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

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.

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.

"Then the judge kept saying, 'Well, this is how it works, I'm the judge and you're either 'guilty' or 'not guilty,'" McClellan said, adding that the judge kept telling him, "Well, I'm the judge."

"And I thought, 'Wait a minute, there's a message in here somewhere.'"

The judge ended up letting Sparks off the hook for going five miles over the speed limit, saying he understood the dilemma about having to make it to Pirate Days on time.

Gordy Grundy, now the director of the Newport Beach Historical Society, urged everybody and anybody to buy "Bawdy Balboa" for $20. It's a good read, he said. Also, if anybody is interested, he said there's a great Facebook page called, "I grew up in Newport Beach before it became the OC."

Created by Tom Stillwell, who now lives in Brentwood, Tenn., the Facebook page has more than 3,000 fans, and its popularity is growing at a rapid clip, a show of force among some longterm residents who say reality TV and "The OC," which aired from 2003 to 2007, did nothing but hurt the image of Newport Beach.

At the Harborside Ballroom shin dig, Grundy encouraged the folks on hand to start recording their memories as far back as they can and to even join the Facebook page, if they have the time and the technological knowhow.

For those who are interested in buying "Bawdy Balboa," Grundy encouraged anybody and everybody to go to newportbeachhistorical.com.

Reporter TOM RAGAN can be reached at (714) 966-4618 or tom.ragan@latimes.com.

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