Maryjane Smith Gardner, 91, formerly of Medford Lakes and Mount Laurel, a teacher and lifelong learner who was the first graduate of Burlington County College in 1970, died Wednesday, Dec. 5, of pneumonia at a hospice in Arlington, Va.
She had lived at Greenspring, a retirement community in Springfield, Va., for a decade.
Born in Philadelphia, Mrs. Gardner graduated from St. Hubert High School in Northeast Philadelphia. As a young adult, her passion became educating children, and she worked to hone her teaching skills throughout her life.
She attended classes at Immaculata College until meeting John Clifford Gardner. The two married in 1947 and had six children. Mrs. Gardner worked as a bookkeeper while taking an active role in her children’s education.
It was her interest in their schoolwork that turned Mrs. Gardner back into a student, she told the Burlington County Times. When the two eldest children entered college, she knew she had to pursue a career. “They are growing up so fast that I need to prepare myself for the time when I will no longer be actively involved with their lives,” she was quoted as saying.
One step she took in 1965 was becoming a volunteer member of the Medford Lakes Board of Education, and she continued in that role for five years. Another step was in 1969, when Mrs. Gardner enrolled in the newly created BCC. She had enough credits from Immaculata to complete the coursework in a single year. In May 1970, she became the college’s first graduate, with an associate of arts degree.
In September 1970, Mrs. Gardner entered what was then Glassboro State University as a junior. She graduated in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education.
In the fall of 1972, Mrs. Gardner fulfilled her dream of working with adolescents at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly. She began with U.S. History I and II. “With a little bit of interpretation, history can be a dynamic subject,” she told the Willingboro newspaper.
While teaching history and social studies from 1972 to 1980, Mrs. Gardner earned dual master’s degrees in social studies and library science from Rutgers University. In 1984, she was elected to Delta Kappa Gamma, a society for leading women educators.
Starting in 1980, Mrs. Gardner served for two years as a staff member to U.S. Rep. C. W. Burgener (R., Calif.) in Washington.
“It was a grand experience,” she said. “I had taught and studied American government, but now I had the opportunity to view the workings of government up close.”
Mrs. Gardner returned to teaching at Burlington City High School until 1984. She worked as the library media specialist at Shawnee High School from 1984 to 1985, and then as the librarian at Mount Laurel’s Countryside Elementary School from 1985 until her retirement in 1993.
She was a member of the Sierra Club/Outdoor Club of New Jersey, and a supporter of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the World Affairs Council.
Mrs. Gardner and her husband divorced in the early 1970s. He died in 2001. She is survived by children John Clifford Jr., Gary, Brian, Dennis, Mary Kay Gardner Brownell, and Joseph; 12 grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.
A memorial Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 15, at St. James Catholic Church, 905 Park Ave., Falls Church, Va. Burial is private.