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St. Mary's woman's volunteer services span 8 decades

By Denise T. Ward
The Enterprise
Thursday, March 18, 2010; SM18

As far back as she can remember, Viola Gardner has always volunteered. She remembers going door-to-door in her Harrisburg, Pa., neighborhood, at age 9, collecting donations for the American Red Cross, and assisting the elderly with household chores.

The Bushwood resident is 96, and her spirit of giving has never waned. It grew stronger as she reached adulthood and provided services to organizations in her community, nationally and abroad. The ethic was instilled in her early by her mother, whom she described as a community worker.

"My mother taught us to live by the golden rule: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,' " Gardner said. "In all the work I've done, no one has ever said no to me, and I feel I should give back."

For her contributions to the community, Gardner will receive the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award from the St. Mary's Commission for Women during a Women's History Month banquet Thursday. This is the first year the commission has presented the award. Norma Pipkin, chairman of the annual banquet, said the commission is inspired by Gardner's lifetime of service.

"Ms. Viola Gardner's dedication to community service is a standard we can all strive to meet," Pipkin said. "Indeed, this lovely woman has given unselfishly all her life. "Pipkin said Gardner demonstrates the phrase "let your feet do the talking."

"Not only does she advocate for others, but she shows us how to make a difference in the lives of others by her actions," Pipkin said.

Mary Ann Chasen, executive director of Christmas in April of St. Mary's County, said Gardner's input to the organization is as strong now as it was two decades ago when she joined the board of directors. The volunteer organization rehabilitates the houses of low-income, elderly and disabled homeowners.

"She's an important part to the Christmas in April organization," Chasen said. "She was in from the ground floor, and 20 years later she's still with us. That's a lot of love to give. I think she just likes people. She likes to help people."

Sitting in the parlor of the Brambly Inn Bed and Breakfast, which she owns and operates in Longview Beach, Gardner shared a life story that included graduating from the Berean School in Philadelphia in record time, attending Howard University and later earning bachelor's and master's degrees simultaneously from Federal City College, now the University of the District of Columbia.

From her days as a child volunteer for the Red Cross, Gardner went on to serve with the organization in London during World War II as a staff assistant and later as an assistant director of a club catering to U.S. servicemen. It was there that she met her husband, the late George Gardner.

She has been a member of St. Clement's Hundred, the board of the St. Clement's Island-Potomac River Museum, Christmas in April, the St. Mary's chapter of the Delicados, St. Mary's Chapter of the American Red Cross, the African-American Coalition, the Democratic Club of St. Mary's County, the NAACP and several groups within All Saints Episcopal Church.

Gardner worked as a secretary to a D.C. Court of General Sessions judge after World War II, and later as an administrative assistant to a federal magistrate judge. She retired from the federal service in 1971.

In St. Mary's, she worked as an administrative assistant to the county commissioners and later as an administrative assistant to the director of Historic St. Mary's City Commission. She retired again in 1975.

Gardner said she was surprised to learn of the award from the St. Mary's Commission for Women. Although she is honored to receive it, she said, she believes it's not hers alone.

"That award belongs to the community because everybody has helped me, and I dedicate that award to the community," she said. "I'm overwhelmed because I do these things because I want to do them and like doing them. I expect nothing from what I do." She said if she could turn back time, she would do it all over again, with one exception.

"I would even try to do more than I did," she said. "It's fulfilling. You get great satisfaction out of helping somebody else, and you have that feeling that you have done something good for someone."

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