Tuesday, November 2, 2010
WALLA WALLA - As it turned out, Tommy Gardner became more famous for his french fries than his fancy footwork.
No doubt because he spent many more years serving up burgers and fries at his popular restaurant on West Pine Street than he ever did pursuing his passion in the boxing ring. Polio took care of that in 1930.
Generally regarded as the best fighter ever to come out of Walla Walla, Gardner has been dead now for nearly three decades. He died in 1981 at the age of 74.
And while the restaurant he and his wife Helen opened in 1934, Tommy's Dutch Lunch, continues to operate today, Gardner's boxing exploits have largely been forgotten. At least that's how his daughter, Betty Swenson of Walla Walla, sees it, and she's pushing for her father's inclusion in the State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame.
And even though Swenson never saw her father fight, her point is well taken.
In 39 professional bouts in a career that began in 1923 when Gardner was just 16 years old, the Walla Walla boxer won 33 times, eight times by knockout, and lost just four times. Twice he fought to draws.
The 5-foot-5 bantamweight (118 pounds) became the unofficial Northwest champion after winning a tournament in Spokane in 1929. Unable to attract any of the top fighters from outside the region to fight him in Spokane, much less here in Walla Walla, Gardner and his father, Harley, headed to Los Angeles where many of the best bantamweights in the country resided at the time.
Gardner won six of the seven bouts he fought in California. His only loss came on June 13, 1930, a 10-round decision to a top contender named Newsboy Brown at Legion Stadium in Hollywood.
Gardner would later say that Brown was the toughest fighter he ever met.
"He was a real tough SOB," Gardner was quoted in a story that appeared in the Union-Bulletin in 1978. "He head-butted my eyes closed by the seventh round after cracking a rib in the third."
Although he finished the 10 rounds, the broken rib knocked Gardner out of action until August, when he returned to the same ring and decisioned a fighter named Sergio Radam. It proved to be the last fight of Gardner's career.
Gardner was scheduled to meet Tommy McGough, a top bantamweight out of New York, later that year. But two days before the fight, he developed a fever and began to experience a tingling feeling in his arms and legs. He was forced to cancel the fight and learned soon after that he had contracted polio.
"It was a year in which a lot of athletes in the Los Angeles area were hit with polio," Swenson said. "And I remember that he was brought home completely paralyzed from the neck down."
According to the Union-Bulletin account, it was six months before Gardner could walk, followed by two years of rehabilitation. And he never fully regained use of his left arm.
Those difficult days left an imprint on Swenson.
"Daddy saw many different doctors," she recalled. "And I can remember my mother and my grandparents working around the clock on my dad massaging him.
"Years later, Daddy told me that he was laying on the davenport, just looking out the window, and it came to him," Swenson said. "He said to himself, ‘You've been a fighter all of your life, so fight or give up.' He made that decision to fight and it turned it all around."
Back on his feet, Gardner's next challenge was to decide what to do with the rest of his life.
He had learned to cut hair and operated a barber shop on Main Street before his illness. But without full use of his left arm, Gardner's first job after recovering from polio was driving a delivery truck for a dry cleaning service.
Then, in 1934, the Gardners decided to go into the restaurant-tavern business.
"They considered two locations," Swenson said. "One where the Green Lantern Tavern is now and the other was a service station on Pine Street. They decided on Pine Street because my grandparents lived on Elm Street and that was just a block away."
They acquired the property for $500 and opened Tommy's Dutch Lunch later that year. Helen ran the business and Tommy continued to deliver dry cleaning until the restaurant took off.
"You could buy a lot of food for $50 in those days," Swenson said. "She ran it for one week, and at the end of the week she had $75, so she bought $75 of food. And she kept putting it back into the restaurant.
"And that's when Daddy came to work. And everybody came to see Daddy because he was a fighter. When he came in, that's when it was really popular."
However, Tommy and Helen divorced and Helen moved to Portland, where Swenson eventually joined her and graduated from Washington High School in 1946. Her brother John, younger by five years, remained in Walla Walla and graduated from Wa-Hi and is now a doctor in Parker, Ariz.
"In their divorce," Swenson said, "it seemed right to mom and dad that he take the boy and she the girl."
Tommy Gardner remarried, and his second wife, Dolly, joined him in the restaurant business. And when Swenson relocated in Walla Walla in 1952, she helped out part time for several years and became the full time waitress in the 1960s.
"I can't tell you how many hamburger lunches I served for $1.25," Swenson recalled. "That was our specialty.
"We had one of the first french fry machines, and we never sold anything frozen in that restaurant. When you had a french fry, it was the real McCoy.
"There was this Italian farmer who brought in potatoes and tomatoes, and of course, Walla Walla Sweet Onions. And we peeled those potatoes and put them down in a great big canning bucket of water."
In recognition of the restaurant's name, they also created a Dutch lunch special, Swenson said.
"You could get a scoop of potato salad, cut meats, cheese and rye bread, and you made your own sandwich," she said. "You paid for that and a glass of beer, and it was very popular in the summer time."
And Tommy's Dutch Lunch served the coldest beer in town, Swenson said, "because Daddy kept the mugs refrigerated."
That was particularly pleasing to some of the workers at nearby Continental Can, who made it a practice of stopping off for a cold one at Tommy's Dutch Lunch after getting off the night shift.
"Our breakfast crowd consisted of the Continental Can guys who were just getting off work and every rancher in the area who came for coffee in the morning," Swenson said.
And another of the restaurant's specialties attracted a still different clientle.
"There wasn't a doctor or lawyer in this town who didn't come to Tommy's when Dolly made her chile," Swenson said.
Although boxing was out of the question, Tommy Gardner continued to be active.
He was an avid skier and a charter member of the Blue Mountain Ski Club at Tollgate. He built and raced his own motor boats and played a role in bringing hydroplane racing to this part of the country. And he was a crack shot who enjoyed hunting.
The Gardners sold Tommy's Dutch Lunch in 1971.
"I think they just got tired of the restaurant," Swenson said. "They had run it for 40 years."
Dolly died in 1979.
"And Dad died a year or so after Dolly," Swenson said. "He did something I never dreamed he would. He just quit. He didn't want to live after Dolly died."
Quitting is something Swenson isn't considering when it comes to getting her father recognized for his accomplishments in the boxing ring so many years ago.
"I never got to see him fight," Swenson said. "I wasn't born until he was on the road."
But in her imagination, she has watched him fight many times through the eyes and stories told to her by those who witnessed her father's exploits inside the ropes.
"He was so fast, most of his opponents couldn't touch him," Swenson said, working her fingers in rapid fashion as if they were the legs of a boxer dancing in the ring. "His reach was 42 inches, or more, and he had these round shoulders. And he was fast.
"He patterned himself after Gene Tunney. A very scientific fighter. And he named me after him - Betty Gene Gardner."
Tunney, of course, was the world heavyweight boxing champion from 1926 to 1928 who twice defeated Jack Dempsey in title fights.
So, with a fighting pedigree like that, it would seem that Tommy Gardner's chances of getting into the hall of fame are looking up.