Richmond Hill resident Rick Gardner is a District 5 county commissioner, pilot, community advocate, 22-year Army veteran that included time in Vietnam and the Gulf War, and, well, the list could go on.
Raised in Birmingham, Alabama and born in South Carolina, Gardner, now retired, says he roots for the Georgia Bulldogs 99 percent of the time and the Crimson Tide the other one percent and has yet to slow down but the day is coming.
Gardner was first elected to the county commission in 2001 and served from January 1, 2002 to December 31, 2010. And after taking a four year hiatus, he wanted back in the game, so to speak. He was elected for his third term and that expires December 31, 2018 and says he is going to take a well-deserved break, maybe even working on his golf game.
The District 5 commissioner joined the Army in 1970, originally worked with pilots, ensuring the flight plans were correct and filed properly.
“From the time the pilot took off until he or she landed I monitored the flight. I would monitor incoming flights, as well.”
After a year in Vietnam, Gardner found himself stationed, for the first time, at Wright Army Airfield, Fort Stewart, from 1973 to 1979. Along the way he spent time in Alabama and Germany. He applied for flight school in 1979 Gardner had 11-years enlisted time when he decided he wanted to become a warrant officer.
He applied for flight school in 1979, was accepted and became a helicopter pilot. He also served as an instructor pilot, returning to Germany and then returned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. His final active duty assignment brought him back to Wright Army Airfield, where he capped off his 22-year Army career in 1992.
“One time I got on a motorcycle and asked where Savannah was. I was told to just go out Highway 144 and you can’t miss it. Well, I found a way to miss it. There was no stop sign or flashing light at the Crossroads or sign pointing to Savannah so I just kept driving on Highway 144. I drove through the bottom and all the way out to Keller. I stopped the bike and looked around and told myself Savannah was not on the other end of Highway 144. I came back through Richmond Hill a little slower and was looking at all the Henry Ford houses. I grew up in a mining town where the foreman and workers all had the same style houses. I thought this was a lot like where I grew up. I thought if I ever married and settled down, I’d like to live in a place like this.
And, apparently, the good Lord listened because that is what happened,” he said, laughing.
He married Carla in 1992, and they and their four children, Christopher, Valerie, Travis and Chad and made Richmond Hill their home. Gardner and Carla have lived here since.
After retiring from the Army in 1992, Gardner wanted to stay in Army aviation and took a position in California. He had worked previously with the Boeing and Sikorsky aircraft companies. He accepted a position with the NASA Research Center in what was supposed to last 11-weeks. Eleven weeks stretched into 11-years of commuting from Georgia to California, amongst other places and Gardner decided in 2003 it was time to reside permanently in Richmond Hill and end the commuting lifestyle.
That’s when he whet his appetite in local politics.
“I came back and listened to a lot of things my dad used to tell me. He said if a person isn’t part of the solution, he’s part of the problem. I was doing some consulting work and about 2001 I talked to Harold Fowler, along with Toby Roberts and Al Dixon. Harold asked me who was going to run for the new county commission seat that was being established. I told Harold I didn’t know what he was talking about. We talked a few more times over the next few weeks about the position and me running for it. Harold, who was a city councilman at the time, and later Richmond Hill mayor, told me I should think about running for the position.
“I went home and prayed about it a little and it just kind of nagged at me. That voice in the back of my head kept saying ‘Son, you’re either part of the problem or you’re part of the solution.’ “So I qualified and decided to run. I was all geared up for it and nobody ran. I was unopposed.”
After a four year break from 2011 to 2014, Gardner ran again, motivated, in part, by what he saw as missed development opportunities and an opportunity to help chart the county’s course for the next four years.
“While there were opportunities, we needed to and should continue to look ahead to take advantage of the possibilities and challenges the county faces.”
Gardner feels as he leaves the commission in December that he has been part of the solution. The changes he has witnessed in eleven-and-a-half years on the commission are growth changes in people, both on the commission and the staff, and the issues the board has to deal with are much more complex than they were when he first got on the commission.”
Gardner said he is encouraged that the county staff has grown with the times and is up to the task of guiding the oounty into the future. He says the widening of Highway 144 and the new interchange on I-95 are two of the biggest projects to hit the county in many years and will change the future of Bryan.
“We have department heads who hold doctorates and have extensive experience. We have a county administrator who knows how to maneuverus through difficult times and a fiancé director, who is continually finding ways to leverage the county’s money for maximum benefit to our citizens.
“The growth in the county has been tremendous. Buckhead East is huge. We have opportunities to learn from past mistakes and change the future. That’s what will be good for the county and I think we have the people on board to do it.”
Gardner’s dad would probably say the current county employees are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Gardner devotes much of his time to service organizations, including being the president of the Richmond Hill Lions Club, commander of local American Legion Post 27 and member of the 17 South Gun Club.
With having a little more time, Gardner hopes to improve his golf game and spend more time with his family.
Gardner says the biggest influence in his life has been his dad, Donald, who passed away in 2012.
“He taught me about responsibility, work ethic, to be involved in making the community a better place to live and to care people. His was an amazing man. He called me one time and told me to look in the mirror. I went and looked and he said ‘See that fella staring back at you?’ I said, yes sir. He said just remember that he is the only fella you’re ever going to be able to trust completely.”
His dad would likely say ‘mission accomplished’ when looking at how his son has lived his life and given back to the community.