In the day of No. 83 Jim Doran — seen here rushing for the Detroit Lions in the early 1950s — yard-line markers were applied to a field with powdered lime. The average game would obliterate the markers. The wrong type of lime could also burn players’ skin.Claude Gardner, head custodian at Jefferson Community High School, invented a device to paint lines on a football field inspired by the day he burned a crisp line in the grass with a handheld flamethrower.Claude Gardner, head custodian at Jefferson Community High School, invented a device to paint lines on a football field inspired by the day he burned a crisp line in the grass with a handheld flamethrower.Claude Gardner’s device for marking surfaces won a patent as a “completely new method of marking athletic fields.” In 1958, one made its way to LSU, the top team in college football.Claude Gardner

DELAY OF GAME

It’s been nearly 65 years since a high school janitor in Jefferson revolutionized the look of football fields everywhere — it’s time he got a little credit

By ANDREW MCGINN

a.mcginn@beeherald.com

College bowl season is here, presumably much to the delight of the months-old sportsbook at Wild Rose Casino.

But imagine turning on a game — take your pick, be it the Bahamas Bowl on Dec. 20, the Cheez-It Bowl on Dec. 27, the venerable Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 or the granddaddy of ’em all, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, on Jan. 3 — and seeing players trip over the crisp white yard lines. Or maybe there’s a guy who, just as he’s about to take one to the house, actually ends up biffing it when he stumbles over the giant white “10” in the red zone.

That kind of football hasn’t been possible in at least two generations, all because the janitor at Jefferson Community High School once got a little too lackadaisical with a flamethrower.

As you know, I love finding things out that present us with a richer, deeper appreciation of our community, and for the people who’ve made it what it is.

Typically, that means unearthing — usually by total accident — some news story that has been lost to time. I fear that’s only going to get worse as news changes by the minute and as newspapers and magazines continue falling by the wayside.

But without newspapers, we wouldn’t know the full story of Claude Gardner, whose name will be recognizable to anyone who attended high school in Jefferson between 1950 and 1979.

And without a newspaper, we couldn’t take this moment to properly assess Gardner’s legacy — which may very well have revolutionized the game of football.

“Dad was always finding ways to do things. He would find solutions,” said Claudia (Gardner) Johansen, the only child of Claude and Velma Gardner and a 1964 graduate of Jefferson Community High School. 

“And he never went to college,” Johansen, who now lives in Napa County, Calif., added with a helping of pride. “He would’ve made a heck of an engineer. It just wasn’t his time. His imagination was beyond his years.”

Gardner’s name has been brought up a few times in recent years by David Williamson, a 1966 JCHS grad who cites Gardner as the reason his band, the Bushmen, were able to be inducted into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

Gardner had taken it upon himself one night in July 1966 to hang a couple of microphones over the stage at the Greene County Roller Rink at the Bushmen’s farewell gig. It’s now the only surviving audio document of their talent, a snippet of which I put online in 2014 to accompany a story about the band’s 50th anniversary.

The hall of fame eventually came calling.

Gardner, who passed away in 1985 at the age of 70, was arguably the most affable custodian to ever walk a Jefferson school hallway.

When asked one time how he got along so well with kids, he replied, “Well, I was a kid once myself.”

So, in the fall of 1955, when Gardner appeared to be on the cusp of something that was sure to make him a millionaire, the Jefferson Bee had to admit, “Most people will agree, it couldn’t happen to a nicer fellow.”

Gardner at that time had just patented a revolutionary new way to line a football field — a device for marking surfaces that would come to be known commercially within a few years as the Gardner Speed Marker.

“I know he was very proud of that,” Johansen recalled.

Gardner’s patented method of lining a football field — using waterproof liquid paint to stripe the field — is now in use wherever football is played, from youth leagues to the Super Bowl.

Unfortunately, in the grand, overarching story of football, Gardner is less like Knute Rockne and more like Charlie Brown.

“Dad knew how to do things,” Johansen explained, “but he didn’t know how to — how do I say this? — market himself.”

References in print to the Gardner Speed Marker seem to just disappear after about 1963, despite the Jefferson Bee’s original prediction that, “The market for the product is staggering.”

However, according to the U.S. Patent Office, inventors of more than a dozen succeeding devices have since cited Gardner’s invention in their own patents. 

Today, it takes about 15 gallons of mixed paint to apply yard markers and hash marks to a regulation-size football field, according to the Sports Turf Managers Association. There are even robotic machines that can automatically stripe fields.

