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A Life: Clinton Gardner, 1922-2017; ‘It Was a Very Simple Plan to Bring People Together’

  • A photo of Clinton Gardner, taken in the fall of 1944, in Spa, Belgium, a town in the Ardennes region of eastern Belgium, a few months after he was injured during the allied invasion of D-Day and a couple months before he was to be injured a second time at the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium. (Courtesy Dartmouth College Library)

  • Clinton Gardner, of Norwich Vt., a World War II veteran, poses in the dining room of his house, on Wednesday, December 2, 2009, with a copy of a newspaper published on the following day of the attack on Pearl Harbor. While serving the U.S. military during the WW II Gardner was appointed the commander of the Buchenwald concentration camp at the age 22. (Valley News - Catalin Abagiu) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photograph (above) — Catalin Abagiu

  • On D-Day, Clinton Gardner was injured when a mortar fragment tore through his helmet, which he kept in his Norwich, Vt., home. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • Clinton Gardner in an undated photograph. Courtesy photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/23/2017 12:00:18 AM
Modified: 10/23/2017 9:48:04 AM

Norwich — Clinton Gardner was in his foxhole on Omaha Beach on the afternoon of D-Day, June 6, 1944, eight hours after his boat had discharged him and his battalion at 9 a.m. on the beachhead.

Sporadic but deadly fire continued to come from German fighters in pillboxes on the bluffs, and enemy shells continued to pound the beach.

Gardner saw thousands of helmeted heads popping up from foxholes, “like curious prairie dogs,” he wrote a half-century later in his 2004 autobiography, D-Day and Beyond. Suddenly there was a sharp explosion, and Gardner felt his head “snap back as if hit by a sledgehammer.” A “curtain of warm blood” poured over his forehead. He heard a ringing noise and his “whole body shiver(ed) into shock.”

“(L)ike an automaton,” he raised his right hand and felt a gaping hole in his helmet, and touched what felt like “the soft, wet surface of brains.”

Gardner, a 21-year-old officer and scout for an anti-aircraft artillery unit, doused the wound with sulfa powder and applied pressure to slow the bleeding. A little later a British soldier helped him to a shelter below the bluff. Gardner saw a beachhead covered with bodies and heard the groans of men dying near him. He began to despair.

That evening, 15 hours after landing on the beach, Gardner felt “sleepy – sinking – fainting,” he wrote. His body started “slipping down into a dark tunnel,” and Gardner asked himself, “what has brought me to this particular place, at this particular time, to die a lonely death, with no final word of consolation?”

The next thing Gardner remembered is daylight on the following morning, June 7. The allied forces by then were engaged in a mop-up operation on the beachhead while 14-inch shells from American ships pounded German positions inland.

Finally, 23 hours after he had landed on Omaha Beach, Gardner was taken by medics to a hospital tent. A doctor delivered the good news: His head injury was a flesh wound and the skull wasn’t fractured.

After a month of recovery in England, Gardner was sent back to Normandy. In December 1944, he was wounded again in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, the last major German offensive of the war and the one in which the U.S. suffered its greatest number of casualties, with more than 19,000 killed.

Gardner, who died in July at age 94, eventually was awarded two Purple Hearts.

Still, during his recuperation in England, Gardner wrote home to his parents in Norwich to assure them — after they received a military Western Union telegram that their son had been injured in combat — that, really, D-Day was no big deal and not to worry.

“Of course I saw a lot of things I can’t mention, many things which will probably not be known until after the war,” Gardner wrote. “But generally speaking things weren’t bad and the enemy fire was hardly enough to be called frightening.”

Gardner’s tone, of course belied his D-Day experience. And six months after D-Day, he would witness a more unspeakable horror: He was on the team put in charge of the liberated Buchenwald concentration camp and photographed the crematoriums — the large oven doors left open at Gen. George Patton’s order — with the remains of burned bodies inside.

Despite what he had witnessed, Gardner wrote from Buchenwald — where he had encountered rank-and-file German soldiers who were now his prisoners — that he saw a distinction between a redeemed enemy and those responsible for evil.

“I have a way of looking at war and peace now, a newly formulated way, that practically abolishes the distinction between armed struggle and unarmed struggle … for now that the war is over we American soldiers find it strikingly clear that we were not fighting the German army so much as the Nazi party,” Gardner reflected in a letter to his parents. “That our greatest enemy in the war was the S.A. propagandist and not the Luftwaffe captain or a tiger tank commander. The important things to stop in Germany were concentration camps, dictatorship of thought, the anti-Christ.”

