Edward G. Gardner Passes Away at 98

Edward G. Gardner was a humanitarian, a philanthropist, and a successful businessman, who loved the city of Chicago and Chicago loved him in return. Gardner owner of Soft Sheen Products, Inc.  Photo provided by the Salient Group, Inc.
Edward G. Gardner was a humanitarian, a philanthropist, and a successful businessman, who loved the city of Chicago and Chicago loved him in return. Gardner owner of Soft Sheen Products, Inc. Photo provided by the Salient Group, Inc.

 Edward Gardner passed away peacefully Monday March 20, 2023, surrounded by family, and loved ones. He was 98 years old.

Ed Gardner was a well-known and admired businessman. In 1964, he left a career as a popular teacher and assistant principal to start haircare company, Soft Sheen Products, Inc. with his wife Bettiann. He often stated his primary reason for establishing Soft Sheen Products, Inc., was to create employment opportunities for young Black and Brown men and women. In that same spirit, he continued his commitment to support the livelihood of professional cosmetologists by ensuring that his most popular product system, Care Free Curl, was solely available for purchase and application by them. Throughout his ownership of the company, he continued to offer exclusive products for his beloved salon customers.

From a young age, his four children, Gary, Terri, Guy, and Tracy, along with his wife Bettiann, were intricately involved in the business. Soft Sheen Products, Inc. based on Chicago’s South Side, evolved into one of the nation’s largest Black-owned businesses.

“He was my father, my hero, my teacher. I looked up to him” Gary Gardner stated on Wednesday. “I feel blessed to have had Ed Gardner as my father. He was the embodiment of the hard-working, family-focused, responsible Black father. He taught me the value of a strong work ethic. He got up early in the morning, telling us “We’re not going to make it this way” meaning let’s get to work. If he wasn’t at work, he was home with family. If you saw Ed Gardner out after work or on weekends, he had us, his children, in tow. As the oldest, I think I spent the most time with him as a child. He taught me to fish. He taught me to garden.

 He taught me how to build, how to fix things, how to drive, and how not to drive. At twelve, he took me to work with him on Saturdays, where I learned to make hair products. I was his assistant when he made product deliveries. He also taught me how to make mistakes. Most importantly, he taught me how to engage all people with humanity and humility,” said Gary Gardner.

Continued Gary Gardner, “Yes, he was a distinguished role model and businessman, as well as prominent civic organizer. A mentor to me and countless others. He enjoyed sharing his views that responsibility was the definition of manhood. His exceptional work ethic was one of his greatest gifts and I have passed that on to my sons.”

New products, new innovations and new ideas propelled Soft Sheen’s remarkable success, yet, while keeping an eye on his business, his heart was always with the people – especially the youth.

Often a newspaper article would touch his heart. Whether it was purchasing a home for the family of a young Chicago girl who was victim to gun violence, to pitching in after a tragic event in The Robert Taylor Homes, to giving tens of thousands to causes like the Atlanta child murders, he was there, making a difference in the lives of people in need.

Ed Gardner’s greatest contribution to the city he loved was doing everything he could to help Chicago elect its first Black Mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983. He loaned his creative staff, along with significant advertising dollars, to create the signature voter registration campaign, “Come Alive October 5”.

Blitzing the city with banners, print and radio advertisements, the campaign registered over 200,000 new voters and helped secure Harold Washington’s victory. In 1992, his in-house communication agency, led by his daughter Terri, created a second highly successful voter registration campaign in partnership with Project Vote, led by Barack Obama.

According to Terri Gardner, “One of my dad’s greatest qualities was his perseverance. He believed in himself and his ability to not just hope things worked out, but to make sure things worked out. It’s an entrepreneurial quality that allowed him to create a business despite the challenges of institutional and individual racism. Unfortunately, those challenges never went away - - in spite of his tremendous business success.” 

She emphasized his values. “He knew that our community needed to use its muscle to affect positive social and political outcomes in Chicago. He believed in the power of our vote and funded efforts to register people in record numbers.”

Adds Terri, “His goals for the business always included a social goal. He saw the untapped potential of his community. He challenged every employee to “do their job so well, that it would create a job for someone else.” That was the clarion call for us all.

“My dad lived the formula for his success. He believed that with access to opportunity, hard work, a quality education and safe neighborhoods, there is nothing we can’t achieve. He walked his talk and cared passionately about his beloved community,” concluded Terri.

Dismayed by the level of violence in the community, in the 1980s he created the non-profit organization, Black On Black Love. He firmly believed promoting self-love and self-respect could change hearts, and the organization created No Crime Day to celebrate those principles and promote peace. It expanded its offerings to a myriad of social services including after-school programs and employment training. Throughout the decades, Ed’s faith in God and humanity, and his belief in the power of the written word to stop the violence, persisted. In 2007, after 16-year-old Blair Holt was shot and killed while riding the bus home from school, Ed Gardner purchased thousands of dollars’ worth of billboards with messages about Black-on-Black Love.

His and his wife’s love of theater inspired him to re-create one of Chicago’s most historic entertainment venues, the Regal Theater. The New Regal Theater brought major acts like Gladys Knight and newcomers like Kanye West and Tyler Perry to audiences on the city’s South Side. In 2000, Ed converted an 84,600 sq. ft. warehouse at 95th & Cottage Grove into House of Kicks, a family entertainment and educational complex. With amusement rides, bowling, mini-golf and an interactive learning center, the complex boasted the only roller coaster in Chicago at that time.

In the 1980s, Ed and his wife Bettiann became co-owners of the Chicago Bulls basketball team, cementing their love for Chicago and its award-winning franchise. He served on the boards of Chicago United and The Chicago Urban League.

In September 2012, at the age of eighty-seven, Edward Gardner led over a thousand demonstrators protesting the lack of Black workers on local construction crews. Ed Gardner proudly walked arm-in-arm at the front of the line with his long-time colleagues, Manford Byrd, Lerone Bennett and Timuel Black.

A lifelong resident of Chicago, Edward George Gardner was born February 15, 1925, in the city’s West Chesterfield neighborhood to Frank Gardner and Eva (Brown) Gardner. He and his older brother, Frank, graduated from Fenger High School. After serving in the US Army in World War II, Ed earned his B.A. from Chicago Teachers’ College and an M.A. in Education from The University of Chicago. He pursued a career in education and worked part-time selling beauty supplies to local hair salons. In 1964, he and his wife Bettiann started hair care company, Soft Sheen Products.

For more than half a century, the family has shared their husband, father, father-in- law, uncle, grandfather, and great-grandfather proudly and unselfishly with the world. And now his work is done; he belongs to the ages. He leaves a legend of love and a powerful life for the world to remember. Words of remembrance and condolences are invited at Edward Gardner In Memoriam Facebook Group page

A private family service is planned. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Chicago State University, https://www.csu.edu/foundation/donate.htm
Please note: In Memory of Edward Gardner

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