By Melody M. McDowell
Ed and Betty Gardner’s lives can be measured in moments that are under-girded by a love for their community, their fellow man, their family and their God.
In decades of moments, the couple has scaled and reached the summit of business success and are idolized as entrepreneurs, philanthropists, political activists and humanitarians.
They founded Soft Sheen Products, Inc. in 1964, and for 34 years, presided over the growth of this family-run enterprise into a business model worth studying, emulating and applauding.
Their parallel devotion to politics made them an iconic force behind the election of Harold Washington and others aspiring to higher office. They continue to leave their marks on Chicago’s cultural and educational landscape and give generously to organizations and entities whose missions mirror the Gardner ethic.
All totaled, Ed and Betty have touched, impacted, and enriched thousands upon thousands of lives. With such a portfolio of greatness, it is understandable why the husband-and-wife duo is now basking in the afterglow of their lives … and relishing the moments.
This composite of moments has elevated them to iconic status from a broad swath of sectors.
In tribute to their contributions, on Thursday, July 12, there will be a love fest for the Gardners when a street is named in their honor.
Spearheaded by the Black on Black Love Organization, which Ed Gardner founded, and the City of Chicago – where the Gardners live and love – the celebration takes place at 12:30 p.m. at 8820 South Dobson, near where Soft Sheen Products thrived. The theme of the event is, appropriately, “Celebrating the Gardner Legacy.”
Frances Wright, President and CEO of the Black on Black Love Organization, who conceived the idea for the event, along with Frank Igleski of Akers Packaging, says it was an “easy decision” – one that is long overdue when considering the Gardners’ far-reaching influence.
“Mr. and Mrs. Gardner are so humble and live their lives without a lot of fanfare…and yet they’re so deserving,” asserts Wright. “Once they consented, everything moved very quickly. We got Alderman Michelle Harris involved.
“She leveraged her office and influence to get the city’s permission, submitted all the documents and secured the date. With everything in place, Black on Black Love assembled a cross section of citizens who were eager to be a part of the planning committee.”
Wright says the celebration will be more than an unveiling of a street sign; she sees it as an opportunity to transmit a bigger message.
“This celebration will take up one afternoon. However, the takeaway for all who attend is to model their lives after the Gardners, who have always been generous, kind, and are the embodiment of love.”
The street naming is attracting a bevy of citizens who make up the “moments” of the Gardners’ lives. They will come from the education, religious, business, beauty aids, political, legal, sports, social, civic and grassroots communities, and are bound by their shared admiration of the Gardners.
Among those who will attend are Rev. T.L. Barrett, The Honorable Timothy Evans, Professor Timuel Black, Merri Dee, The Honorable Roland Burris, Father Michael Pfleger, former Soft Sheen employees, former students – and many more.
Ed and Betty confess that they are beginning to “get excited” about the pending celebration. Until the big day, they are content to spend their days puttering in their garden, doting on their seven grandchildren, and reveling in the success of their four children.
The Gardners are the model of grace and dignity. They marvel at their journey and speak with gratitude of the moments that make up the texture of their lives. They share nuggets of their 62-year marriage, and even slyly flirt with one another.
Gardner is quick to point out that their odyssey began humbly.
“I come from an African-American family with modest means whose parents only had a grade school education,” he recalls wistfully.
What his parents lacked in creature comforts, they made up for in the values they taught Ed and his late brother Frank.
“They provided guidance on how to help others,” he said. “This is the responsibility we accepted. We have been given an awful lot and we continue to provide examples for young families. That is one of the most successful things we have done…to show by example the responsibility of the African-American family.”
Their narrative has become part of Black business lore. Early on, Ed Gardner was an eighth-grade teacher at Carver and later an assistant principal at Beethoven Elementary. However, his growing family was straining his educator’s salary. With four children to support, he began peddling hair care products for a beauty supply company.
While on his beauty shop rounds, stylists confided to him about what the customers liked. With that information, he figured he could develop a formulation that customers craved.
With the support of his wife, he began “stirring the pot” and mixing a formula from out of their basement. Through several trials and errors, he came up with a product that beauticians wanted.
By 1964, he was hawking products that he formulated. The operators told him to “keep bringin’ those products” and told him not to “mess with” the formula because he’d gotten it “just right.”
