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Reporter's Notebook: The man, the myth, the judge

October 13, 2010|By Tom Ragan, tom.ragan@latimes.com

NEWPORT BEACH — There was some downright bawdy history being bantered about last week inside the Harborside Restaurant and Grand Ballroom in the Balboa Pavillion.

And it was brought to you by some of the people who know Balboa the best: men and women in their 60s and 70s, World War II and Korean War veterans who lived in Newport Beach long before reality TV and "The OC" became popular.

Held to honor the late Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert Gardner, some of them took the stage during an open microphone session, fondly remembering the man who presided over his courtroom with an iron fist while still finding time to mete out justice in between body surfing.

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He also found time to write "Bawdy Balboa," which was published in 1992 and, in effect, is a memoir of sorts because it details how Gardner arrived in Balboa by train in the 1920s and how he never looked back once he got here.

Gardner, who died in 2005 at the age of 93, was the son of a lumber jack, cowboy, railroad worker and a bare knuckler brawler from Green River, Wyo., all rolled into one — if you didn't know.

In the words of his daughter, Newport Beach City Councilwoman Nancy Gardner, he was a "man's man" who was sent to Newport Beach as a child after his father, Dick Gardner, got into some trouble after there was somewhat of a violent disagreement between some strikers and the Union Pacific Railroad.

"And because of these bad feelings, my grandfather sent my father to Balboa to live with his sister," Nancy Gardner said to an audience of some 150 people, many of them senior citizens who knew Gardner fairly well.

And if they didn't know him, then they knew of him.

And if they didn't know of him, they learned about him fast, and the hard way, once they stood before him in court near what is now McFadden Square near the Newport Pier.

Take Sparks McClellan, who was 16 years when he met Robert Gardner. He told the story of how he and the judge kept going around and around on a speeding ticket he received on his way to Pirate Days, a popular event at the time.

The judge asked Sparks how he was planning to plea, and McClellan, after looking around the small courtroom — and not really sure of where he was, let alone how the process worked — hesitated, telling the judge he just wanted to make sure that whatever he was about to do that he did it right.

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