Roland Gardner: An inspiring life of community service and leadership

in Profile by

By Lanier Laney
Roland Gardner was born and raised on St. Helena Island. This native son of Beaufort is now Chief Executive Officer of the Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services (BJHCHS) a multi-specialty medical center that provides comprehensive health care to more than 17,000 patients in three counties from eight clinic sites and eight school-based sites plus a nursing home. With annual visits surpassing 85,000, BJHCHS is also a major contributor to the Lowcountry economy with a staff of 200 employees and a budget of more than $16 million dollars.

From left: Erin Nicole Gardner, Connie Gardner, Roland Gardner, LaChelle M. (Gardner) Watkins.

Roland graduated cum laude from A&T State University in Greensboro, N.C., with a degree in Psychology, then got a Masters degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and subsequently received specialized training in health administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, School of Public Health and Harvard University.

Roland credits his father with convincing him to pursue academic studies. How did his dad, Willis Gardner, do it? When Roland wasn’t sure if he wanted to go to college his father put him to work in his tomato field on what Roland describes as “the hottest day in 1964.”  Laboriously hauling tomatoes in the noon day sun, that day was enough to convince him where he was headed — straight to college. And now his medical and dental clinics bring health care to tomato workers.

Roland says another life changing day for him was the day he met “the love of his life,” his wife Constance (Connie) Smith of Port Royal.  Connie was president of student council at Robert Smalls High School and Roland was president of student council at St. Helena High School when they met at a Lionel Hampton Concert on March 13, 1963, at Robert Smalls High School. They fell in love and have been married for 38 years now and have two beautiful and highly accomplished daughters. LaChelle (Gardner) Watkins, who is a bilingual speech pathologist in New Jersey, and Erin Gardner who works for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Rockville, Maryland. They are also proud of their 1-year-old grandchild, Chelsea Watkins.

Connie, now retired, was the former Area Director for the South Carolina Department of Vocational Rehabilitation for 34 years and was the first African-American woman appointed to that position in South Carolina. She also chaired the Pink Ice Ball for 15 years, an event started by the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority that raises money for college scholarships for deserving area high school students. Connie got her Bachelors degree from the Morris Brown College in Atlanta and her Masters at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles. An interesting note, Connie’s parents, Woodrow and Georgia Smith were very prominent Port Royal residents who decided to sell some of their family’s inherited land  in 1948 to create the Naval Hospital. That property was very significant in African American history as being the encampment of The First South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally-authorized black unit to fight for the Union during the Civil War, and in 1861 was also the first place in the South that the Emancipation Proclamation was read.
Both Connie and Roland lived away from Beaufort for a time (New York and Washington, D.C.) pursuing career opportunities but both decided to return to Beaufort because  “we had a desire to offer assistance and provide service to the area in which we grew up in,” said Roland. He added, “we both feel strongly about helping people in need and have a desire to improve their health status.”
To that end, along with their careers, they have been involved with The United Way (25 years) and Penn Center (30 years).

At Penn Center,  Connie has been involved as co-chair with the Penn Center’s 1862 Circle Gala Awards Dinner and Roland has been a board member who helped start the Annual Penn Center Heritage Days Celebration in 1981 to honor the unique culture and heritage and traditions of the Gullah people on St. Helena Island.

Roland’s parents were both born on St. Helena where his father Willis won the contract for Postal Mail Messenger in 1937 to deliver all the mail to the island from Beaufort. He also was an astute businessman and owned a grocery store and a grist mill. His mother graduated from South Carolina State University and taught school for 30 years on the island. They both were pioneers in the desegregation movement in Beaufort. His mother was the first African-American woman employed by the Beaufort County Department of Social Services. And by the time she retired, Roland had assumed the leadership role of that agency, the second African-American to be executive director of social services in the State of South Carolina at the time. His father Willis was the first African-American in South Carolina to be appointed to the Beaufort County School Board.

Following in his parents’ groundbreaking tradition, Roland, while still in high school, helped lead a peaceful boycott of segregated downtown stores and restaurants in Beaufort.  That was successful and led to Roland and a number of his schoolmates getting hired by those same stores. Later on, Roland was the first African-American appointed to the board of  Beaufort Memorial Hospital.

Roland’s more than 40 years of dedicated service to improving the lives of residents of the Lowcountry and his tireless commitment have resulted in a number of awards including the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award for  Health care in 1996, the ‘Pioneer Appreciation’ Person of the Year award from the Southeastern Rural Assistance Project, and he was inducted into the National Grassroots Policy Hall of Fame by the National Association of Community Health Centers in 2004. He was recently appointed by Kathleen Sebelius, the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington D.C., to a four year position on the National Advisory Council for Rural Health.

I guess all the thousands of people that Roland has helped over the years can thank his dad for sending him out into that blazing hot tomato field that one life-changing day in 1964.  Beaufort is certainly a better place to live in because of it.