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Waterford - Henry Gardiner III, whose ancestors were Puritans who settled in Waterford before the United States was even a country, was a taciturn Yankee who quietly helped his community throughout his entire life, donating time, money and land.
Gardiner, who died Wednesday at age 89, was out of the public eye for many years, but those who knew him when he was active said he worked behind the scenes and didn't like to draw attention to himself.
"He was a very quiet philanthropist,'' said George C. White, founder of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford. "He was a remarkable guy. A major player here, but it was always under the radar."
Gardiner was one of the original founders of the O'Neill, White said, co-signing a $350,000 note in 1965 to start the center.
"He loved the theater but he never wanted to be in the spotlight,'' White said. "He never wanted to take any credit, but he really did an enormous amount to start the O'Neill.''
Because he was quiet, even those who knew him and volunteered with him were unsure of all of his contributions to the town.
White said he believed Gardiner either donated the land or the money for Spera Field on Gardiner Woods Road, and may have given money to help build Waterford Library.
"It's so difficult with Henry to know what he did,'' White said.
Naomi Rachleff, who volunteered with Gardiner raising money for Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, agreed.
"Henry was a fine gentleman,'' she said. "He was very generous with the hospital and gave money, but I can't say what. He wouldn't like it."
She said he had a great sense of humor and even performed onstage in a few skits for the Hi-Fever Follies, the hospital's annual fundraiser.
Gardiner, who joined the Waterford library board in 1959 and was an honorary trustee, was instrumental in raising the library's endowment and designing and building the library on Rope Ferry Road, according to Clifford Grandjean, the board's current president.
"I remember fondly many things about him," Grandjean said. "He was always a great source of information and wisdom."
Grandjean said his friend was "a wonderful and polite human being'' with a wry sense of humor, who didn't like to flaunt what he had.
"He would drive around in a very old, beat-up car, probably the oldest car in Waterford,'' Grandjean said. "He had no pretensions about him."
The Gardiner family settled in Waterford in 1763 and became one of its biggest landowners, operating the Millstone Granite Quarry for years. In 1951, Gardiner sold 114 acres of waterfront property for $446,000 to the Millstone Point Co., where today the Millstone Nuclear Power Station is located.
The family still owns land around Millstone, as well as the Barrett Farm near Cross Road and Interstate 95.
Gardiner spent his childhood in Waterford and Montclair, N.J., graduating from Yale University in 1944. During World War II, he was a Navy lieutenant acting as a Japanese language officer assigned to Adm. Chester Nimitz's staff in Pearl Harbor.
He was a pilot and had a landing strip at his home on Millstone Road. He also was interested in radio and electronics.
Edgar Russ, a friend for more than 60 years, said Gardiner did many good things for Waterford, including revitalizing some buildings in Jordan Village.
He also served on the YMCA in New London and was a charter member of the former New London Country Club, the Thames Club in New London and the Niantic Bay Yacht Club.
"All in all, he was a good citizen,'' Russ said. "But he was a very private person."
His wife, Marcia, said her husband was modest and would have downplayed any talk of his generosity.
"He would never have been pretentious enough to think that he would leave a legacy,'' she said.
His burial and interment will be private. According to his family, a memorial gathering is planned for a future date.