Former firefighter now delights in operating KC's new streetcars.
Jeff “Bear” Gardner, 52, of Lee’s Summit, has worked almost 30 years as a firefighter, retiring as a captain and lead fire instructor for Kansas City, Missouri’s, Fire Academy. But now, as one of four operations supervisors and one of 15 certified streetcar operators for Kansas City’s new downtown streetcar system, he has truly found his second calling. “The fire department job was the best job on the planet, until I got here,” says Gardner, whose nickname correctly applies because he is one bear of a guy, with people often telling him he looks like Santa Claus.
- Connecting the River Market area to Crown Center and Union Station, the streetcar system thrills Gardner because it is “bringing joy back to the city.” He says since its opening May 6, the platforms are full of passengers, who ride the streetcars for free.
- “It’s so exciting to me to be part of the rebirth of something that hasn’t been around this city for 59 years,” Gardner says. “It’s been an entire generation of people who have never gotten to experience this. Actually, I’ll brag a little now: I was the first streetcar operator to haul passengers in 59 years. I hauled the mayor, everybody. It was party central.”
- A lot goes on behind the scenes to make the streetcars function without a glitch. “I tell everybody we’re like David Copperfield. We turn the car around and you don’t feel it,” Gardner says.
- All the operations supervisors try to go out at least once a week as streetcar operators to maintain their abilities and skills, Gardner says. The supervisors make sure everything that could affect the operation of the streetcars — there are four total, with three running at any given time — is handled and that the operators are aware of activities going on downtown that might bring extra passengers. Operators are employees of the subcontractor Herzog Transit Services.
- “When I was a firefighter, I always used to tell people I never got invited to the party. I always got invited to the aftermath,” Gardner says. “Now I’m at the party. Now it’s fun. It’s safe. You don’t have to worry about anything. It just seems like it’s making everybody happy.”
Favorite quote: "Empty wagons make the most noise." My daddy used to say that.
What inspires you? Having the chance to seize any opportunity to let another person know how much they matter.
Preferred social media? Face-to-face conversation. You cannot truly inflect true feeling or emotion in written words on social media. Words are oftentimes misunderstood. There is no hiding when you look at someone face-to-face. It’s much more personal, I think.
Favorite Kansas City restaurant or hotspot and why? My backyard barbecue pit smokers, because of so many unforgettable memories from the people who have surrounded my table.