James E. "Doc" Gardner, D.O.

James E. "Doc" Gardner, D.O.


Doc Gardner led a legendary life.

At 90 years old this Northeast Missouri farm boy, veteran, doctor, businessman, exotic animal trader and rare coin collector, known as “Doc” by those who knew him from his medical career, and “Animal Papa” by those who loved him and are his legacy, passed away in his hometown of Kirksville, Missouri from a heart so big it couldn’t be contained. He passed away at home under the care of Hospice of Northeast Missouri while surrounded by loving family on Thursday December 21, 2023.

That legacy includes his wife of nearly a half century, Wilma (Wells) Gardner, six children: Lynn Ann (Gardner) Roberts and husband Larry of Weatherby Lake, MO., James Michael Gardner and wife Cindy of Columbia, David Bryan Gardner and wife Joy of Lee’s Summit, MO., Kelly Wayne Gardner and wife Pam of Cottleville, MO., Cynthia Marie (Gardner) Lewellen and husband Chuck of Kirksville, MO., and stepson Greg Murphy and wife Kim of Kirksville, MO., along with eighteen grandchildren, and fifteen great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his parents, Earnest and Maxie (Smith) Gardner, his sister Mary (Gardner) Emdia, stillborn granddaughter Tanya Gardner, and grandson Matthew Lewellen, a Green Beret killed in action in Jordan.

His larger-than-life persona drew comparisons to John Wayne, but his smooth moves on the dance floor brought Fred Astaire to mind. On any given Saturday night, you could find Jim and Wilma dancing at the VFW, where he rarely sat out a dance, especially if the great-grandchildren were there. He was not one to sit out much in life.

James Edgar Gardner was born October 18, 1933, in Hurdland, Missouri, to Earnest and Maxie Gardner. His father was a farmer and his mother a teacher in Knox County. In fact, she taught in a one-room schoolhouse near their farm and Jim was one of her students. He said he never gave his mother credit for her intelligence; she earned a Masters degree in the 1950’s when few women were pursuing a college education.

He graduated in 1952 from Knox County High School in Edina, Missouri, and left Missouri to seek his fortune in factories out of state, then enlisted in the U.S. Navy where he served two years on the USS Randolph aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. When he returned to Kirksville he married his high school sweetheart, Sue Bishop, in 1954. Together they had five children in seven years: Lynn, Mike, David, Kelly and Cindy. After their divorce he married Wilma Murphy in 1977 and gained a stepson, Greg Murphy.

As a young father in his senior year at Kirksville College of Osteopathy and Surgery, Jim was elected student body president. While still in medical school he began working at the downtown clinic of Mildred Gelbach, D.O., and he took over her practice in 1964 after she was struck by a car while in California. He recently told a reporter for the Adair Historian that he didn’t leave the county for seven years after taking over the clinic. He trained himself to function on just four hours of sleep a night.

He was known as Kirksville’s baby doctor and estimated he delivered more than 4,600 babies in his career. If there was a complicated birth, his colleagues called on him for the special delivery. He also pioneered the use of the laparoscope in Missouri. His clinic partners over the years included the late Mary Boller, D.O., and Joseph Marino, D.O., now of South Carolina.

Along with Dr. Marino and several other doctors he owned and operated Grim-Smith Hospital until they sold it. He continued owning farms and became one of the first to raise French Charolais cattle in the state. He and fellow investors built a thriving night club, the Golden Spike, that hosted nationally known musicians and comedians in downtown Kirksville; they opened a second one in Quincy, Illinois. Among the other local businesses he developed were the Crown Drive Professional Building on Hwy. 63, two medical research businesses, Sunbrite Laundry, Aladdin Glass and home decor store, Colonial Manor Motel, and Pancake City on Hwy. 63 in partnership with daughter Cindy and her husband Chuck Lewellen, and Gardner Miniatures with wife Wilma.

When Dr. Gardner retired from medicine at the age of 53, he and Wilma moved to wooded acreage adjoining Thousand Hills State Park and began their exotic animal business. Over the following decades they raised llamas, zebras, red deer, buffalo, elk, camels, fainting goats, exotic birds like emus and peacocks, and finally, miniature donkeys and miniature horses. Their first llama was house-trained and slept with them in the bunkhouse while their home was being built.