It was a perspective that would come into play decades later when Gardner launched an international exchange program to bring American and Russian citizens together outside the official channels and handlers of the U.S. and Soviet governments — an effort that Gardner’s family and supporters believe helped thaw the Cold War dynamic between the two adversaries.

“His primary philosophical approach was that we, as Americans, were seeing the Soviet Union as an enemy, that our only understanding and images was that they were the enemy and he was seeking to ‘break down enemy images’ — that was a phrase he used a lot,” said Mary Miles Teachout, who as a young Vermont lawyer and mother was among the Americans whom Gardner led to the Soviet Union to meet people in the early 1980s.

“Instead of equating Soviets enemies in a very abstract way, we would make connections with them on a human level,” said Teachout, now a Superior Court judge. “It was a very simple plan to bring people together … our agenda was just to try and get to know people so we would understand each others’ culture a little bit better.

“We’d like to think it really did contribute to breaking down the barriers,” Teachout said.

Pacifist to War Hero

Gardner grew up in Larchmont, N.Y., the son of an executive in the Hearst publishing empire, and was already grappling with thoughts about religion as a young teenager and jotting them down in a journal — the start of a lifetime practice. His parents sent him to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, which Gardner later recollected as “hard work. No excuses here. Love it.”

Jim Gardner, Clinton Gardner’s younger son, said he was “pretty certain” his father had been a conscientious objector in his youth but changed his view after reading Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and watching the threat that Germany was posing to Europe.

During his freshman year at Dartmouth College in 1940 – 1941, he became deeply influenced by the writings of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a social philosopher who had fled Hitler’s Germany and taught at Dartmouth. Intense study of Rosenstock-Huessy led Gardner one night in his dorm to have a “visionary experience” that propelled him “to attempt a contemporary restatement of Christianity … beyond the Church … how we’re all connected with each other in the world,” Gardner wrote in his 2004 autobiography D-Day and Beyond: A Memoir of War, Russia and Discovery.

Gardner dropped out of Dartmouth after his freshman year to work at a service camp in Tunbridge founded by Rosenstock-Huessy to train leaders for Civilian Conservation Corps while he sorted out “whether or when to volunteer for the army,” Gardner wrote.

Seven months after Pearl Harbor, in June 1942, Gardner enlisted in the Army as a private and received his commission in December, becoming a first lieutenant in March 1943, before shipping overseas to England.

Return to Hanover

After the war, Gardner re-enrolled at Dartmouth (his parents had moved to Norwich). Not long after returning he met Libby Cone, a Hartford native, a recent graduate of Skidmore College and artist who had her own pottery studio in Hanover. Shortly after Gardner graduated in 1947, he and Cone were married.

The couple moved to post-war Paris, which at the time drew many young couples because of its affordable living. They lived on the Left Bank, and Gardner enrolled at the Sorbonne to study philosophy and theology (Gardner, who had a facility for languages, was fluent in French and later acquired a working knowledge of German and Russian.)

After a year of study, Gardner landed a job as managing editor of Die Neue Zeitung, a U.S. military-run newspaper in West Berlin, published for the German population, during the Berlin “airlift” period of 1948-49. That experience gave him a brief interest in pursuing journalism, said Gardner’s eldest son, John Gardner, who was born in Berlin.

“When he came back (to the U.S.) he tried to get a job as a newspaper editor in New York, and Dad would later joke that ‘I was editor of the largest newspaper in Germany!,’ ” but he nonetheless couldn’t find a New York newspaper willing to take him on, John Gardner related. Gardner got a job selling advertising for McCall’s magazine.

The young Gardner family — by this time a second son, Jim, was born, followed by a daughter, Cathy — was living in the New York City suburb of Armonk, N.Y., where Gardner designed and built their own home.

But the next 23 years of the Gardners’ life took shape after Clinton and Libby placed an advertisement in the back pages of McCall’s for readers to purchase earrings by mail, according to son Jim Gardner. The response was so positive that it led the Gardners to launch Shopping International, a mail-order gift catalog, in 1956, out of their basement.

