Of Science and of Laughter
Like a tree, or a starfish, Thomas A. Gardner reached in many different directions.
He was a 39-year-old firefighter who spent more than a dozen years battling blazes in Harlem, then moved on to the city's elite hazardous-materials unit in Queens.
He was a father and husband who taught his family to love canoeing and hiking and animals the way he did. He was an aspiring science teacher, who put himself through Queens College while working full time at that Harlem firehouse. He could wing one-liners with the best of them, and sold jokes to Henny Youngman and Joan Rivers.
He also played hockey for a Long Island team, with his older brother, Joseph. And with a fellow firefighter from Hazardous Materials Company No. 1, he performed in a comedy routine broadcast on a Long Island radio station.
"Originally, he was supposed to sit in the back and pass ideas along," said his wife, Liz. But sitting in the back was not his style.
At Queens College, his professors were amazed by his inquisitiveness and enthusiasm. "He had this intense curiosity about all the aspects of science," said one of them, Mark G. Miksic. At one point, they invited him to lecture, and he was a hit. Now the college has the Thomas A. Gardner Award, for students planning to teach science.
"There are a lot of people who are full of themselves, but Tom was never full of himself," said Rob Koudelka, his friend from Engine Company 59, known as the Harlem Zoo. "He never thought he was the smartest guy. He wanted to become smarter. And he never thought he was the best at anything. He wanted to get better."
Profile published in THE NEW YORK TIMES on August 11, 2002.