What is remarkable about this saga is that the Gardners created a product without the benefit of a chemistry background or the business savvy to configure a business empire. So, in spite of what “they” say is required to succeed in business, Soft Sheen Products was born.
Central to the company’s success was Ed and Betty’s decision to involve their children.
“They sacrificed play dates because they loved working in the business. Later, when they got older, they got involved with their degrees and brought in new ideas,” Gardner explains.
During the family’s run of the company – the manufacturer was sold to L’Oreal in 1998 – Ed headed Soft Sheen and presided over the day-to-day management. Eventually, eldest son Gary brought his business savvy to the firm and later headed the company while Ed remained chairman.
Gary’s wife, Denise, led the marketing arm. Spin-off businesses were created to handle the various company needs: daughter Terri presided over Brainstorm Communications, the advertising agency. Son Guy has an aptitude for engineering and played a key role in building the factory. Youngest child Tracy rounded out the company.
The Gardners also founded Perfect Pinch, a seasoning company, and Shop Talk, a hair care trade magazine whose publisher was Betty.
Soft Sheen eventually moved its corporate headquarters and manufacturing operations to 1000 East 87th Street. The company became a major employer, an economic engine and a hub from where community and political movements were spawned.
Because Soft Sheen became a source of pride, power and a launching pad for the community’s aspirations, it was lovingly billed as “The Miracle on 87th Street.”
At its height, Soft Sheen employed thousands and had operations worldwide, including in Africa. Among its hallmark brands were Carefree Curl, Miss Cool and its signature Soft Sheen brands.
Despite the heights they reached, Ed and Betty remained rooted in the community. Betty was reared in Bronzeville and attended school there.
Ed’s parents bought a home in the Chesterfield community and he and Betty settled into the neighborhood where Ed was raised. From this haven, they raised their children. Being in the thicket of the city’s goings on, Ed and Betty kept their pulse on the community and often drove the dialogue.
In the early 1980s, the community was clamoring for a Black mayor and reached out to then state senator Harold Washington as their candidate of choice. But Washington let it be known that he would accept the draft only if an inspired campaign could be mounted that would both spark voter registration and raise the funds that would assure a serious mayoral bid.
In a moment of clarity, son Gary suggested that the money Soft Sheen used for advertising be funneled into a campaign to get Harold Washington elected.
Drawing from everyone’s talent bank, the Gardner braintrust launched a stealth campaign to spark voter registration and stimulate a get-out-the-vote campaign.
They drew from the brightest minds and from Brainstorm talents like Emma Young, to mount a campaign that awakened the community.
The rhythmic theme: “Come Alive October 5,” became a battle cry that aroused African Americans and right-thinking citizens citywide. The message blared out of the radio, beamed on television, and was emblazoned on banners, billboards, flyers, palm cards and buttons.
The message saturated the community and the citizens responded. With “Come Alive October 5” rolling off their tongues, Chicagoans came out en masse. Registration spiked and the energy culminated in Harold Washington’s election as Chicago’s first Black mayor.
In 1992, the Gardners helped fund, administer and execute another massive voter registration campaign. Again, drawing from Brainstorm’s creative juggernaut, Soft Sheen principals were part of a grassroots committee assembled to give life to the campaign, which was driven by the theme: “It’s a Power Thing: Register to Vote.” One of the leaders was a charismatic community activist named Barack Obama.
On the cultural front, Betty played a lead role in reviving the Regal Theater. Her affinity for culture was DNA-earned from her French Creole grandmother who was her inspiration. This was evident in her board membership with the Chicago Sinfonietta.
While her influence at this fabled institution was renowned, she sought a venue where the halcyon days of the Regal would be enjoyed. The couple had grown up with many of the artists who were part of the Regal narrative.
When the famed entertainment hub was shuttered, Betty suggested that the family acquire and restore the Regal Theater. Through delicate negotiations with the city, the Gardners acquired the name, and renovated and transformed the former Avalon Theater at 79th and South Chicago into a cultural mecca.
Acts like R. Kelly, Gladys Knight, and the Whispers journeyed to the Regal to delight inner-city audiences thirsting for a South Side location for quality entertainment. The couple eventually sold the Theater, but reflect with pride on the days when they restored glory to the legendary venue.
