Edward G. Gardner, co-founder of Soft Sheen Products and beloved philanthropist, dead at 98

Mr. Gardner donated tens of thousands of dollars to causes that sought to end gun violence and helped create the nonprofit Black On Black Love.

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Edward G. Gardner, co-founder of Soft Sheen Products, died Monday. He was 98.

Edward G. Gardner, co-founder of Soft Sheen Products, died Monday. He was 98.

Provided

Edward Gardner’s early efforts at making Black hair care products started in the family kitchen, with his wife’s pots and pans.

He was not always successful.

“He melted wax in one of the pans,” said one of Mr. Gardner’s four children, Terri Gardner. “We never got the wax out of the pan. It had to go out in the alley. ... My mother let him know that the pans were off limits because we needed to eat.”

Mr. Gardner persevered, later moving to his garage in the West Chesterfield neighborhood, and by the 1980s, owning one of the largest and most successful Black hair care companies in the United States, Soft Sheen Products. Mr. Gardner died Monday at his home, where he spent all but four of his 98 years, his family said.

“He was born with the inner vision to see the world differently, but more importantly, to see and make a difference to what he saw,” said another of his children, Gary Gardner.

Mr. Gardner, the son of a warehouse worker and a seamstress, had to overcome much in his early years. He stuttered as a child.

“He got teased a lot,” Terri Gardner said. “He overcame it. He made his own way.”

Mr. Gardner graduated from Fenger High School. He served in the Army during World War II and later took advantage of the GI Bill to get a bachelor’s degree at Chicago Teachers College, now Chicago State University, and a master’s in education from the University of Chicago.

He taught for several years in Chicago Public Schools and was also an administrator. On the side, he would deliver hair care products out of the back of his car to South Side beauty salons. Beauticians would tell him what they liked, didn’t like or what they wished they could buy. That gave Mr. Gardner an idea, and he began experimenting.

Gary Gardner described the goings-on in the family kitchen as “somewhere between a science lab and a cooking experiment.”

“He started off on [his wife’s] stove. She transitioned him to the basement,” Terri Gardner said.

It took 15 years for the business to thrive, but the company that began in 1964 would eventually expand across the Midwest and then the nation — perhaps best known for the product, Care Free Curl.

“We went from small mom and pop to a major player in the business,” said Gary Gardner.

Mr. Gardner sold the business in 1998. Despite the success, Mr. Gardner never moved from his neighborhood. The house in which he died Monday was two houses down from the home where he grew up, his family said.

Mr. Gardner was a well-known philanthropist and activist.

He donated tens of thousands of dollars to causes that sought to end gun violence; to that end, he helped create the nonprofit organization Black On Black Love.

“If there was a violent event where someone was at the hospital and needed help, he would write a check to that family,” Gary Gardner said.

He helped elect the city’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983 — loaning the Washington campaign his creative staff as well as helping fund a voter registration campaign.

He was a part-owner of the Chicago Bulls, and for many years, attended every home game.

It bothered him deeply that when he saw construction projects on the South Side, often the workers weren’t Black.

“That drove him to anger,” said Gary Gardner. “He rallied his troops.”

Bettiann and Ed Gardner

Bettiann and Ed Gardner

AP/Sun-Times Media

And in 2012, at the age of 87 and walking with a cane, he led a protest down Western Avenue, his son said.

“All he needed to know was that you thought he couldn’t do something, and that would make him do it even more,” Terri Gardner said.

In addition to his son Gary and daughter Terri, survivors include two other children, Guy and Tracy, his wife, Bettiann, seven grandchildren and a great-grandson.

A private family service is planned. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Chicago State University: www.csu.edu/foundation/donate.htm.

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