A life of service

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:44

    VERNON - No one asks where it came from. The Vernon PAL building just sits behind the police station, always there, always ready for whoever walks on in the door. It's kind of like Gary Gardner, the man with a plan that started it all. His "always-there-to-help" spirit, determination, and persistent hard work are the qualities, along with a $100 donation, that allowed the Vernon PAL program to grow from an after-school basketball and rifle team to a full selection of sports teams and the heart of parent-approved youth activity today. After a quarter century on the township police force, Gardner retired, the occasion commemorated last Friday by hundreds of his friends in the Wild Turkey Clubhouse at Crystal Springs. The dinner gave all a chance to reminisce about his remarkable career of service to the town and its youth. It began even before the campaign for the Police Athletic League building and the various laudable accomplishments during his police career, when Gardner switched from coaching Saddle Brook Midget football and town baseball teams to a career in law enforcement. He went to college, met his future wife, and in 1979 was appointed as a Vernon police officer. That same year he also became a Vernon Township PBA Delegate, a position he held until 1985. Aside from the standard crime-fightin' and drug-bustin' during those years that most think of as a police officer's job, Gardner also began to see that there was nowhere in the 68-square-mile spread of Vernon that the growing population of latchkey kids could go to after school and be assuredly safe. That's why, in 1981, he began putting in his now-legendary work to further his dream of creating the PAL youth program. At first, activities were held in the schools and rented facilities. Events were staffed by volunteers, and at the head of them all was Gardner, always there and always ready for those who needed help. He was hands-on. He contacted potential volunteers and sponsors, did the organizing, the planning, the supervising - working dozens of hours each week in addition to his full-time police job. He became director of the PAL shortly after it swung into motion. His achievements only continued from there. He started the first K-9 unit in Vernon. He coached Little League baseball and Vernon football back when the team was still called the Mountaineers. He was promoted to sergeant in the police force and became detective and juvenile officer. And through it all, the Police Athletic League expanded, drawing more support and more kids. In 1988 he started a campaign to raise funds for an actual building where the growing program could be housed. That year he also served the town's youth by taking the position of Vernon Township High School's Resource Officer. Construction on the PAL building on a lot off Church Street began in 1989. The fundraising continued through 1993, and in 1994, the doors opened for the first time. From there, it's history. Everyone in town knows about the PAL. It's safe to bet that most school-age kids have been there once, if not a hundred times. It could be kindergartners or teenagers, basketball players or youth-group members. It's there for kids who want to dance, play soccer, cheerlead, or practice shooting hoops; kids who need time to do homework, kids who just need a place to hang out after school. Gardner's fellow officers call the idea of the PAL just a spark that shone in his mind, but after 24 years of devotion to his dream, that spark has finally blazed into something the whole town can enjoy. The PAL is solidly on two feet these days. It has hosted the high school's Project Graduation, which Gardner also helped coordinate. The creation and nurturing of the PAL program brought Gardner to fame within the police force, but it also brought to light his passion for the work he did in all areas of his chosen field. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1997, and on Friday, May 7, his long career of service officially ended at the retirement dinner. Hundreds of people were present to give Gardner a lavish celebration honoring him for all he has done for the community. It was obvious that attendees were grateful, not just for his individual accomplishments, but for a job truly well done.