September 18 2012
In the early 1970s, John Gardner made Milwaukee history. He became the first full-time African American news anchor in the city.
But earning that spot in history didn't come easy.
While studying UW-Milwaukee, he got his start as an intern at a local television station. But before he could even complete his internship, he was dismissed for being, in his own words, too "ambitious."
"I was told by the news director there that society wasn't ready for a black face on television. And he told me that like the weatherman says 'we might get some rain tonight.' He was very matter-of-fact about it," Gardner said.
But he didn't let that obstacle get in the way of breaking into the news business. After all, Garnder was nothing if not ambitious. He turned down multiple offers from WITI, but he eventually went in for an on-camera audition. Turns out he was a natural.
"They asked me 'are you sure you've never done this before,'" Gardner remembers.
WITI offered him the job, making him the first black face on Milwaukee television.
Drawing on extensive experience in radio news, he anchored the 6 o'clock and late newscasts. But despite all the attention, he said he never let it get to his head.
"I didn't think about the fact that I was the first black television news anchor in Milwaukee. It never really occurred to me until long after the fact, kind of looking back," he said.
Gardner continued to work in television news in St. Louis, but after a few years he decided to return to his broadcast home -- radio. He spent the rest of his career working at different radio stations around the country and in Milwaukee.
Now in his early seventies, Gardner continues to write. And as a life-long fan of inventive black artists like Scott Joplin and Langston Hughes, Garder has written his own collection of poetry. It's a tribute to the artists who inspired him to overcome the challenges posed by racism and fear.
"I was inspired by Langston Hughes. He's been my idol for a long time," he said. "He was so involved with the common people. He wasn't a snob, and one of his main things was to stay in contact with the common person."
Gardner occasionally presents Hughes' poetry, alongside some of his own work, at local coffee shops. Just last week, he read some of his favorite poems written by Hughes at The Coffee House near 19th and Wisconsin, one of Milwaukee's longest-running venues for public art.
Here is the unedited audio from his performance.
Gardner says hard work and determination made it all possible. And it was artists like Hughes and Joplin who gave him he inspiration to keep working at his dream, despite the narrow-minded naysayers who challenged him.
"I didn't oppose what they said outwardly. I thought to myself 'I have news for you,'" he said with a chuckle.
To hear the audio version of this story, click the podcast player below.