‘Red Dog’ gets top-dog billing as health hero

Don Red

Standing in a light summer drizzle, Don “Red Dog” Gardner put up his megaphone.

His eyes welled up as hundreds of well-wishers waited.

“It’s the rain,” he said, choking up a bit Thursday evening at Kansas University’s Memorial Stadium.

“I am here because of you. I’m getting this award because of a lot of people who helped,” Gardner said, shortly after being named the state’s first “Hometown Health Hero.”

Gardner, who has run Red Dog’s Dog Days community workout program for 23 summers, was honored before Thursday’s session by an entourage of state health officials representing Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

The award, part of the governor’s Healthy Kansas initiative, was given to the Lawrence man by the governor’s new 30-member Council on Fitness.

Secretary of Health and Environment Roderick Bremby said the award was created to help promote a culture of wellness in Kansas.

“And that’s where Red Dog comes in,” Bremby said. “We’re going to ask you tonight to take a pledge. We want you to help us in promoting a healthy Kansas.”

Bremby asked those in attendance to sign pledge cards to increase their level of physical activity, eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and stay away from tobacco.

Howard Rodenberg, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s director of health, said the fitness council was formed to decrease obesity and improve fitness levels in the state.

“The efforts of Red Dog and people like him across the state are absolutely fundamental and absolutely crucial to making sure that Kansas stays a very healthy state,” Rodenberg said.

Two members of the fitness council – Billie Hall of Topeka and Dolores Furtado of Overland Park – presented the award.

Hall said the governor wasn’t able to attend but planned to meet with Gardner in early September at her office.

“I’ve heard about this program for years and I’m not a Lawrence resident,” Hall said. “The reputation of Red Dog Days is all across the state.”

She said the council unanimously decided that Gardner should be the first person to receive the award.

She said she was struck how the program has been going on years before obesity became such a high-profile health problem.

“So it is certainly a tribute to Don – Red Dog – for what he has done,” she said.