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Street signs dedicated to founders of Soft Sheen to go up at 87th and Dobson

Bettiann Edward Gardner founders Soft Sheen former owners Regal Theatre. Thursday July 5 2012 Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Bettiann and Edward Gardner, founders of Soft Sheen and former owners of the Regal Theatre. Thursday, July 5, 2012 Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 9, 2012 9:35AM

Ed Gardner, 87, answered the door at his South Side home and escorted me across the lush carpet into an area filled with the mementos of his celebrated life.

A large cocktail table holds plaques that commemorate his many achievements. On top of a gleaming white baby grand piano there are numerous photographs of Gardner and his wife, Betty, and the couple’s four children taken during various stages of their lives.

Also on proud display are original containers of Soft Sheen, the hair product that gave the Gardners an international presence and sizable share of the black hair care market before the company was sold to L’Oreal in 1998.

Gardner, who went from testing products in his basement to stocking his product on shelves at Walgreens, is a true Chicago success story.

Street sign honor

On Thursday, a street sign bearing the Gardners’ names will go up at 87th and Dobson, the former site of South Sheen Products Inc., to honor the couple’s contributions to the city.

In its heyday, Soft Sheen employed hundreds, and enabled Gardner to contribute nearly $250,000 to the voter registration drive to elect the late Harold Washington the city’s first black mayor.

The Gardners also founded the “Black on Black Love” campaign, one of the earliest anti-violence programs to target black on black homicide.

“From the very beginning our philosophy was to do as much as we can for as many as we can,” Gardner told me.

“At our height, I think we employed 600-700 people throughout the U.S. and Africa, and that, of course, helped add to the stabilization of the black community and helped to reduce crime.”

He established the “Black on Black Love” campaign after one of his employees was murdered.

“We felt that this was going to be a big part of our contribution: reducing crime, stabilizing and helping the community become proud of themselves,” he said. “I think we’ve had some success, but it is not solved yet.”

Recently, the Black on Black Love campaign put large billboards on buses to carry its “stop the violence” message across the city.

Although just about all of the Gardners’ business ventures have been rooted in their dedication to the black community, not all of their projects have been successful.

For instance, in 1986, the Gardners tried to preserve the legacy of the famed Regal Theater by putting together investors to purchase the old Avalon Movie Theater at 79th and Stony Island.

After years of struggling, the Gardners were forced to sell the theater without realizing their dream of re-creating a top-notch cultural center on the South Side.

“We didn’t have enough know-how in the entertainment field to be successful,” Gardner acknowledged.

It doesn’t take long for anyone to see where Gardner’s heart is.

Credit to wife

He’s been married to Betty for 62 years and gives her a lot of credit for helping him establish and build Soft Sheen Products.

Five years ago, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. On Thursday, she was at her husband’s side during the interview and let him do the talking.

But she spoke up emphatically when I asked if she had any advice for women who are trying to keep their families together in today’s challenging environment.

“Enjoy what you have to do and don’t talk about it,” she said. “Just do it.”

“She was with me every step of the way,” Gardner told me.

“When I got down in the basement and started manufacturing and inventing the products, she was right there to help me. Keep in mind, I did a lot of traveling and I was in these various cities and Betty was there struggling … buying bottles and jars and working with the kids and helping them in school,” he said.

Never changed addresses

Despite his success, Gardner never moved away from the home he built two doors from the house where he grew up. He and Betty raised four offspring, Gary, Terri, Guy and Tracy, in that house.

“Since I was 4 years old, I lived on this block and that was 84 years ago,” he told me. “This is the only community we know.”

Thursday’s street dedication — which will be from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. at 87th and Dobson — will represent a well-deserved milestone for the entire Gardner family.

“It was not an Ed Gardner situation,” Gardner told me proudly. “It was a family situation. I could not have done it without [Betty’s] strong support and the children’s strong support.”

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