WHEN John W. Gardner travels, he jokes that he's the kind of person who leaves things behind - his notebooks, his pens, his briefcase. Addressing a small meeting in New York recently, he had to borrow a friend's glasses - he'd mislaid his own - to read his notes. Those who know him, however, agree that he's best at leaving behind a breathtaking array of ideas and institutions for the benefit of humanity - including Common Cause, the well-known citizens' lobby he founded in 1970, and Independent Sector, a coalition of 650 nonprofit organizations, corporations, and foundations interested in philanthropy and volunteerism, which he cofounded in 1980.
Educated in psychology at Stanford University and the University of California, Mr. Gardner has been president of the Carnegie Corporation and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under Lyndon Johnson; chairman of the National Urban Coalition; and a member of various task forces and commissions under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Reagan. His seven books include ``Excellence,'' ``Self-Renewal,'' and ``The Recovery of Confidence.'' A native Californian, he is returning to Stanford University to become the Miriam and Peter Hass Professor of Public Service.
``He is unusually intelligent, sensitive, thoughtful, and experienced,'' says Independent Sector chairman John Filer, the former chief executive officer of Aetna Life and Casuality Company whose Filer Commission report, issued in 1975, stands as the landmark examination of private philanthropy in America. ``But I guess the principal thing is his even-tempered judgment on matters from the relatively unimportant to the global.''
``He's one of my hero figures,'' says Andrew Heiskell, former chief executive officer of TimeInc., and chairman of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Having watched him chair meetings of sometimes-contentious groups, he notes that Gardner ``has a very sensitive ear to various claimants - he knows how to respond to them and gather them into the fold.''
``He's one of the few authentic wise men I know,'' says Harlan Cleveland, former Ambassador to NATO and former Dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Professor Cleveland particularly notes ``his willingness to take his thought and make action out of it. If there were a role of philosopher laureate - that's what he really is in our society.''