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Mary Ida Gardner

YWCA and church leader, social justice advocate

Mary Ida Gardner, of Claremont, died February 1 at her retirement home at Pilgrim Place at the age of 88.

Mary was born June 11, 1930 in Augusta, Georgia. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Knoxville College, Tennessee; a master’s from Teacher’s College at Columbia University, New York, and a certificate in personnel administration from New York University.

Ms. Gardner taught music, English and French in Tennessee, Georgia and Pennsylvania before joining the staff of the YWCA in Summit, New Jersey in 1957 as its adult program director.

In 1964, she left the YWCA to become service club director with the civilian department of the United States Army in Korea. After 14 months overseas, she returned to the YWCA, taking a position as acting director in Long Beach.

She spent three years on the West Coast and then in 1971 returned to New York, joining the YWCA’s national office. During this time the World YWCA sent her to the African nations of Botswana and Tanzania to assist with the development of programs for women and girls.

From 1971 to 1981, she served as executive for organization development with the YWCA National Board staff in New York, where she advised community associations on administration, membership and building management.

Ms. Gardner’s next title was “Executive Director, Job Corps, YWCA Residence Extension Program, US Department of Labor, New York, New York.” In that job she managed national training and placement programs. She was responsible for recruiting, public relations, policy development and implementation.

After 20 years in local and national YWCA leadership positions, she joined the staff of the Presbyterian Church, USA. There she served as director of specialized ministries in education, with responsibility for minority education in institutions supported by the church, and was the church’s spokesperson on public education issues.

After eight years, she elected not to move from New York to Louisville, Kentucky when North South Churches reunited in 1988. Instead, she became the interim director of Church World Service and the National Council of Churches.

In 1993, she took on the role of management consultant to the Patriarchate, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in the African nation of Ethiopia.

In 1996, she was received at the White House by First Lady Hilary Clinton.

She retired to Pilgrim Place in 2000, joining several colleagues from the YWCA and the National Council of Churches and other groups who resided there, knowing she knew they would keep her involved. Among her many leadership positions, she chaired the annual Pilgrim Place Festival. She was a multi-talented person and enjoyed her volunteer work, music and theater, as well as visits from friends from around the world.

Domestic and international travels were top priority. She visited France, Tahiti, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Romania, Hungary, Venice, Italy, and extensively in South, East and West Africa. She traveled with her mother as well as friends.

Horace G. Dawson, Jr., United States Ambassador to Botswana, grew up with Ms. Gardner in Augusta.

“You had a wonderful career of which you should be proud,” Mr. Dawson said. “I am certain your mother would be and brother also.” 

Her father, James Gardner, was a Baptist minister and her mother, Christine Gardner, a teacher.

Survivors include her brother James Gardner, retired, of Augusta, Georgia; and half-sister Louise Sheffield, retired, of Jacksonville, Florida.

Memorial services for Ms. Gardner will be held at Pilgrim Place and at New York’s Riverside Church in the spring.

Contributions in her honor may be made to the YWCA USA, Washington, DC at ywca.org (click on “Donate”); Riverside Church, New York at trcnyc.org/give; or to Claremont Presbyterian Church at claremontpres.org.