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One of the most successful student-athletes in Nebraska history died peacefully with his wife and three children at his side at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, New Jersey, last weekend. Keith Gardner was 82. Less than two weeks before his death, he had coronary artery bypass surgery, then suffered two strokes, which left him on a respirator, according to Julian Gardner, his cousin. “Keith was definitely a pioneer with a great reputation, and he surely left his legacy as a Cornhusker legend,” said Charlie Greene, Nebraska’s gold medal and bronze medal-winning Olympic sprinter. “Keith came to Nebraska before I did and competed in both the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne and the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He was the first Jamaican in what became an incredible pipeline recruited by Frank Sevigne. That’s what made him such a trailblazer. He came to Nebraska at a time when it was difficult for people of color. He came here for three reasons: 1) to get a college degree; 2) to compete at a high level in his favorite sport and 3) to mind his P’s and Q’s, so he could go back to his native country a very successful man. By all accounts, that’s what he did, and everyone who knew him knows the impact he had as an athlete, a role model and a mentor. His influence was strong, and it was widespread.”
Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller was among those expressing her “deep sadness” at news of Gardner’s passing. In a national release, she described him as “one of Jamaica’s finest and most formidable track-and-field athletes.” She acknowledged the bronze medal Gardner won as part of the 4x400-meter relay team at the 1960 Olympics. She also hailed his contribution to Jamaica athletics, pointing to his “tremendous commitment and unquestionable loyalty to his country, his high level of discipline and his unwavering professionalism.” A former director of Jamaica’s Multicare Foundation, Gardner played an integral role in the personal development of many young lives in his native country. He gave up those responsibilities three years ago when he left Jamaica to attend to his wife, Fay Stiebel-Gardner, who was ill in the United States. She and their two daughters (Maxine and Christine) and son (Keith Jr.) were with Keith Sr. when he died.
Matt Martin, a member of Nebraska’s track-and-field coaching staff for 18 years, credits Gardner for creating the path for so many other Jamaican athletes who followed him to Nebraska. “He was a great athlete, but even more importantly, a wonderful man,” said Martin, Nebraska’s recruiting coordinator, assistant coach for sprints and relays and the staff’s primary international recruiter. “He was great for Nebraska – one of the best athletes and role models we’ve ever had,” Martin said. “So many people have told me how Keith set the stage for everyone else who followed him from Jamaica to Lincoln. Merlene Ottey is one of them, and she’s probably the most decorated female athlete who ever competed at Nebraska. We had some other Olympians from Jamaica that followed Keith here, too … Lynn Headley, Clifton Forbes, Lennox Burgher, Leighton Priestley, Garth Case, Horace Levy and Donald Quarrie.” Quarrie won the 200-meter Olympic gold in Montreal in 1976 and earned the silver in the 100 that same year.
Martin said Ray Harvey was another impressive Husker athlete from Jamaica and became Gardner’s longtime friend. Harvey described Gardner as a great asset to Jamaica track and field and a key component to its development. “Beyond being the successful athlete, his influence was immense,” Harvey said, pointing out how Gardner returned to Jamaica so he could be actively involved in the sport as a meet official. Jamaica’s Director of Sports at the University of West Indies-Mona, Gardner “was the first person who spoke to me about giving back, and he certainly gave back at all levels,” Harvey said. “Keith coached at the high school and the senior levels and mentored many youngsters. He was my idol. At the same time I was starting track and field, he was winning two gold medals (100 meters and 110-meter hurdles), a silver medal (200 meters) and a bronze (4x400 relay) in the Commonwealth Games in 1958. He was an unbelievable ambassador for Nebraska as well as for Jamaica. We have three kids from Jamaica on our track and field team right now – Chad Wright, Dexter McKenzie and Jodi-Ray Blackwood, and I have to think they’re here because of the trail Keith created. His impact stretched from our campus to the University of the West Indies in Kingston.”
“He was a legend in the sprints, the hurdles and the relays,” Greene said. “Frank Sevigne had a pipeline, and Keith Gardner was the first one in it. It couldn’t all have been Frank’s personality, and it couldn’t have been all that easy coming from a British colony in tropical heat to the land of snow. Keith’s success was that age-old power of perseverance, hard work and staying on task. Once he succeeded here, others followed him, and I don’t see that changing much in the future. Jamaicans seem to love it here.”
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I grew up in my early years in North Platte (born there), and later Lincoln and I watched Keith “The Jet” Gardner at the outdoor and indoor track meets. The indoor meets were held under the East Stadium. He was dubbed “The Jet” by the local Lincoln Journal and the Lincoln Star (I was a paperboy for both papers). I lived at 3315 M Street and attended many athletic events at NU during the ‘50s and early ‘60s, and, in fact, would sneak out of my home many a winter night to attend basketball games at NU. I was a “Knothole” attendee for all Husker football games. I am disappointed to read of Keith’s death but I know he led a full and rewarding life. I currently reside on the Central Coast of California and will retire at the age of 68 on July1st, but I keep all things Nebraska dear to my heart. I still attend at least one home Husker football game each year. I remind anyone who is interested that we Nebraskans hold these 6 “Fs” dearly: “Family, Friends, Faith, Pheasants, Farms, and Football”…but not necessarily in that order! Mike Douglas, Nipomo, California