Before, the most common way of marking a football field was with sacks of powdered lime.

The average game would totally obliterate lime field markings, stirring up dust that was bad for the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. And in the event that the wrong type of lime was used, it could burn players’ skin.

Lime was also susceptible to the elements. Rain made it cake to uniforms and skin like mud.

But on days without rain, it could solidify like concrete, as was the case the night of Oct. 25, 1958, when the LSU Tigers played host in Baton Rouge to their SEC rivals, the Florida Gators.

Louisiana State ultimately came out on top, 10-7, becoming the nation’s No. 1 college team in the process. In fact, Coach Paul Dietzel would end up leading LSU to its first national championship, capping a perfect season on Jan. 1, 1959, with a win over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.

But that October night in Baton Rouge against Florida was just downright ugly, with players on both sides seeming to tumble and fall without explanation.

Florida Coach Bob Woodruff came to suspect the lime yard-line stripes on LSU’s field, griping afterward to the Associated Press that the lines were “like having ropes stretched across the field.”

“I thought something was strange,” Woodruff said, “the way the boys kept falling down. Obviously, a poor lime solution was used to mark the field.”

The lime had become impossibly stiff.

At one point, Woodruff asked a reporter to kick one of the lines.

“The harmless-looking stripes were like hunks of concrete,” the AP reporter testified, “rising an inch or so above grass level.”

Reading the story far to the north was Virgil “Kyb” Raaz, a longtime Jefferson businessman and the newly appointed sales manager of the Gardner Speed Marker Co., a homegrown firm established to bring Claude Gardner’s three-wheeled field-marking device to market.

Raaz — who had been the second-to-last-owner of the Jefferson Bottling Co., where he devised his own brand of soda, Raaz’s — sent Coach Dietzel and LSU a free Gardner Speed Marker, which had already proved its worth (about $100) on football fields here in Iowa.

Unfortunately, no press account seemingly exists of Dietzel receiving a $100 package from Jefferson, or what he thought of the Gardner Speed Marker.

Dietzel died in 2013 at the age of 89.

We can only assume he was pleased.

“I’ve never given a demonstration without making a sale, and that’s the truth,” Raaz told the Des Moines Sunday Register in a story that ran on Nov. 23, 1958.

It’s fun — and a little amazing — to picture an invention devised by a high school custodian in Jefferson transforming big-time SEC football. Today, the LSU and Florida football programs generate a combined $306 million annually in revenue.

Gardner was the go-to handyman for just about anything and everything around the school.

He would brew coffee 12 gallons at a time for PTA meetings, football games and other school functions using steam from the boiler room (the whole process took less than 10 minutes). His miniature version of Old Faithful in 1960 for George Kundrat’s eighth-grade science class, using the heating element from an old coffeepot, erupted every two and a half minutes. And he once built a replica of the Eiffel Tower for the 1961 prom, “Paris in the Spring.”

“He loved the kids,” Johansen said, “and the kids loved him.”

It also fell to Gardner to mark the football field for games with powdered lime, a process that would take an entire morning and part of an afternoon, even with the help of five or six boys.

Many a-boy presumably came home from school each fall covered in lime dust with swollen eyes.

Ram head coach Frank Linduska, for one, was convinced there had to be something better than lime to mark a football field.

As mentioned earlier, Gardner’s light-bulb moment occurred as he was burning weeds with a handheld flamethrower, truly the man’s way to pull weeds. But when his mind strayed and he burned a line in the grass, according to the Register story, he was dumbfounded.

Henceforth, a pressurized tank on three wheels would blast painted white stripes onto the local football field. 

By the time the Gardner Speed Marker went into production in 1958 — manufactured in Jefferson by Thermogray, a company better known for water heaters — company president Sam Brandt had enlisted the help of Pittsburgh Paints to perfect the right type of quick-drying paint.

Even as early as 1955, though, Gardner was boasting that his first application locally lasted through seven games and four rains, and that marking a field could now be done by one man in an hour.

Gardner won a patent, and the game would never be the same.

Sam Brandt’s son, Scott, remembers that his dad had high hopes for the Gardner Speed Marker, but was unsure how or why it failed to make everyone rich.

It seems that Gardner simply moved on to other endeavors — namely, Tropical Fishland, an exotic fish and aquarium business occupying one half of his garage.

Gardner would retire as the school district’s buildings and grounds supervisor in 1980.

But as we once again prepare to enter college bowl season, here’s hoping you’ll never look at the yard-line markers the same way.

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