He once shook hands with Pope John Paul II. He served as a delegate to the 1988 Democratic National Convention. As a law student, he lived with a future vice presidential nominee. And he was a candidate to become commissioner of the National Basketball Association in the 1970s.
Arnold B. Gardner lived a fascinating life, as a high-powered local attorney and an outspoken liberal who made an even bigger mark as a tireless advocate for elementary, high school and college students for decades in Buffalo and across New York State.
Mr. Gardner, a former Buffalo Board of Education president, State University of New York trustee and Board of Regents member, died Sunday in Harris Hill Skilled Nursing Facility, Lancaster, after a long illness. He was 80.
Born Jan. 3, 1930, in New York City, he came to Buffalo to attend the University of Buffalo, where he earned his bachelor's degree, summa cum laude, in 1950. He graduated from Harvard Law School three years later and served in the U.S. Army judge advocate's office from 1954 to 1956.
A longtime partner in the Kavinoky & Cook law firm, along with his wife, Sue, Mr. Gardner savored the intellectual challenges of the law.
"He was an attorney to his toenails," said Toby Laping, a first cousin and close friend. "In his very being, one would define him as a lawyer."
But he also carved out a huge second career as a booster of public education, serving the Buffalo Board of Education, the State University of New York trustees and the state Board of Regents a total of 34 years.
"He viewed education as one of the great levelers," said his son Jonathan. "He was always more interested in the lowest-functioning schools, because they were serving the least-advantaged people."
As a Buffalo School Board member from 1969 to 1974, and as board president in 1971 and 1972, Mr. Gardner was described in various Buffalo Evening News articles as one of the board's "outspoken liberals."
He fought to recruit more black teachers, battled the Common Council for more school funds, pushed for racial balance in the schools and urged school decentralization to give blacks greater community control. At times, he battled with the Buffalo Teachers Federation, state education officials and some city officials, including Mayor James D. Griffin and Council Member Alfreda W. Slominski.
He was a SUNY trustee from 1980 to 1999, serving for a time as vice chairman. He was considered an outspoken board member, one of the few voices on the board to challenge SUNY tuition increases and big raises for the chancellor.
In 1999, when Mr. Gardner was named an at-large member of the state's powerful Board of Regents, UB President William R. Greiner said, "He'll certainly spice up the Regents."
Mr. Gardner also loved participating in the world of politics, although not as a candidate. He was not afraid to take an unpopular stand or joust with other public figures, but he always tried to steer clear of vendettas, often working closely with people who were bitter rivals of each other.
Among his close political allies were Mayors Anthony M. Masiello and Byron W. Brown, along with Common Council Members George K. Arthur and James W. Pitts.
While attending Harvard Law School in the early 1950s, Mr. Gardner lived with fellow student Thomas F. Eagleton, who would go on to become a U.S. senator from Missouri and, briefly, the Democratic vice presidential nominee.
Back home, his activism led to one of his proudest achievements, playing a key role in the push to allow women to become regular members of the Buffalo Club.
Mr. Gardner also made his impact on the sports world. He was the attorney for the Buffalo Braves basketball team and apparently impressed NBA officials enough to be considered for the commissioner's post in 1975. He also became a minority investor in the Seattle Mariners baseball team in 1989.
In 1994, he chided the Buffalo Sabres and other parties for dragging their heels on financing commitments for what would become HSBC Arena.
"If Arnold Gardner is somewhat concerned, then I am, too," Masiello said.
Mr. Gardner served as president of both the Jewish Family Service and Temple Beth Zion boards and as a board member of the national American Jewish Committee and the state Holocaust Memorial Commission.
Mr. Gardner also earned honorary doctorates from D'Youville College in 2009 and SUNY in 2010, along with awards from the NAACP, the Buffalo Urban League, the National Conference of Christians and Jews and UB Law School.
Survivors include his wife of 58 years, the former Sue Shaffer; his son, Jonathan H.; and a daughter, Diane R.
A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Jan. 9 in Temple Beth Zion, 805 Delaware Ave.