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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/CHARLIE KAIJO "If [Joel Gardner] tells you something, he's one of those guys you can write it down -- it's going to happen. There aren't that many people anymore you can put your trust into, and this guy is 100 percent trustworthy." -- Steve DeLancey

Nothing good happens after midnight. That's something Ozark Regional Transit's executive director Joel Gardner learned when he answered his phone at 1:03 a.m. on Jan. 9, 2017. Sure enough, the news was bad -- and it would quickly become worse.

"There was a bus on fire," he remembers. "I out-drove my headlights to get here. I got here within, I don't know, seven, eight minutes. Guaranteed, I broke every traffic and speeding law. I pulled up and was [only] able to park over at Iberia Bank across the street because everything else was blocked off. It went from being 'There is a bus on fire' to 'Half the fleet is on fire' by the time I got here. Within about 10 minutes after I got here, the entire fleet was on fire."

In all, ORT lost 20 of its buses. Photos from the transit yard the morning after the fire were apocalyptic: In them, hulking, blackened bus skeletons sit beneath a grim January sky.

"Everything from fuel tanks to tires to CNG tanks were popping and blowing," says Gardner, who was forced to stand by, helpless, as he watched his fleet burn. "In less than an hour, everything was consumed, and the fire was down to rubble. The sustained winds of about 40 miles an hour kept the fire department from getting ahead of the fire. The heat was unbelievable."

Gardner had taken over the executive director position in 2012, in the immediate aftermath of a failed, tumultuous and heated campaign to increase the sales tax in order to more fully fund public transit. It is something he likens to walking into a "bees' nest."

Still, as difficult as it was taking the helm of the organization at such a fraught time, he says that gazing at the remains of his decimated fleet that freezing January morning was worse. But true to Gardner's nature -- and his background as a Marine -- he took a moment to collect himself and then rallied.

"My downtime of 'Where do I go, and what do I do?' was probably from about 3 to 4:30 in the morning," he remembers. "And then I started hammering out the emails, started sending out notifications to people that are in the transit community throughout the United States. By 7 in the morning, when the sun was coming up, I had a mission and a purpose. It was everything from, "You know, there's a fire, is it still a problem," all the way to, 'OK. I've got to keep my people employed."

Through Others’ Eyes

Joel Gardner

“Most people that know him know that he’s a genuinely good guy. He would give you the shirt off of his back to help you — he’s always looking for somebody to help.” — Steve DeLancey

“In a remarkable amount of time, he was able to put a variety of vehicles back on the road — it is tremendous how he responded to that situation.” — Adam Waddell

“Joel rode with me when I was a police officer in Reno, as a reserve, and he got to get in difficult situations. I saw that he had a tremendous amount of empathy and fire when it comes to getting the job done. He’s a continual thinker. He’s thinking outside the box all the time.” — Ray Eccles

Next Week

Julie Gabel and Mike Thomas

Those emails started paying off almost immediately: By midday, Gardner had to appoint someone whose job was solely to answer the approximately 500 emails that came flooding in within the first 24 hours. Almost all of them were offers of help from around the country. Gardner was blown away by the generosity. One gruff transit executive from Kentucky had a bus delivered to Springdale by the end of the week, free of charge.

"So we officially had our first replacement bus here by Friday afternoon, and we had another eight from Wichita Transit," says Gardner. "And then they just started rolling in, and we had enough buses. Some of them were for a short time, some more for a little bit longer. It was just amazing to see the transit community rally around this place. It was kind of weird to see the 'Skittles fleet' that we had -- all kinds of weird colors -- but it was really, really amazing to walk though this whole thing as it was going on."

Gardner's friend Steve DeLancey, owner of Bumper to Bumper Auto Parts in Springdale, watched in astonishment as his friend leaped into action.

"That guy, he took off, and he was just like a robot, as far as coming up with the people to contact, reaching out all over the United States, finding people to help them after they were knocked down," he says. "If it had been anyone else, I don't know how they would have survived, or how they would have continued to have a job. I don't even think the guy ever went to sleep, and he didn't even think about eating. He just went and went and went. His only focus was getting things back up and running."

"He kept his staff No. 1 in his thoughts," says Adam Waddell, associate director of the University of Arkansas' transit program. "He was making sure that his employees were paid and taken care of."

"He took [the fire] on more as a challenge than a devastation," notes Ray Eccles, Gardner's friend of some 20 years.

Gardner, meanwhile, credits his staff for helping him make sure that the fire didn't mean loss of income for his employees. At the staff meeting that day, Gardner alerted his employees that they would need to take the next couple of days off, using sick or vacation days in order to get paid.

