Early on Christmas Eve 2021, LeRoy Wayne Gardner, 92, died at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center. His daughter, Lorri Long, was curled up next to his hospital bed as he drifted off in his sleep.
LeRoy was a serious man. He worked hard as a farmer and rancher all but the time he served in the U.S. Army and the final years when his body couldn’t keep up. He didn’t speak ill of anyone and didn’t like conflict. He’d rather do right than be acknowledged as right. He was a loyal friend, protective brother, and supportive husband. He was a firm but caring father who became a loving, generous grandfather. He was serious about fun, too: football, cards, bowling, golfing and dancing.
LeRoy’s life was defined by his open heart, often changing ahead of his time to care for those he loved. Many recalled that with each decade, he became more compassionate. LeRoy, private and modest, rarely talked about the things he did for friends and family over his 92 years.
LeRoy was born in Kimball, Neb. on June 9, 1929 to Myles and Ruth Gardner, but lived most of his life in nearby Pine Bluffs, Wyo., where the family moved after buying land to expand the sheep ranch and farm. He grew up a hard working Primitive Baptist with two brothers and a sister. Two other infant siblings died.
While his younger siblings -- Ellen and Kenny -- herded sheep from horseback, LeRoy and older brother Richard often worked machinery in the fields with their father. Richard was feisty, but LeRoy was easygoing. This made for a good balance as they worked side-by-side their whole lives.
LeRoy was the one who always said, “Calm down. Don’t get excited. We’ll work this out.” He looked after his younger siblings, protecting Ellen and, in particular, standing up for Kenny, who was sometimes picked on.
The family drove to town on Saturdays for groceries and sometimes went to the theater. When he was older, Myles and Ruth stayed home, sending LeRoy, Kenny and Ellen on their own.
LeRoy also was known to drive around with Merlin Cooney. See, the friend had epilepsy and his parents wouldn’t let him be alone. “Merlin’s parents trusted Roy to take care of Merlin,” Ellen said. “That’s what a good man he was.” The duo became fast friends. LeRoy was blessed to have many friends over his long life, leaving so many with memories of good-natured shenanigans and hearty laughs.
In the 1947 yearbook, LeRoy’s senior quote spoke to his enjoyment of life between farm chores: Where pleasure is, there I am.
Whenever there was a community dance, LeRoy was there. He started at a young age and continued as long as he had the balance for it. When he could no longer jitterbug and square dance, he loved watching Molly B’s Polka Party on TV every night, commenting on the best steps and twirls.
“He was a gentleman. Everybody liked Roy,” Ellen said, remembering dances from their teen years. “If we got home real late – there were a few occasions we did – you can bet that Dad would get them up a little bit earlier to do the morning chores.”
LeRoy’s daughter, Lorri, credits her dad and his friends, including Don Wisroth and John Marquart, with teaching her to dance, something she herself loves to do.
“He was my first dance partner.”
As a teenager, LeRoy and his dad sometimes bickered when he stayed after school for football and basketball practice or traveled away for games. Because he had to ride the bus home, he would be late for chores or miss them entirely. Myles gave in for LeRoy’s senior year, letting him drive the family’s black car so he wouldn’t have to wait on the bus to return to work.
Coach Frank Supon wanted to land LeRoy on a college football team, convinced he could make it to the pros. But LeRoy declined. The reasons vary depending on who you ask. It might have been because he loved farming so much he didn’t want to do anything else. He might’ve worried about the cost of it on his family. Or, he might’ve decided to stay and help with the ranch, which was strained after Richard was drafted to serve in World War II.
Farmer, Rancher, Husband
In 1954, LeRoy was drafted into the U.S. Army, training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to be an engineer before serving as a specialist at an infantry base in Tacoma, Wash.
At one USO dance, an Army buddy introduced LeRoy to his wife’s friend, Beverly Cleo, who was a nurse. On April 1, 1955, both couples were married, serving as witnesses for each other.
This is one example of LeRoy living by his heart and core values, eschewing cultural norms without a fuss. You see, Beverly was a widow with a 12-year-old son, Jim. Back then, it was undesirable to marry a single woman with a child. LeRoy loved Beverly, and he loved Jim as his own.
After LeRoy was discharged in late 1955, the family moved to Pine Bluffs. You could find Bev or LeRoy at the bowling alley six nights a week, competing on men’s, women’s and mixed travel teams. Their championship photos hang at Pine Bowl today. The couple also were members of a square dancing club.
Mostly, LeRoy worked. Later in life, he told his son Larry that he wished he had found more time to travel and do things with his family when he was young. But he didn’t regret his success as a farmer and rancher, which supported his extended family and shaped the lives of many in it.
Back home from the service, LeRoy formed a farm and ranch company with his father, Myles, and older brother, Richard. The brothers converted the family operation from sheep to cattle and steadily grew it over the years.
