Gardner to receive Chamber Citizen of the Year award

By DEMETRIUS THOMPSON,

After serving his country in World War II, retired Staff Sgt. Charles Ralph Gardner returned to his hometown of Union to serve his community. For 40 years, the lifelong Union native owned Gardner's Electric Shop, providing appliances to families all over Newton and Neshoba counties and beyond.

Gardner was also involved with the community, serving terms as the Union Chamber of Commerce's president and treasurer and as a member of the Union School Board.

For his several decades of service, Gardner, 96, was chosen as the Chamber's Citizen of the Year for 2018 and will be honored at the annual membership banquet on March 23.

Before enlisting in the U.S. Marines after the outbreak of World War II, Gardner was on a path towards being a lifetime farmer, but his older brother, Leon, was the catalyst for his entry into the appliance business.

"I was raised on a 125-acre farm, and that's what I really wanted to do. But my brother went to the Ross Collins Vocational School in Meridian, and he learned how to rebuild electric motors and got into refrigeration and air conditioning, and he completed that in 1947," Gardner said.

After returning from the war, Gardner farmed for nearly four years but was discouraged after a particularly rainy year when he failed to make enough crops.

"I decided to get into something where I didn't have to depend on the weather to make a living, so I decided to go in full time with my brother," he said.

Leon had started a refrigeration, air conditioning and motor repair business with one of his fellow classmates from Ross Collins, but the partner left after six months, opening the door for Ralph.

He and Leon opened up a repair shop in the building on the north side of Main Street, where Norman Yates had a watch repair shop. Their shop was right across the street from a joint grocery and appliance store owned by the Blackburn brothers, who also ran a hardware store in Decatur.

In 1949, the Blackburns made a deal with the Gardners to take over the appliance side of their store in a 50-50 partnership where the Blackburns would pay half of the rent for the space and the Gardners would sell and repair the appliances.

They later moved down Main Street to a corner building (later Sharp's Auto Parts, then Sparkles Salon) and maintained the same deal with the Blackburns. After the Gardner brothers bought out the Blackburns' portion of the appliance store, they moved in 1958 to another building at 110 Bank St., where the store would remain for another 31 years.

Ralph and Leon ran the story for 21 years before Leon decided to go into business with his son in 1972.

"I bought his share and the building, and I became the sole owner," Gardner said. "He liked the central air conditioning side, but I wasn't too crazy about that. I liked the household appliance business, and it worked out really well for us."

Gardner, along with his full-time staff of three technicians, sold refrigerators, ovens, televisions, stereos, radios and even cow milking machines. In 1961, Charles said the store had become the very first appliance store to carry Merry Tiller garden tractors. Although he only started with five orders for the tractors in the first year, demand for the walk-behind tractors grew quickly.

"They were the best ever built. They were made in the state of Oregon and the distributor was in Alabama. We didn't buy directly from the manufacturers, we had to buy them from the distributor," he said. "In 1973, I don't know what happened, but everybody thought they had to have a garden and they had to have a Merry Tiller to work it. We booked them in the fall of the year and I booked 75 tillers and all the attachments that went with them. Spring time came, and I started putting them together, and I saw pretty quick that I wasn't' going to have enough tillers because everybody wanted one. So, I ordered 50 more and we sold them in about two months' time."

The story also delivered and services all of their products to homes from as far away as Meridian and Walnut Grove.

"I had a technician that took care of the TVs and a technician that took care of the refrigerators and washing machines," Gardner said. "Sometimes we had to hire a little extra help in busy times. But if we sold it, we serviced it. If it quit, they knew who to call, and I would say that about 95 percent of the calls that came in we would get to them that day."

Gardner's wife, Mildred, was a teacher for the Union School District, but would sometimes come in after classes were dismissed to work at the store and helped during the summer. Soon, their daughters, Linda and Nancy, also starting helping out at the store while the staff continued to take service calls, even on holidays.

"Some of them would call at any time of the day or night and a lot of times he would go when they called," said Nancy. "I remember one Thanksgiving morning, a woman from Newton called. She was having company coming in for Thanksgiving dinner and one of the elements in her oven had given out and she wanted to know if he had a new one. And he went and installed it."

Mildred retired from teaching in 1986 after 37 years, and three years later a mysterious health scare would force Ralph to consider retirement himself. 

"I enjoyed it and loved the people. But I went up to Tennessee one Christmas and was coming back through Tuscaloosa, Ala., to fill up the car with gas. I was paying the bill and I got dizzy and I had to catch the counter and kneel down, so I wouldn't' fall," he said. "The doctors checked everything and couldn't find anything wrong with me. But I started thinking, what if something does happen to me and that's going to leave (Mildred) to close everything out and she had already retired. I didn't want her to do that and that's the reason I retired when I did."

After more than three decades at the location on Bank Street, Gardner's Electric Shop closed its doors in 1989, although Ralph did service some of the appliances that were sold at the story for a few years afterward.

Gardner declined renting out the building for years and preferred selling it because he didn't want to deal with all the upkeep work to maintain the building. He finally sold it to Monica Killers Massey in 2006. Now the building houses the State Farm Insurance Office.

The store serves as a reminder of a bygone era when even a town the size of Union at one time had eight different stores that sold appliances. That era has been overtaken by modern big box stores and online retailers like Amazon.

"There was a time when I thought that when I got out of school that would carry on with the business, but in the meantime, you had stores like Wal-Mart and Cowboy Maloney come along that could just order things and sell them," Nancy said. "There were things like TVs that Wal-Mart was selling cheaper than we could buy them."

Gardner is also a member of the American Legion and the VFW. Gardner had served with seven crew members of a plane that crashed in the Pacific while he was serving as an aircraft mechanic in New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) during the war. The plane wasn't found until 60 years later and he and Nancy helped find relatives of five of the crew members to help identify the remains and give the Marines a proper military burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

It will be the second time a local organization has honored Gardner this year, after Friends of Mississippi Veterans honored him for his military service in January.

"I was quite surprised, but it means a lot to me, I'll tell you that," he said. "I never dreamed about anything like that. I appreciate it, I really do. What I did, I did it for the people and the town of Union, I wasn't doing it for myself. I was doing it for my neighbors and the customers."

The banquet will start at 7 p.m. at the First Baptist Church family life center. The keynote speaker will be Union native, U.S. Rep. Trent Kelly, and the entertainment will be provided by The Josh Dickerson Band.