July 8, 1922 – March 7, 2018
Irene K. Gardner grew up along the Niagara River.
“The river was a part of me,” she told Buffalo News columnist Karen Brady in 1974. “I took it my problems. I took it my joys. It was the center of my life and the lives of the people around me.”
That changed in the early 1950s when the Niagara Thruway was built, taking the piece of Riverside Park that connected it to the water.
“The Thruway came. The old Towpath went – and we lost our access to the river,” Mrs. Gardner said.
But when she and her husband took a vacation trip to Cape Cod after raising six children, she had a revelation.
“There we saw what could be done with a waterfront,” she told Brady.
She came home and launched a campaign to restore Riverside’s link to the riverbank.
“She went to meetings. She met with public officials. It was her baby,” her son, Robert, said. “It took a while. It took 10 years. It culminated with the dedication of the bridge.”
As part of the opening ceremony for the Irene K. Gardner Pedestrian Bridge on March 21, 1980, Mrs. Gardner, pictured, led a group of children on a victory march across the elevated walkway from Riverside Park to the Riverwalk.
She died March 7 in Brothers of Mercy Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where she had been a resident for about six months. She was 95.
Born to Hungarian immigrants in their home in the Town of Tonawanda, the former Irene Maga attended St. Elizabeth’s School and was a 1940 graduate of Kenmore High School. Under her name in the yearbook is the motto, “The secret of success is constancy of purpose.”
She was married in 1941 to James P. Gardner, who went on to serve in World War II and work at the former American Brass Corp. plant and as a mechanic for the City of Buffalo.
During her drive for the pedestrian bridge in the 1970s, Mrs. Gardner contacted three governors, President Nixon and dozens of other elected officials. She gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition.
She was the only woman on the Open River Advisory Committee, and in 1976 she was named chairman of the Buffalo and Erie County Urban Waterfront Advisory Committee. She resigned a year later to protest a plan to put a coal storage site along the river. She later campaigned to help preserve Strawberry Island.
For her efforts, the Riverside Businessmen’s Association presented her with its George D. O’Connell Man of the Year Award in 1977. In 1984, she received a citation from the state Assembly for community leadership and civic mindedness.
At a rally to support the construction of a new park along the river in 1989, she was introduced as the “matriarch of the Niagara.”
In a letter to the Gardner family, Assemblyman Robin Schimminger wrote: ""She certainly made an important and lasting contribution to our community and its environment. Be assured that her spirit and the memories of good times will live on in the hearts of all that she touched."
She had brief stints as a factory worker at Gioia and the General Motors plant in the Town of Tonawanda.
A devout Catholic, she taught religion classes in the evening for high school students. The Diocese of Buffalo’s Department of Catholic Education honored her in 1984 as Religious Educator of the Year.
She and her husband moved to Kenmore in 1990. He died in 2004.
Survivors include a daughter, Karen Markott; three other sons, Joseph, David and Michael; 17 grandchildren and many great-grandchildren.
A Mass of Christian Burial was offered March 13 in St. Timothy’s Catholic Church, 565 East Ave., Town of Tonawanda.