They also raised their own feed and sometimes grew wheat or pinto beans as cash crops. LeRoy specialized in irrigation, once dazzling his grandson Zachary by demonstrating how he could make water move uphill.
The Gardner brothers worked land in the corners of Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado for more than 50 years. Along with their younger brother and pig farmer Kenneth, the Gardners worked with area farmers and ranchers and, occasionally, the state to protect the land, the water and their heritage, continuing a tradition of service started by their father.
LeRoy asked that this uncredited poem be printed for his funeral:
Farmers Are Born to the Land
Upon this land I was born and bred.
Loved ones gathered as they brought me home
to the big white house on top of the hill
where my family’s crops were grown.
As I ran my tractors through that dark, rich soil,
the mud clinging to my boots and me,
deep in my heart I somehow knew
just what my calling would be.
I grew amidst those tall, long rows
of fields turning golden brown,
inspired by the intensity of the yearning,
the commitment that I had found.
Even though I had left for a time —
obligations did call me away —
I came back to start my own family.
From here, no farmer could stray.
In the 1980s after his kids had graduated high school, LeRoy had to learn new skills as a caregiver when Bev fell ill with liver cancer and, finally, fatal pancreatic cancer. The man who occasionally would fry bologna for a sandwich, learned to cook for her. He bought a TV so she would have something to do when too tired and sick from chemo to do anything else.
He would wake up before dawn to work on the farm all day then rush home to take care of Bev or, toward the end, rush to the hospital to spend time with her. Once, the nurse took LeRoy’s blood pressure and she warned him, “You’d better stop for a while. Or you’re gonna just burst.” His heart broke when she died in July 1989.
Later in life, he admitted that Bev’s death was hard on him. He’d come home from work, see her purse and be so overcome that he’d leave to buy dinner or sit at the bar. He credited his second wife, Glenda Clements, with helping to save him.
She tells the story of how they fell in love this way: Glenda knew LeRoy and Bev the way most know each other in the small towns of Wyoming’s southeast corner. She and her first husband, Donnie, bowled in the same leagues. Bev went to the same doctor for chemo as Glenda’s daughter, so she sometimes saw her there. Donnie died a few years before Bev, but Glenda would see LeRoy around town, sometimes in the company of their mutual friends Charles and Viola Person. “I’d see him a lot of places, (like) at the grocery store. We’d talk, and I never thought anything of it.”
One night, Glenda was having dinner with Charlie and Viola (socialites who many in town knew as Daddy-O and Mommy-O). Without saying a word to anyone, Viola got up from the table and walked over to where LeRoy was sitting. She asked him, “Would you like to go out with Glenda?” He said, “Yeah, but I don’t know if she wants to go with me.”
Viola came back to the table and said, “You’ve got a date with LeRoy Gardner.” A shocked Glenda said, “I do not!” Viola replied, “Yes, you do. I just made one for you.”
Later, Glenda and LeRoy went out for supper and dancing. It was several weeks before they dated again. Glenda said she knew it was a hard time since his wife had just passed. But they fell for each other and within a year, on Dec. 1, 1990, they got married. Poinsettias decorated the altar and holiday greens adorned tables at the reception.
Again, LeRoy, then 61, showed he had a big heart. Glenda’s daughter, Valerie, was in her 20s but lived at home because a disabling brain tumor meant she would need assistance for the rest of her life. (She died at age 44.)
“I still have Valerie to take care of,” Glenda remembered telling LeRoy. “He said, ‘We can take care of her.’ And he did. He took good care of her.”
On a honeymoon through the southern states, LeRoy met his new, expanded family, most of whom live in Texas today. Once again, he loved these new kids, grandkids and, eventually, great grandkids as his own. He spoiled them and loved chatting by the BBQ grill whenever the couple visited McAllen.
Father and grandfather
In the sixties, after Jim had grown up and moved out, LeRoy and Beverly, now in their mid thirties, grew their family through adoption. They welcomed a toddler, Lorri, and her baby brother, Larry, into their home.
The family were members of the United Methodist Church, and LeRoy was among the men who volunteered to construct the building that stands today. It is there that he wanted his funeral service to be held.
Larry and Lorri learned the value of hard work from their father, choring before school and after school and on weekends. Each fall, after working all summer, he drove them to the Cheyenne Kmart and gave them $50 to spend however they liked. Larry desperately wanted a stereo with an eight-track, record player and radio that cost more than $150. LeRoy promised to buy it for him if he worked hard all summer, and he did.
When Larry and Lorri were no more than 8 years old, LeRoy put the truck in low gear, strapped blocks to the brake and taped pipe to the shifter. With these extensions to aid them, the kids drove as the truck as it puttered down a field road and LeRoy unloaded irrigation pipe 30 feet at a time.
