RICHMOND — For former Richmond-Carolina Deputy Fire Chief Robert “Bob” Thomas Gardner Jr., serving the community was never about recognition. Known in the fire department and throughout town as “the man behind the scenes,” Gardner would often shy away from the spotlight while never turning away from an opportunity to volunteer.
The 15-year member of the fire department didn’t even like wearing his uniform, for fear it would bring him too much praise, longtime friend and Richmond-Carolina Fire Chief Scott Barber said, with a smile on his face and a tear rolling down his right cheek.
That didn’t stop several hundred people, including family, friends and firefighters from throughout the region, from filling the H.L. Arnold Fire and Safety Complex on Richmond Townhouse Road to say goodbye to Gardner on Thursday morning. The formal ceremony included police, fire and EMS agencies from across the region dressed in their finest blues, with a bagpiper in the background, to recognize the sacrifice he had made for his community.
“If he were here today, he would absolutely have hated this,” said Barber, who worked with Gardner both within the fire department and previously in the town’s Department of Public Works. “He deserves all this recognition and then some, but he really would have hated every minute of it.”
The funeral on Thursday offered the community an opportunity to pay its final respects to a man who some referenced as “the mayor of Richmond.” The 55-year-old, who had only recently stepped down as deputy chief in hopes of passing the torch to future department leaders, was known throughout the community for his love of family and friends, motorcycles, tinkering with engines and hosting Sunday dinners.
Gardner died on Jan. 26 after suffering an apparent heart attack at his home. He had just returned from the fire station after having gone to restock apparatus and equipment following a fire on Punchbowl Trail.
While he hadn’t responded to the fire itself, officials said he took it upon himself to relieve firefighters when they returned to the station and was there waiting to help when they arrived. Gardner’s passing marks the first line-of-duty death in department history.
Thomas Santagata, a coworker and a close family friend, remembered Gardner as someone who had started as a friend and grew into more of a father figure and mentor. He taught him the importance of family, Santagata said, and always put his wife Christine and their three sons first.
“It is impossible to understate how respected he was,” Santagata said. “Over the last few years, there were a number of people who had gone to call him the 'Mayor of Richmond,' and I don’t think there could have been a more fitting title.
“He touched so many lives and made a difference for so many people; he truly made the lives of each and everyone he came across better,” he continued.
The Rev. Cal Lord, who serves as chaplain of the Watch Hill Fire Department, led off the service by speaking of Gardner’s dedication to family. He was joined at the podium by Richmond Police Chief Elwood M. Johnson Jr., who worked alongside Gardner after Gardner had transferred to the police station, where he worked as a custodian over the past few years.
Johnson told a story of how Gardner had met his wife when the two were just 17, and they were inseparable from then on. There was one time when he turned on Thursday and said “Want to go to Florida?” which ultimately resulted in a Friday through Monday excursion, and even in his final days he would arrive home first and always greet Christine when she returned.
“He would greet her every day and say ‘Come sit on my lap, how was your day?’” Johnson recalled. “That was the type of love they had. He always held a special place for his wife and made sure he showed his love.”
Johnson and Lord each shared anecdotes regarding his love for his sons and, as they went on to have their own families, the extended family, especially his grandson Dominic. They praised his commitment and said although he died far too young, they truly felt he had it all figured out.
“Bob knew how important family was and he made everyone around him better,” Johnson said. “He is someone who really did die too young; truly knew what life was about.
Lord closed the ceremony with the firefighters' prayer and a final “ringing of the bell,” which is traditionally used for those who die in the line of duty. The ringing is a tribute to fallen firefighters that harkens back to old traditions of ringing the bell five times to signal that a fire has been extinguished and the response has ended.
In a solemn prayer, Lord recognized Gardner’s accomplishments in life and unwavering dedication to serving his hometown community.
“When the fire is out and all has come to an end, the bell rings five times,” Lord said. “Bob gave his time selflessly, and now we will ring his final bell. He has answered his last alarm, and now he is going home.”
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