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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Carolyn and Kem C. Gardner talk in their home in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — As they reflect on their more than 50-year association with the University of Utah, Kem C. and Carolyn Gardner fondly remember the blind date when they first met as college students.

They reminisce on the tiny apartment they rented as a young married couple along 400 South near the campus.

"I think the rent was $85 a month," Carolyn Gardner said, softly laughing at the memory.

As Kem Gardner completed his law school studies, Carolyn Gardner taught at Curtis Elementary School, putting to work her newly minted bachelor's degree in education.

But when they look back at time spent at the state's flagship university as students, the Gardners mostly remember time spent in the classroom and professors who invested in them personally.

"There were so many that helped me and invited me over to their homes for discussions, and after school you could visit. These have been experiences I have just cherished," Kem Gardner said.

Kem Gardner was one of nine children whose father was a high school history teacher, so he had to work his way through school. He's keenly aware that his transformation from humble Wyoming farm kid to a highly successful real estate developer had a lot to do with lessons learned and connections made at the U.

Rich Kendell, a former Utah commissioner of higher education who worked for Kem Gardner and his former business partner, Roger Boyer, for about five years, says Gardner supports education because he's aware how much it changed his life.

"I think he felt empowered by it. He's a big believer," Kendell said.

Kem Gardner's life story is "a great example of the American dream of somebody coming up in humble circumstances, and through a process of education, experience, personality and connections becoming one of the most successful and prominent people in the state of Utah," Kendell said.

The Gardners' six children are U. alumni who have forged their own strong ties to the school. Their son Christian Gardner serves on the institution's board of trustees.

The Gardners hope their 30 grandchildren, too, will attend the U. or risk being "disowned," Kem Gardner jokes.

Perhaps it was the couple's eye on the future that brought about their latest contribution to the U. — a $10 million gift to replace the aging Orson Spencer Hall.

On Friday, ground will be broken for the new Carolyn and Kem Gardner Building. The building, which will be more than 200,000 square feet in size, will serve many of the same functions as OSH "but a bit more," said Ruth Watkins, the U.'s senior vice president of academic affairs.

"It really will be a very, very high-impact building for the university on a very big scale. It will be the most heavily used and most significant classroom facility with 33 classroom/educational spaces in the new building," she said.

The building, expected to be completed the summer of 2018, will house several academic programs, the U.'s student advising center, the Hinckley Institute of Politics, food service and space for student group work, Watkins said.

"When you add all those things together, academic functions, classroom functions, a visitor center, the Hinckley Institute, food service, gathering space, it’s quite remarkable what will happen in this building. It’s very much the hub of the campus," she said.

Carolyn Gardner said replacing OSH was indeed a "need" for the University of Utah.

"I thought it was kind of old when we were there," she said.

OSH was built in phases dating back to the early 1950s, Watkins said. Although she is relatively new to the U. after joining the administration three years ago, Watkins quickly learned that students, faculty, alumni and even community members have OSH stories or some connection to the building.

"It’s everybody’s building. It will be, in its new iteration, everybody’s building as well," she said.

The Gardners have a long history of supporting the university by providing scholarships, funding the basketball team's practice facility, backing a new policy institute that bears Kem C. Gardner's name, as well as endowing a presidential chair in the School of Music in honor of Carolyn Gardner's late mother, Ellen Neilson Barnes, a talented musician and music educator who taught at the U.

But there was something about creating a facility that would touch the life of every student who attends the U. that held a special appeal to the Gardners, Watkins said.

"This is a couple who cares so deeply about the university with a real commitment to what the university has done to transform lives, the power of higher education to shape and change lives," she said. "As we were able to have some conversations about what the university is trying to do, the directions we're going really deeply investing in the success of our students, I think that was compelling for the Gardners. I think maybe Carolyn first and Kem, too," Watkins said.

Carolyn Gardner said she and Kem have great appreciation for the university's plans and its commitment to student success locally and globally.

"I think we really need to give some credit to President (David) Pershing and Ruth Watkins for their vision of wanting to make the university a better place for the students and future students coming up," she said.

"Their plans and how we feel about the future of the university were pretty much the same. We were happy to step up and help support this building."

The total cost of the building is $68 million, which in addition to the Gardners' gift will be funded by corporations, foundations, private donors and student fees.

In ways big and small, the Gardners' lives continue to be touched by the university. Both have given of their time to serve on various university boards, with Kem Gardner serving on the state board of regents, which oversees all of the state's public colleges and universities.

Carolyn Gardner puts her teacher training to work weekly as a tutor at Mountain View Elementary School in Glendale.

Their home is full of books, fine art, music and other passions cultivated as college students.

"My library is full of books. I read voraciously," Kem Gardner said. "I love poetry. I probably know more Emily Dickinson poems than anyone in this state."

The Gardners live near the university and are frequent visitors to the campus for football and basketball games, plays and musical performances.

"It brings back a lot of memories, and we enjoy going there and participating in all of those activities," Carolyn Gardner said.

"We're just so proud of the university and everything they've accomplished."

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com