Moments continued to define their lives. When Mrs. Gardner learned that Rev. T.L. Barrett’s church needed stained glass windows, she generously donated the entire cost, making the Life Center Church of God a WOW-inspired cathedral to God.
Eventually, the couple became stockholders in the Chicago Bulls organization and broadened their influence as they strengthened their business empire.
Probably what most defines the Gardners’ compassion are the circumstances that led to the founding of Black on Black Love, the anti-crime initiative.
The organization evolved out of a single moment. A homeless woman had hunkered down in an alley behind the Regal Theater.
One day, she threatened to kill herself and a policeman brought her to Ed with the assurance that “Mr. Gardner can help you.” She was crying about her life, which had spiraled downward.
Gardner sensed that hers was a plea for help rather than a suicide threat. He saw something in this young woman and took her under his wing.
He introduced her to Frances Wright, then a Soft Sheen employee who shared Mr. Gardner’s vision. Together, they opened up an infrastructure of caring and located housing and clothing, identified agencies to help her, provided help for her children and set her on a path to dignity.
Today, she is married and thriving and credits Gardner and Black on Black Love with saving her life. The orbit of care that embraced her was also a model for the creation of the My Sister’s Keeper program.
The incident that strengthened the Gardners resolve to get immersed in the anti-crime cause was when an employee of Perfect Pinch was shot in the chest during a robbery.
Outraged, Mr. Gardner took pen to hand and paid for full-page ads decrying the Black on Black crime that was pulling down the community.
This letter writing sparked an overwhelming reaction from Chicagoans who applauded him for taking a stand. They urged him to capture this spirit in a full-fledged campaign. Again, up to the challenge, he fired up his creative team, which blanketed the community with the Black on Black Love appeal through a flurry of messages in a variety of mediums.
This indignation was the spark that led to the founding of Black on Black Love. Wright eventually assumed the helm of the organization.
Even after Soft Sheen was sold, Black on Black Love continues to be a programmatic cocoon for realizing Gardner’s vision to replace Black on Black Crime with Black on Black Love.
Now nearly 30 years old, Black on Black Love operates a number of programs. Its signature initiative, My Sister’s Keeper, helps women who have been released from the correctional system lead productive lives.
Since its founding, it has helped thousands of women successfully re-enter society. With counseling, parenting classes, academic classes, drug intervention and a host of other services, the program has reduced recidivism. Through the Cook County Jail Motivational Program, staff and volunteers journey to the jail and acquaint detainees with the agency’s vast array of programs.
Catapult is a family-based mentoring program. The Godfather Male Mentoring Program, founded by board president Spencer Leak, Sr., provides a positive male presence for elementary and high school boys through voluntary participation of male role models and focuses on education, leadership and responsibility.
Black On Black Love also has turkey giveaways and reaches out to the community in a variety of other positive ways.
The current, almost-daily reports of Black on Black crime continue to agonize Mr. Gardner. Wright confides that she’s seen Gardner weep when young lives are snuffed out so senselessly. She says the murder in 1984 of basketball phenom Ben Wilson, continues to haunt him.
Mr. Gardner says he has definite ideas of the problem and the fixes.
“More police aren’t always the answer,” he explains. “You need a loving family that is concerned with one another and is aware of their responsibility to make life better for one another.”
This passion, and the Gardners’ willingness to invest in causes they hold dear, are part and parcel of the moments that make up the Gardner legacy.
Wright’s adoration of the couple inspired her to put the wheels in motion to pay tribute to them. With the date set for July 12, the word began to seep out into the community. As an extension of citizens’ pride in the Gardners, a groundswell of support is building.
WVON has made its studios available so admirers of the couple could record expressions of love and invitation. The day will be filled with activities, tributes and love that will be a monument to this wonderful couple.
Wright sees the tribute as a cap to a remarkable journey of two extraordinary individuals.
“The Gardners have been so supportive in terms of leaving their mark on the community,” she says. “It is now time to pause and uplift them by naming a street in their honor. It’s time to give them their moment!”
“We have been given an awful lot and we continue to provide examples for young families. That is one of the most successful things we have done…to show by example the responsibility of the African-American family.”