"Some of the senior employees came up and said, 'Hey, I'm going to go ahead and take vacation, give my work duties to somebody who doesn't have the seniority.' A couple of employees came up and said, 'I don't have any work duties that I'm able to take, and I haven't been here long enough to have any accruals.' And then I had other employees that came up to say, 'All right, I want to donate a week's vacation. I want to donate a week's sick time.' Unprovoked, employees were giving up their time to those that didn't have the bank. Nobody missed a paycheck."

While Gardner admits to feeling temporarily knocked back by the fire, he has a ready answer about why he was able to recover so quickly.

"People talk about hearing the voice of God, and I know I heard the voice of God [that day] because he spoke to me in a language I understood," says Gardner. He says that the bluntly worded message was that he could either curl up in a corner or get up and "do something about this."

"As far as I'm concerned, if I'm an English-speaking bloke, and I come to have a relationship with God and with Jesus, he's not going to require me to speak Italian," notes Gardner with a smile. "If I'm a Spanish-speaking bloke, and I have relationship with God and with Jesus, he's not going to require me to speak German. Right? So if I'm a Marine Corps-speaking bloke, why would he speak to me in the formal English when he knows that I don't understand formal English as much as I do the punch-yourself-in-the-head gunnery sergeant -- that's what motivates me."

Training for transit

Gardner joined the Marine Corps a year out of high school, when he was 19 . It was, he says, a bit of a spur-of-the-minute decision that turned out to be just what he needed at that juncture of his life. Even though the armed services were heavily represented in his family -- his father was in the Air Force, mother in the Army and older brother in the Navy -- it wasn't something he considered for himself, at first.

"I didn't think of the service until I was broke," he says with a quick laugh. "I had two jobs at the time, and that was the winter I had rented a Gulf Stream-like trailer in a trailer park. That winter was so cold that the toilets froze. I realized I needed something in my life that was a motivator.

"It was great. It was a great opportunity, I made great friends, and I got to see the world. The Marine Corps helped me focus."

It also gave him the chance to experience a variety of different kinds of transit systems all over the globe: Korea, Thailand, Burma, Australia and Singapore, to name just a few. Though he didn't know it at the time, the information he gleaned would eventually come in handy. After 12 years in the Marine Corps and a few years working civilian jobs, he found himself looking for a new direction. He and his wife, Connie, had started a family by that time, and when a job in transit became available in Connie's native Arkansas hometown of Jonesboro, they took the opportunity to move closer to family. As it turned out, he was quite good at the work, and he was soon recruited by FirstGroup America, a large provider of student transportation.

The work suited Gardner, but the travel and separation from his family was difficult. His work was transitory, and when his supervisor called with an opportunity to return to Arkansas, Gardner, who was working in Texas while his family was living in Nevada, jumped at the chance to have everyone back in one place -- despite some initial, mosquito-themed reservations.

"I remembered my time in Jonesboro, and the people were great," he says. "The community is great, weather is pretty good, but the mosquitoes were hateful. I'm thinking, "Oh, God, what did I do wrong? Why do I have to go back to Arkansas?' Because my only picture of Arkansas was Jonesboro. I had no idea that [Northwest Arkansas] even existed.

"But I remember when I was driving up here -- you don't text when you drive and you don't take pictures when you drive, you just don't do that. But I violated my own rules because as I came out of the Bobby Hopper Tunnel for the first time, off to the right, there's these rolling hills with greenery everywhere. I took a picture of it, sent it to my wife, and I told her something to the effect of, 'This is completely different than Jonesboro."

Gardner's skill at his job might come from the affinity he has for public transit, which he acquired as a public transit customer.

"I used it everywhere," he says. "I was a frequent user at Lejeune. I was a frequent user of it overseas. I was a frequent user of it in Southern California. I used it everywhere I went -- because it was easy.

"It's part of the infrastructure, as far as I'm concerned. It's just as important. Having a fully functional transit system is just as important to me as having a fully functioning wastewater system or having fully functional streets and sidewalk systems or having a fully functional power grid. Public transit contributes to part of the infrastructure of a community."

By accepting the position at Ozark Regional Transit, however, he was taking the helm of a transit company in a community that had just rejected a bid to fund public transportation to make it part of its infrastructure. Gardner says he wasn't in town for longer than a few days before he saw the benefit that expanding the transit system could do for the area.

