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The Rev. Ben Williams and Tom Gardo never really knew their origins on Hilton Head Island were so similar until recently.'
They're two of the "near-native" islanders -- names you know if you've been here long enough, even if you've never met them. '
They've crossed paths many times before, but it wasn't until they talked at November's Strive to Excel banquet, where they were both recognized with lifetime achievement awards, that they discovered how similar their actions have been.'
They both moved from New York to a still-developing island in 1973, where they've taken different career paths: Gardo is now the owner of CNSG Hilton Head, a marketing and public relations firm, and Williams is the pastor at Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church. '
What links them are their paths in community service.'
"What these guys do for the community is amazing," said Tim Singleton, executive director of Strive to Excel. "They're the epitome of giving back."'
They've also worked together in Strive to Excel. Gardo is a current board member and Williams a former one.'
A recent conversation between the two men reveals more shared friendships and odd coincidences than first thought. For example, the gentleman who donated the basketball hoop outside Williams' church was the best man in Gardo's wedding. '
Those things happen when you've become ingrained in the community like these two men.'
Williams remembers a time when he could walk the halls of Hilton Head High School and recognize just about every student he passed.'
New at the time, Principal Helen Ryan would remark how quiet it would get when he sauntered through the halls. Every now and then, someone would whisper, "Here comes The Rev." He's the guy who knows you and your parents. So you better not let The Rev see you acting up.'
But don't mistake The Rev, as he's called with affection, as an intimidator. Despite his hulking frame, he's quick with a smile and a handshake. '
To students, he's a mentor, a father figure and a spiritual adviser, Singleton said. '
After moving from Brooklyn, N.Y., he worked as a truant and in-school suspension officer, but he delved into more than just handing out penalties. He'd visit students at home, serving as a counselor to the troubled youth.'
His career took him out of the schools and into the parish, but he continued mentoring, getting to know kids on their level. He's a regular at plays and sporting events; sometimes he stops by at lunch just to say "Hi."'
"Keep the door open, establish trust," he said. "Young people will talk to you."'
He's been integral in the development of the Hilton Head Children's Center and he formed the Mt. Calvary Baptist Achievement School to provide day care services to families from across the economic spectrum. '
His influence expands beyond education, as he helped to found Volunteers in Medicine and has worked to promote racial equality.'
Nowadays, he still makes it into the high school, though it's a bit too large to know every student by name. He's finding out that in the long run, interacting with the island's youth benefits him as well.'
"It does a lot for me, too," he said. "To me it keeps me motivated and keeps me in the frame of mind that there is a need for caring."'
Gardo was a bit too small to be a linebacker. At 5-11 and 150 pounds, his football career petered out after he graduated from high school in Virginia.'
But he stayed with the game, in a sense. And it's been with the Hilton Head High School football team where he made his biggest mark. '
Growing up a self-described "Army brat" without a hometown to speak of, Gardo came to the island from Manhattan, N.Y., to work in marketing with the Sea Pines Company. He spearheaded the campaign that now brings thousands of Ohio and Pennsylvania tourists to the island each year for vacation.'
But he also found ways to make it more of a home to many others.'
He became involved with the high school football program in the mid-'80s, serving as a mentor to many of its players over the years. Some players came from humble roots and fatherless homes, and Gardo became their father figure. '
In the late '80s, Wayne Simmons was a talented athlete but was living in a home where the only parent was his mother, who worked three jobs.'
Gardo would take him home after practice to help him with school work, reading medieval literature with him. Simmons could have gone down the wrong path, but instead he was a first-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers and went on to win a Super Bowl.'
Simmons died in a car crash in 2002, but his photo hangs in Gardo's office, symbolic of the many young men he's helped.'
His influence has stretched beyond the schools, as his marketing expertise is sought for community service boards, such as the Hope Haven rape crisis and children's advocacy board he currently sits on. He's helped lead several successful voter referendums to preserve land and improve schools. A devout Christian, he helped to start Grace Community and Christian Renewal churches.'
It's been more than 30 years since he's come to the island, and in that time, something strange happened to Gardo. Hilton Head became his hometown. And he found out that your hometown isn't so much the place you live or where you grew up. It's the place where you've had a small piece in its development as a town, as much as it had in your development as a person.'
"It's a unique hometown," he said, "but it's my hometown."