St. Francis Episcopal Church in Rutherfordton, NC

The Life Journey of Carolyn Gardner

Larry & Carolyn GardnerCarolyn Smith Gardner was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the only child of William and Bertha Smith. She has fond memories of attending the large, beautiful Trinity Church as a child. One of the things that Carolyn most loved about the church was its music and she began her life time ministry of music at seven years old when she began piano lessons. As she and her family moved from place to place, the first and most important thing was to find a church; the second was becoming a member of the choir where both she and her father would sing. While living in Rhode Island, Carolyn began playing in the school orchestra and continued to do that after the family moved to Maine, and later to Massachusetts.

In Maine, the family attended St. Michaels Episcopal Church where Carolyn was confirmed. The family then moved to Easthampton, Massachusetts and attended St Phillips Episcopal Church and later St. Johns in Northampton. All of these churches were blessed by the voices of Carolyn and her father, both of whom were often soloists during worship services.

Carolyn graduated from Northampton Commercial College in 1942. During World War II she worked at Westover Air Force Base until the war ended in 1945. She was then employed by American Thread Company and there met a chemist named Larry.

Larry was a devout Roman Catholic and they were married in the Rectory of the Roman Catholic Church in Somerset, Massachusetts in October, 1951. After their marriage, Carolyn went with Larry to his church, but it was Larry that recognized that Carolyn greatly missed the Episcopal Church. By the following Easter, Larry encouraged Carolyn to return to her

church. They have managed throughout the years to be faithful to their churches and to each other, both rare accomplishments.

Carolyn’s parents followed the textile industry south, moving to Bristol, Tennessee and Sevier, North Carolina (near Marion). In Tennessee her father was diagnosed with cancer. In 1954, while living in Marion, Carolyn’s mother died and three years later her father died. Both are buried in Marion.

Larry and Carolyn’s first child, Bill, was born in Connecticut and when he was ten months old, they moved to Marion, North Carolina. Two more children, Scott and Betty, joined the family in Marion.

In 1958, Larry and Carolyn moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where their fourth child, Kathy, was born. Carolyn attended Holy Comforter and, of course, continued to sing in the choir. Later she was instrumental in the beginning of a new church, St. Christophers. This small congregation first started meeting in Pineville elementary school and then a small cinder-block building was built for the church. Later, after Carolyn no longer lived in Charlotte, a beautiful new church was built for this growing congregation and she received an invitation to its consecration.

In 1963, the family moved to Forest City and Carolyn came to St. Francis and Larry to Immaculate Conception. Both churches have benefited greatly from their faithful and gifted ministries.

Carolyn began working in the St. Francis church office as a volunteer while Kathy was enrolled in the church’s day school nursery and later was employed by the church in return for Kathy’s tuition in nursery and kindergarten.  The very capable Carolyn began to take over additional duties, including the bookkeeping, in the church office as the need arose. She worked Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings at the church and Tuesday and Thursday at Callahan-Koone. She then started working part time on her three free afternoons with the South American Missionary Society which was then located in Union Mills. The Executive Director of SAMS, Paul Walter and his wife Susan attended St. Francis. In 1982, she began working full time with SAMS.

While being a devoted wife and companion to Larry, raising four children, working two to three jobs, Carolyn was also volunteer choir director for St. Francis from 1971-1980. She served on the Vestry of St. Francis and was involved in the institution of the Memorial Garden. In addition, she served on the Search Committee that selected Fr. Bill Murphy. She was an active member of the East High Band Boosters and traveled with them to Europe in 1970.

In the late 1960’s Carolyn began assisting Jewel Summey (now Hill) with a small ministry to help those in need. This ministry was supported by the United Methodist Church and the pastor of that church, The Rev. Murray. This developed into the Yokefellow Service Center. St Francis soon became a supporter and Carolyn represented St. Francis on the Board of Directors. Both Carolyn and Larry have served on this board.

Carolyn was appointed by Governor James G. Martin to the Board of the Rutherford County Department of Social Services. She served six years and after the required one year off, returned to serve an additional six years.

Indeed, if all the deeds Carolyn accomplished on behalf of this Parish and this community were recorded; this book would most likely not have room for them all.

There were challenges to face as well. Two of the greatest were colon cancer in 1986 and breast cancer in 1988. She attributes her faith and a positive outlook as major reasons she was able to overcome both diseases and the treatments.

Beginning in Charlotte and after moving here, Carolyn worked tirelessly in the political arena, and became known affectionately as “Mrs. Republican.” She served in many capacities in several offices on the county, district, and state levels and still serves on the county Executive Committee. She is an Honorary Life Member of the NC Federation of Republican Women after having served as president of the local club two times and serving on the state board for several years. 

In 1988, she was the first recipient of the Carolyn Smith Gardner Award now presented biannually by the Rutherford County Republican Party for outstanding service.

Carolyn was received into the North Carolina GOP Hall of Fame receiving this prestigious award for her excellence of service to the Republican Party and was further honored by receiving North Carolina’s highest civilian award. The Order of the Long Leaf Pine was conferred upon her by Governor James E. Holshouser, Jr.

Perhaps “excellence of service” best describes all things Carolyn has accomplished throughout her life. This remarkable woman has served her Church, her family, and her community with great competence, love, and true excellence. Underneath the outward evidence of deeds well done, there runs a deep spirituality, as she continues to serve through a life of prayer and an uncommon devotion in worship.

It is still a great privilege to be near her during worship services and to hear her beautiful voice singing in praise and worship of our God.

Interviewer and writer Miriam Dixon

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