Business as a Cultural Lesson

Combining their mutual love for global exploration with their artistic sensibility — Clinton was a passionate photographer; Libby was talented in painting and pottery — the Gardners ended up traveling four-times a year to countries to Europe, Africa, Mexico and Southeast Asia, scouring workshops and studios for hand-made crafts and art to sell.

“Shopping International was very much both of them,” said daughter Cathy Morrison, who pointed out the business began modestly “with a pair of earrings from India that they advertised in the back of McCall’s as something to sell.”

The business grew and the Gardners first relocated it to White River Junction where they would be closer to their respective families — Libby Cone’s family had owned the Hartford Woolen Mill for several generations before it closed in 1957, and the Gardners built a Frank Lloyd Wright-style home on Pine Tree Road in Norwich. In 1966, they moved the 100-plus-employee business to the new “Hartford-Norwich Industrial Park” on Route 5 where Fogg’s hardware store is now located.

By this time the catalog carried more than 350 imported items from over 20 countries, often accompanied by descriptions that were part travelogue and part cultural history in a format that was later to be adopted by other mail order catalogs such as J. Peterman and Patagonia.

The Gardners occasionally enlisted their three children to model items for sale, with Clint Gardner taking the photographs, said Jim Gardner.

“Their original idea was to educate people as well as sell them something,” Jim Gardner, who became a logger and now lives in Vershire, said. “Then once they got rolling, it was more like, here are the handicrafts, here’s the price.”

In 1979 the Gardners — their children describe their parents as equal partners in the business — sold the catalog to mail order giant Harry & David, and Clinton Gardner, at 57, was able to retire.

The sale of the business enabled Gardner to devote the second half of his life to publishing the works of his mentor, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy.

He wrote three books himself explicating Rosenstock-Huessy’s philosophy, including Beyond Belief: Discovering Christianity’s New Paradigm in 2008.

“My father was driven by Eugen’s insight about the miracle of human speech and his belief that this perception needed to be translated into real action,” John Gardner explained at his father’s memorial service in late September at the Norwich Congregational Church.

Words into Deeds

That philosophy turned into action in 1982 when Gardner spearheaded the creation of U.S.-U.S.S.R Bridges for Peace, to promote exchange visits between citizens of the two countries at a time when Cold War tensions — and the fear of nuclear holocaust — were rising again under hawkish military posturing between recently elected President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Bridges for Peace began with nine Russian citizens visiting in the summer of 1983 and was followed by a two-week visit by 10 people from Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts — including Teachout — to the Soviet Union.

The aim of the exchange program — Gardner made at least 10 trips to the Soviet Union over the course of the organization’s existence — was for citizens of each country to learn about each other outside the official government apparatus, said Teachout. The aim was to dispel the images and preconceptions fostered by the participants’ respective governments.

“It was just everyday people meeting with our counterparts,” Teachout said.

That was in keeping with his father’s character, said Jim Gardner. “There was a compassion running through his entire life, always trying to find avenues to express ‘citzens diplomacy’ that made it part of a whole.”

Bridges for Peace, however, was not without its vocal critics, many of whom contended that its participants were unwitting dupes of Soviet propaganda. A front-page story in the Los Angeles Times in 1984, which reported about the many “citizens diplomacy” groups popping up at the time, excoriated them — including Gardner’s group — for their naivete and allowing themselves to be exploited by a ruthless totalitarian government.

“The underlying premise, that U.S.-Soviet tensions are somehow rooted in misunderstanding between two essentially peaceful peoples, is a seductive one, but one that overlooks the essential tragedy of Russian history,” said the Los Angeles Times story.

Teachout acknowledged that Bridges for Peace engendered much skepticism, including some in the Upper Valley.

And Gardner expected that, she said, but he didn’t let it bother him or detract from the belief that the exchange program ultimately led to a better understanding between people who were more curious about each other than fearful or hostile.

“He didn’t fight it,” Teachout said. “He just pursued his own vision of what this was about, which was seeking to break down the images. It was called Bridges for Peace because bridges are built bick by brick, and in this case peace was being built person by person.”

Jim Gardner said his father was always cognizant of the pitfalls in the exchange programs, but “he believed you have to talk with your adversary, that you can’t take out a sledgehammer to him, that if the leaders can’t do anything, maybe the small folks at the local level can do something.”

And, Jim Gardner said, “it may have helped in its own little way.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.




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