Dog Days creator to receive ‘health hero’ award

To hundreds of Lawrence residents, he’s known simply as Red Dog. But Thursday evening he’ll have a new title: hero.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius announced Tuesday that Don “Red Dog” Gardner will receive the state’s first Hometown Health Hero Award.

Gardner, a retired Lawrence police officer who has organized the Red Dog’s Dog Days workouts for 23 summers at Kansas University’s Memorial Stadium, will receive the award at the 6 p.m. Thursday workout.

“Don Gardner and his commitment to helping Kansans maintain a regular physical activity schedule epitomizes the leadership and qualities that make a Hometown Health Hero,” Sebelius said. “Don’s selfless gift of time and energy to the community of Lawrence is greatly appreciated.”

Roderick Bremby, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, will be on hand to present the award.

The Governor’s Council on Fitness established the Hometown Health Hero Award in support of the governor’s “Healthy Kansas” initiative, which was launched in 2004.

Gardner, who was nominated by a Lawrence resident familiar with Dog Days, was picked by the Governor’s Council on Fitness for the first hero award, said Megan Ingmire, a spokeswoman for the governor.

“I’m super honored,” Gardner said. “I never in my life thought I’d get something like this. : I was totally shocked to the point where my wife told me she wished she had a camera to take a picture of my face.”

Gardner praised the volunteers who help him organize the workouts and the participants.

“You can’t do it by yourself,” he said. “I’ve never seen a coach have a winning season that did it by himself. He had to have a good staff and good athletes.”

Gardner and a group of volunteers conduct free workouts that draw hundreds of participants.

The 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. sessions Monday through Thursday bring area residents of all ages and activity levels to the stadium to stretch and do calisthenics and aerobic activities.

Gardner and his volunteers also bring in motivational speakers. For example, longtime local radio personality Hank Booth spoke Tuesday, KU volleyball coach Ray Bechard spoke Monday and Mark Francis, KU’s soccer coach, spoke last week.

Since 1984, Dog Days has grown from six or seven athletes into a community event with an average attendance in the morning and evening of 450 to 500 individuals and an average of 150 people at noon.

In June, Dog Days set a morning attendance record of 640 people.

A 1956 graduate of Lawrence High School, Gardner began his annual summer program in 1984. Helping him were his daughter Leslie, then an LHS senior football trainer, and his friend Jim O’Connell.

Their goal was to assist LHS football players with a preseason conditioning program.