explore teaching. "I bless him for that," says Gardiner.
Teaching high school students for almost 50 years was a labor of love for Gardiner. "It meant paying attention to them," he says of his students. "What were they like? What were they thinking? What were they capable of achieving?"
Gardiner delayed retirement until he was 71. He and Ruth moved full time to the Berkshires, drawn there by the music. "My wife," he says proudly, "was made of music." A trained pianist, "she didn't have the psyche for performing publicly." After school, Gardiner would slip into their house and, without her knowing he was there, listen to her play the piano and sing.
The love between Bob and Ruth was a lifetime love. They met when he was 14 and she was 21. ("If we go there," Gardiner warns, noticing his interviewer's arched eyebrows, "you're going to need a lot more paper."). In 2005, a year after Bob retired, Ruth was diagnosed with dementia, and Bob became her caregiver until she died in 2011. After they received the brutal diagnosis in a Boston hospital, they sat in their car before starting their long ride home. "You can get good care in a nursing home," he told Ruth. "But the only place you can get love is at home. So you're going to stay home."
This past May, ten years after Ruth's death, a member of Bob's church sidled up to him. He was working on the production of a film called "Skelly," with a cast of kids aged 12 to 17. The Screen Actors Guild required that a teacher supervise their studies while they were not filming. Was he interested? "I didn't ask any questions, I just said 'yes'," Gardiner says.
For three weeks this spring Gardiner was in a kind of heaven, even though heaven meant spending up to 10 hours a day overseeing high schoolers' studies. "These were teenagers," says Gardiner, relishing the memory even while nursing himself back from exhaustion. "They were full of energy."
When he arrived for his last day of "classes," the students and their parents gave Gardiner a standing ovation. "My gratitude is unbounded," he told them.
He will remember that ovation forever. "It was an acknowledgement of the importance of 'relationship'," he says. "And that's at the heart of a good relationship. It's also at the heart of a good life."