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Like any tough-minded editor, Kent Gardner expected the reporters he supervised at the Star Tribune to produce stories. If they came back empty-handed, it could be an uncomfortable conversation.

Dick Meryhew, who was covering St. Paul, recalls returning to the newsroom around 5 p.m. one day to tell Gardner he couldn't get anyone to talk about a story.

"That's OK, Mr. Meryhew, I'll read it tomorrow morning in the Pioneer Press," Gardner drolly replied.

Meryhew went back to his desk, reached some sources and ultimately turned in the story. "Shaming me worked," he said, chuckling.

Gardner, of Richfield, who retired in 2006 after a 46-year newspaper career that included 36 years at the Star Tribune, died April 20 at Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina. He was 80.

"He was as pure a newspaper guy for spot news as you will ever see," said David Nimmer, former managing editor for the Minneapolis Star, where Gardner worked before the afternoon Star merged with the morning Minneapolis Tribune. "He was not inured to tragedy, but covering it well excited him. He knew how to do it. He knew it had to be done with patience and persistence, and marshaling the forces to do it was his greatest strength."

Gardner held numerous jobs at the paper, but his favorite years, he told colleagues, were spent as assistant managing editor for news. In that role he functioned as what used to be called the city editor, in charge of a handful of assistant city editors and a roomful of reporters — many of whom bridled at the idea of being managed by anyone.

Gardner was full of colorful remarks, said Paul Klauda, an editor and former reporter. A hot story was known as "a full-tilt boogie." If the next day's paper was short on news, Gardner would walk the newsroom bellowing, "We're sucking canal water."

A morning alert from WCCO Radio, a prime news source for Gardner, would be enough for him to send a reporter chasing what might be either a big story or no story at all. Gardner, who was 6-foot-3 and weighed 300 pounds, would stand up and survey the newsroom desks for an available reporter — prompting reporters to lower their heads in hopes he wouldn't spot them.

There was no place to hide, though some, like the late Paul McEnroe, did their best. McEnroe, a crack investigative reporter with good sources in law enforcement, sometimes hid in the basement men's room used by the press operators. "Time to play the McEnroe card," Gardner would say, and an editor would be sent out to find him.

Gardner was born in Mobridge, S.D., the son of journalists Roy and Mary Louise Gardner. Roy was editor of the Mobridge Tribune and later the couple were publishers of the Sioux Center News in Sioux Center, Iowa. Gardner began working as a reporter at the Mankato Free Press while attending then-Mankato State College.

As a reporter in Mason City, Iowa, Gardner met Larry Fuller, who would become city editor at the Star. Three months after Gardner was hired as a copy editor at the Star in 1969, Fuller made him an assistant city editor.

"He was a nonstop guy all the time, focused on getting the job done," said Fuller, who added that Gardner brought "a sense of urgency and action to the news coverage."

When the Star and Tribune merged into a single morning edition in 1982, Gardner was put in charge of a five-days-a-week afternoon paper called the "PM edition," available on newsstands and in rack boxes. With just a few reporters, he turned it into a lively read with nonstop breaking news stories that often scooped the morning Star Tribune.

"He was in his glory," said Marilyn Hoegemeyer, a retired assistant city editor. "I remember he was just loving it." So did his bosses, who put him in charge of the cityside newsroom when the PM edition was shut down after six months.

Tim J. McGuire, who served as both managing editor and later executive editor of the Star Tribune, called Gardner a friend and counselor who had "an empathy for people that was off the charts" and worried about the impact some of the paper's grimmest stories might have on readers.

Occasionally Gardner would summon reporters to the "boo-boo room," a closet-sized chamber where he would dress down reporters for foul-ups. Retired reporter Kevin Diaz remembers being lectured as a young journalist for confusing St. Paul, Minn., with St. Paul, Neb. Former assistant city editor Jim Kelly said he spent more time in the boo-boo room than most.

"He didn't really yell or even raise his voice or swear," said Kelly. "He just waved that St. Paul paper at you with the front-page scoop, and you'd feel like crap and know what needed to be done."

Gardner and his wife, Gail, a nurse, went on some 40 cruises. They loved to fish at Rainy Lake on the Minnesota-Canadian border, and with their three sons on Lake Minnetonka. Gardner was also an accomplished amateur photographer, said his son, Robert, of Minnetrista.

"He was tough, passionate and compassionate as a father and really supported all of our individual interests," Robert Gardner said.

Besides his wife and son Robert, Gardner is survived by sons Michael of Minneapolis, and Grant of Jacksonville, Fla.; sisters Sara Boynton of Cambridge, Mass., and Ann Rogers of Murfreesboro, Tenn.; 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A celebration of his life will be held at a later date.

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224