Many grandkids also learned to drive this way. Sometimes their parents sent them to install fence with Grandpa as punishment for teenage indiscretions. Other times, they were invited to a cattle drive, where LeRoy and Richard dared them to eat raw testicles. Grandpa gave advice on how to ride calves, steers and pigs, laughing with good nature when the kids inevitably fell off or were kicked. Other times, the grandkids rode with Grandpa to feed the cows in the early morning — a trip always followed by stopping at the daily Pine Bluffs coffee club.
Scott Fraser said one of his first memories is of Granddad. “I was little and playing on the staircase with Lion King toys. I fell down the stairs and got a small rug burn or something. Grandad picked me up and comforted me.”
Although such displays of affection were more common from Grandpa LeRoy than Dad LeRoy, he adored his kids, too. He found ways to encourage their interests and make sure they knew he cared.
“He knew when I got older that he had to give me more freedom,” Larry said “Wrestling was my sport. He drove the bus for the wrestling team so he could be at every match, all year long.” Lorri was the cheerleader for the wrestling team, so she was there, too. In hindsight, it is incredible to think about LeRoy leaving the ranch so regularly.
Every August, the Gardners joined other local families for fun at Hawk Springs Reservoir.
“Dad would be out there with his neon white legs and white bathing suit, waterskiing. He really didn’t care for the water, but he didn’t want Larry and I to be afraid of the water. He wanted to give us something he didn’t have.”
To this day, Larry loves the water. He moved to Florida, in part, to spend more time on it.
Lorri credits her love for cooking and baking to her Dad. “He was ever so patient. He ate I don’t know how many burned cookies and overcooked steaks so I could gain the confidence to be a good cook.”
He bonded with many in his family watching football or playing golfing. But he made sure to show interest in the sports and activities that mattered to his grandkids and great grandkids. Whenever Zachary and Conrad called, he would ask about Isaiah’s football, Nevaeh’s softball and the other kids’ achievements. Recently, he skipped Saturday football to watch a soccer match with Jayme instead, talking about their shared love of sports and the decisions they ultimately made to focus on other pursuits.
LeRoy didn’t often give direct advice, but he lived by example and by occasionally sharing a story.
At dinner one time, he asked a grandson about his bruised and blackened face. The 20-year-old sheepishly admitted he had been arrested for MIP after running from police, busting his face when they tackled him to the ground.
To the surprise of others at the table, LeRoy said, “I was arrested once.” He had drank too much with Army buddies, got in a fight and was wrestled into jail by two MPs. Luckily, they let him free at shift change so he was never charged. He never went to jail again.
LeRoy was not proud of that moment in his life, but he could laugh at his foolish behavior decades later. And he could share the embarrassing story with a grandson to let him know that all of us can learn from our mistakes. We all can become better people if only we live like LeRoy: with an open heart and a willingness to do the hard work.
He is survived by his wife, Glenda Gardner of Cheyenne; children Larry (Lori) Gardner of Palmetto, Flor., and Lorri (John) Long of Cody, Wyo. step children Deland (Geri) Clements of McAllen, Texas, and DeAnna (Danny) Stackhouse of Thornton, Colo.; grandchildren Conrad (Stephanie) Gardner, Zachary (Amanda) Gardner, Drey (Anna) Hicks, Jayme (Brandon) Ford, Scott Fraser, Kevin (Stephanie) Thiel, Melissa Molina, Janelle (Rudolph) Garza, Jessica (Rick) Martinez, Brandon (Natasha) Stackhouse, Dannah (Garrett) Mitchell, Louis (Nancy) Castinado, Christopher (Rosie) Castinado, Jeremy (Julia) Castinado, Nicholas (Erica) Castinado, Cory (Stacy) Borm, and Kari (Michael Barnes; great grandchildren Isaiah, Madison, Aubrey, Ellie, Nevaeh, Liam, Harper, Chance, Parker, Kinsley, Makayla, Michael, Erika, Felicia, Austin, Izaiha, Alijah, Silycia, Christian, Anthony, Arreanah, Gabryella, Jordyn, Mayson, Parker, Braxton, Karson, Kaden, Kilee, Bryan, Aaron, Daniella, Joshua, Jalind and Danntay; and a sister, Ellen (Donald) Strube of Riverton, Wyo. along with many cherished nieces and nephews.
He was preceded in death by his parents; two infant siblings, brothers Richard Gardner and Kenneth Gardner; sisters-in-law Mary Jean Gardner and Mary Gardner, first wife Beverly Gardner; son James Thiel; stepdaughters Brenda Clements and Valerie Clements; niece Roxanne Strube; and nephews, Terry Gardner and Ron Strube.
Services will be 2 p.m. Thursday at the First United Methodist Church in Pine Bluffs with interment to follow at Pine Bluffs Cemetery before a reception at the church.
Services are under the care of Schrader, Aragon and Jacoby Funeral Home, 2222 Russell Ave., Cheyenne, WY 82001.
Donations can be made to the First United Methodist Church or the Leaning Rock Golf Course, both in Pine Bluffs.