"We were heading down into Fayetteville to look at some houses, and I remember heading down College," he says. "We got to about the mall, and the road was backed up all the way to the mall. I remember telling the real estate agent, 'Hey, let's just go ahead and turn around and head in another direction.' And I'm thinking to myself as I'm looking down this long path of cars, 'Why don't we have large buses going from this location to wherever it is all these people are going?' Because every one of these cars that I saw in that half-mile stretch, bumper to bumper, was going to be looking for the same parking spot, and they were going to be blocks, if not miles, away from their destination."

"In Northwest Arkansas, we are a community that is very much car-centric," says Waddell. "But it's growing at such a pace that now is the time to address the current and future plans of public transit. He knows that, and does his best to network with elected officials and communities to implement public transit services. It's a tough battle, because there are so many projects in line that need assistance."

Advocates tout a number of practical benefits to public transportation: increased transit safety, less wear and tear on highway and street systems, reduction of gasoline consumption and air pollution and reduction of traffic congestion. The American Public Transportation Association even claims that, for every $1 invested in public transportation, $4 in economic returns is generated -- yet the concept of expanding the public transit system can be a hard sell in communities like Northwest Arkansas. The disconnect, says Gardner, is the entrenched idea that public transit is for only one small sector of the population.

"I knew we had to do something to change the public's mindset [about] public transit. As Northwest Arkansas grows, we can't keep, as a community, the thought process of, "Oh, it's only for the poor and the disabled and the people who don't have licenses.' It was for anybody when we built it. It is for anybody who wants to move from point A to point B efficiently.

"And I think that mindset is changing, because a different type of resident is moving into the area, a group of people that have had exposure to transit before, that are looking for it because they understand the ease of use."

"He absolutely has changed my mind on public transit," says Eccles. "Before, I didn't ever really put it into perspective until I saw what he was doing in Reno, and I saw what he accomplished in El Paso, and I listened to some of the stories he told me about his different ideas. Now he's here, and I can see how important the issue is, I can see him being persuasive for city council members and sticking with it and not giving up -- it is something he is very passionate about, and he's looking years forward in order to make this a promising outcome for the people of Northwest Arkansas."

Gardner studies other communities' public transit efforts in order to determine effective ways of getting the message across.

"When [I'm] the only one talking about how wonderful transit is, the thought process is, 'That's just the transit guy,'" notes Gardner. "'Of course he's going to say that, that's his job.' We've had the speaker series that's been put on by the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission along with the Walton Family Foundation, and the last two speakers that were here were from Indianapolis and Raleigh-Durham [N.C.]. And these guys were Chamber guys, talking about how they went ahead and got the transit initiatives passed -- it was a [coalition] of all types of community leadership groups, everyone from disabled veterans to senior citizens to people with disabilities to business groups to school groups, industry specialists, white collar workers, blue collar workers, one of the unions -- because it's a good thing to be able to ensure that people can get to work and have a good quality of life and get to entertainment and get to school and get to their medical needs. They had hospitals on board, medical professionals on board. It can't just be the transit guy."

With the kind of challenges Gardner has faced in his position, you might think he would tend toward the pessimistic.

You would be wrong.

"That fire was a hiccup in a day's work," says the former Marine cheerfully. "We did not let the tragedy define us. We kicked it's a**, as far as I'm concerned. For the first three months of having the pile of rubble sitting out there, I would walk out there every morning and say, 'You will not defeat me -- let's go back to work.'"

As far as making public transit a fixture of the infrastructure of Northwest Arkansas, Gardner's outlook is equally optimistic.

"I hope [it will happen] within two years," he says. "We're just wrapping up the study of the Highway 71 business corridor for the rapid transit along there -- that's what I call the spine of the system. And then the five communities along this corridor, including Lowell, should be able to invest enough to go ahead and make a great rib cage that allows for connectivity. So that when you want to get from southeast Fayetteville up to southeast Rogers, you're able to do it."

For Gardner, the stakes are too high to give up.

"I can tell you that the Friday after the fire, the phone was ringing off the hook, with people wondering about their bus," says Gardner. "This kid called and said, 'Do you think it's gonna be working by Monday?' I said, 'Well, there's a probability that we're going to have some routes out there.' And he says, 'Well, I'm a new student at NWACC, and if I can't get there on transit, I can't get there. So I'm not a student anymore.' And I said, 'OK, what you're telling me is if transit isn't readily available for you to start school, you're going to have to drop out.' And he says, 'Yeah, because I have no other way to get there.' I said, 'Over my dead body will I be the cause of some kid dropping out of school. We will have transit ready for you on Monday morning.'

"And we did."

NAN Profiles on 06/03/2018

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