Just months after retiring in 2004, Gary Gardiner wasn't sure where his life would take him.

Just months after retiring in 2004, Gary Gardiner wasn't sure where his life would take him.

As he drove away from his annual doctor's appointment, he wondered where he would find the satisfaction that nearly four decades in photojournalism had brought him. He was healthy, his doctor said, but he was no longer doing the work that made him feel "really lucky" for so many years.

And then, as he approached a traffic light, a large dump truck blew through the intersection, testing Gardiner's brakes and shocking an idea into his head. "I wonder what my last photograph would be?" he wondered to himself. "And then it hit me. I'll do My Final Photo."

'Always a Story to Tell'

Since he was a 12-year-old growing up in Gainesville, Fla., Gardiner had wanted to be a photographer. "I wasn't very good," he says with a laugh. "But who is at 12?"

He got his first taste of a photo shoot on a trip to Disneyland in California. He had a brand new Kodak camera and spent the day trying to get good pictures of Sleeping Beauty Castle. When he developed them, he realized he had taken a variety of scenic shots of the railing in front of the castle.

He would get his redemption several years later at his first job with the news bureau of the University of Florida. His first assignment sent him to Walt Disney World. He left school in 1972 to work for the Orlando Sentinel. From there, Gardiner's career took him to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, The Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi, the Associated Press in Atlanta and finally to Columbus as a photo editor for the AP in 1982.

He recalled his mother asking, "What went wrong?" when he told her he was leaving for Columbus. "Being a good, southern woman, she thought Atlanta was like New York City. Why would you want to leave?"

He and his wife, Sherry, made central Ohio their home and settled in Westerville. They have three children, Angie, Amy and Daniel, and eight grandchildren.

From The Columbus Dispatch building in downtown Columbus where the AP staff was based, Gardiner says he spent the most rewarding years of his career helping to cover the region. "There was always a story to tell," he says. "We never wanted for anything."

Along the way, he covered AIDS victims before some news organizations dared and helped install the first digital photo system at papers across the country. But eventually he began clashing with higher-ups about what stories should take priority. His desire to focus on more features and in-depth coverage wasn't shared by managers. "We just weren't covering the stories I thought were important," he says.

So Gardiner retired at age 60, still as enthusiastic about photography as he was 40 years before, wondering how he would spend his time.

Documenting History

Since that moment at the intersection more than 11 years ago, the 71-year-old Gardiner has become one of Westerville's most visible faces.

He's been doing his "final photo" every day since, racking up a huge archive of work on his website, myfinalphoto.com. Each day, he posts a picture. He tries to tell the stories of people in town or chronicle events and local happenings -- and he does it with the eye of a photojournalist. "I'm continuing to shoot every day as if I was a newspaper photo staffer," he says. "If there's an event, I cover the event. ... If not, I look for a feature."

Westerville's community affairs administrator Christa Dickey says she wishes "the city had the staff capabilities to walk around and kind of be a community photographer." For her, Gardiner is doing the job the city can't.

"He's everywhere; he's capturing everything," she says. "I think that is so true to the character of Westerville, that he, in a way, really brings Westerville to life. It's not just buildings or streetscapes or vehicles. He always gets the person and the moment and the time right."

The historians of the city also have taken notice. Beth Weinhardt, local history coordinator for the Westerville Public Library, recalls seeing Gardiner at a pancake breakfast one morning. She then walked to her office, opened the blinds and saw him taking photos of a building construction project across the street. "It was 9:30 a.m. and I had already seen him in two places in the community," she says with a laugh.

It was Weinhardt who convinced Gardiner to give his archives to the library. When his My Final Photo series is complete, years of photos will become the library's to use as staff members see fit. Gardiner has been fastidious with both details and metadata, so historians will be able to put it all into context.

"His photographs can be a backdrop for showing artifacts from the community from this era," Weinhardt says. "There are endless things that can be done with the focus. We have reporters who call and say, 'Do you have a picture of such and such block 25 years ago?' We have people who contact us wanting to know what their home looked like 40 years ago.

"We don't always have that information. Here, we have someone who's always going out and recording these things in the community. It's not only useful from an exhibit standpoint, but for people who are doing research."

Ralph Denick, who owns Java Central in Uptown Westerville, has been known to put Gardiner's photos on his business' walls. Those walls are usually reserved for artists with exhibitions or local artwork for sale, and Denick says Gardiner's work is no less impressive.

"He captures what Westerville is all about, what people are all about," Denick says. "He's an artist. I've had some of my painters who own galleries and are masters in their own right marvel about his abilities. They say he's got the talent to be in a national gallery."

Final Photos

Gardiner, an active woodworker until recently, has resisted taking any paid photography jobs in retirement. "I'm still pretty much hands-off. I've been asked to join things, but I always say no. It's not like I'm going to be reporting, but if something happens, I don't want to be attached to them," he says.

The quality of his work and his near omnipresence have made Gardiner a bit of a celebrity around Westerville. He says he's often approached by people who either recognize his face from an event or know of his work. "It drives my wife nuts," he says with a laugh. "People will say, 'Hi Gary,' ... or they'll say, 'Hey, you're that guy.' "

Some have even called him Mr. Westerville. He's not sure how he feels about that moniker, but he's purchased mrwesterville.com just in case.

Gardiner is still thinking ahead. His last trick involves a motion sensor at his funeral. His plan is to have an open casket and a camera in his arms. As people lean over, the camera will snap a photo. He smiles with delight at the idea of turning the tables on people one last time-and perhaps scaring them a little along the way, too.

He wants to have his camera connected to the funeral home's Wi-Fi, so it can post a photo to his website of the funeral director closing his coffin. It will truly be his last photo.

But in the meantime, he'll keep taking photographs around town, recording Westerville history. "I love what I'm doing," Gardiner says of his post-retirement life. "I'll do it until I die or until I can't move."

Andrew King is a reporter for ThisWeek Community News.

This story appears in the Spring 2016 issue of Westerville365.