Every Fourth of July, the Gardners and the Waddles invited hundreds of family members and friends to gather in a clearing at the place he called “theBrush” to create memories riding mules, playing horseshoes, eating turkey fries, and telling tall tales, culminating in the largest fireworks display in Northeast Missouri. The other holiday he made famous for the family became known as “Walmart Christmas” when he and Wilma hosted a big meal and distributed envelopes filled with cash to take the whole family shopping together at Walmart the weekend before the holiday.

An athlete in high school, he recalls playing basketball against Norm Stewart, whom he remembered as “a tough SOB”. As an adult he coached the American Legion Kirksville Royals and other KBA baseball teams to many a victory and all of his sons played the game. The baseball field in Kirksville is named “Doc Gardner Field” in his honor. In recent years he was elected to the KBSA Hall of Fame. He traveled the region in support of his grandkids and great-grandkids, whether it be basketball, football, softball, baseball, track, dance, poker, or even soccer (not his favorite sport). He loved to cheer them on.

Before moving to Missouri to farm, Jim’s father Earnest built roads in Illinois with wagons pulled by mules. In his forties, Jim Gardner took up Mule Jumping and trained his favorite mule to jump over a wall as tall as 67 inches. With his jumping mule Icey they won three state fair competitions in Missouri, Iowa and Illinois. Doc asked that his ashes be spread on the ridge where his best mule Icey and his best dog Phideaux (pronounced Fido) are buried. A farm boy at heart, as his medical career in Kirksville flourished, he bought a series of farms in Adair County and kept them until he could double his money, using the proceeds to buy the next farm. Land was important to him. Striking a good deal was too.

Well known for his generosity, Doc Gardner was asked to help put together a Wagon Train for Boys Town of Missouri in St. James. For eight years he and Wilma, along with friends from the Waddle family, provided riding animals for a trail ride for 100 abused and neglected boys. The 170-mile ride started in St. James and went all the way to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Over those eight days, Doc recalled that the boys learned to ride and gained a sense of pride and connection to their animals. Missouri’s governor presented Jim and Wilma with the Child Advocate of the Year award for their work.

Jim Gardner had a love of adventure, hunting, fishing, and pulling legendary pranks; he was adept at telling a good joke, especially the off-color ones. His tenderness when caring for the sick or small children and animals, along with his legendary zest for life, benefited multiple generations. His resiliency in surviving more than two decades with a brain tumor gave him countless opportunities to experience the joy and fullness of a life well lived with family and friends. At the end of his life, despite the pain, he was the first to say his nine decades went by in a flash and that he was “a lucky man who had a great run!”

Animal Papa, Doc, Jim….you will be missed, but the movie of your legendary life plays on in our hearts. All the stars of your life are dancing tonight.

A memorial service with military honors will be held 11:00 a.m. Saturday, January 20, 2024 at Travis-Noe Funeral Home in Kirksville, with family receiving friends from 9:00 a.m. to service time.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you remember Doc with a walk in the woods, a trip around the bases on Doc Gardner Field, breakfast at Pancake City, a spin around the dance floor at the VFW on Saturday night, or a donation to Missouri Boys Town in St. James, Missouri.

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E-Memorial Book and Condolences

Signed by: Leann on December 23, 2023

What a beautiful tribute to a wonderful man. I grew up just down the road from Barney and Maxie. Jimmy and the Gardner family were a big part of our life as friends , neighbors and family doctor along side our Aunt Mid.
My sincere condolences to the family. What a wonderful legacy he has left behind.
Leann Gelbach Krenz

Signed by: ajanene on January 9, 2024

My sincere condolences to Doc's family and friends that knew him best.

I am one of the thousands of babies he delivered. I entered the world in February1969 due to his skill and care as a physician. He was one of a kind and the world is better for him having been in it!

Janene (Speaks) Moak

Signed by: ajanene on January 9, 2024

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