Ohio woman packed a lifetime of achievement into 31 years

Excerpts transcribed from an article published in the Columbus Dispatch, May 28, 1998, with permission.

By Dennis Fiely

Gale Warner would have been 38 this year, but her bedroom in the house on the family farm bears the trappings of a schoolgirl.

Stuffed dolls and glass figurines share shelf space with trophies and medals for her achievements in music, sports and academics. Her high-school track shoes, a framed 1978 Presidential Scholar award and notebooks from her studies at Stanford University mark Warner’s passage into adulthood.

The gold sequined costume she wore as head majorette for Teays Valley High School hangs inside the closet.

“One of her fondest memories was leading Ashville’s Fourth of July parade in that outfit,” said David Kreger, her former husband. “Whenever we returned to Ohio to visit her family, she always would try on that costume. Some years it fit, some years it didn’t.”

“When she was undergoing chemotherapy, it definitely fit,” her mother said. Warner was the superachieving daughter of the late Dr. Jack Warner, and Dr. Louise Warner, anesthesiologists at Children’s Hospital in Columbus. The family lived on a 570-acre farm in Pickaway County.

The bedroom keepsakes declare the diversity of their daughter’s interests. In high school, Warner was the flutist who ran track, danced the lead in Brigadoon and cataloged the flora and fauna at Stage’s Pond, a nearby nature preserve. “Gale had the capability to do anything she wanted in life,” said Jeff Sheets, who was her track coach… “She had the respect of everyone in our building, teachers and students. I never had to motivate her.”

Ashville was too small to contain her enthusiasm or talent. Warner was destined to think and act globally.

At Stanford, she found a soul mate in Kreger, and the couple embarked on a career of social activism. “We just did one project after another,” Kreger said from his home in Massachusetts.

They wrote a stinging analysis of the Reagan presidency that was widely circulated on the nation’s college campuses, helped prevent the damming of the Tuolumne River in California and rallied on behalf of other environmental causes when they were not hiking or rafting.

The couple eventually moved near Boston, where Kreger attended Harvard Medical School and joined the Nobel Prize-winning group International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

Warner studied English in graduate school and worked as a freelance environmental journalist for The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston GlobeParade and Sierra [magazines]. She was also a poet, winning the American Poet’s prize in 1984.

Her pet project, however, was a grass-roots effort to promote peace and end the cold war by organizing a series of initiatives between American and Soviet citizens.

In 1989, she co-founded Golubka, a Soviet-American network that published books and conducted workshops in the Soviet Union on ecology, empowerment and nonviolence.

Citizen Diplomats: Pathfinders in Soviet-American Relations (1987) profiled Americans—including industrialist Armand Hammer and Maine schoolgirl Samantha Smith—who worked on behalf of greater understanding and cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Invisible Threads: Independent Soviets Working for Global Awareness and Social Transformation (1991) examined grass-roots activism in the U.S.S.R.

“Gale was one of the leaders in the effort to build citizen-to-citizen relationships,” Kreger said. “One of our most traumatic efforts was organizing a climb among U.S. and Soviet physicians of Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe. Neither one of us would have been satisfied with our lives unless we could turn our idealism into something practical. That defined our passion.”… (Her parents) were happy to not know about some of her adventures, such as backpacking alone through the Grand Canyon or trekking behind the Iron Curtain to visit Hungary in the mid-80s. …

After returning from one of her many trips to the Soviet Union late in 1990, Warner was thinking of starting a family when a pain in her abdomen led doctors to the discovery of a tumor and a diagnosis of lymphoma.

The courage, honesty and grace with which she handled her ensuing 13- month battle against cancer proved to be Warner’s greatest achievement, her mother said.

Gale Warner died on Dec, 28, 1991. She was 31.

Shortly before her death, she handed Kreger more than 1,000 pages of journal entries describing her ordeal.

“Do you think there’s a book here?” Kreger asked her.

With the help of family and friends, Kreger, who has since remarried, spent much of the next 7 years arranging and editing Warner’s journals. The result, to be published June 10, is Dancing at the Edge of Life (Hyperion), a poetic and powerful memoir about facing illness and death.

“She was writing for her life,” Kreger said. “It’s the best writing she has ever done.”

Warner describes in unflinching detail the toxic effects of chemotherapy…The author focuses on her quest for spiritual strength and the comfort she found in her communion with nature.

Warner wrote valiantly until the end. She danced—one of her favorite and most therapeutic activities—just days before she died. And with family members gathered at her bedside, she sang Amazing Grace just three hours before her death. In the final chapters, Warner sounds a note of triumph.

Even as I feel great sadness and grief at the thought of dying so soon, I do not feel any large sense of sadness in my life. I examine myself for longings, for regrets, for things I must take care of before I leave. Are there places I must go, experiences I must have? No, I have been to so many magical places, experienced so many magical things…No, I cannot say, “My life is incomplete.”

Warner died too young to forget the folks in Ashville, or for them to forget her. Displays honor her at Teays Valley High School and in the Small Town Museum in downtown Ashville. The museum hails her in large letters for “Saving our Planet Earth.” A “peace pole” was erected in front of Ashville’s museum in her honor.

“She felt it was a privilege to grow up in this community,” her mother said. “It gave her stability and roots.”

“In junior high school, she spoke about her rooted life,” recalled Larry Milam, her former English teacher. “She said she believed roots were important, but if they did not branch out and grow, they would die. I remember thinking how profound that was for a girl so young.”

Warner left more than memories to her community.

She donated her books to the Teays Valley library, continued to correspond with favorite teachers and returned to high school occasionally – once with a group of Soviets – to speak about her work.

She inspired her parents to finance the Stratford Ecological Center, a living laboratory for students to learn about the environment.

The Ohio Department in Natural Resources still refers to her inventory of the wildlife at Stage’s Pond.

The catalog of birds, flowers, insects and plants remains part of the clutter in Warner’s bedroom. It prompted Mrs. Warner, whose husband died of a heart attack in 1996, to compare her daughter’s life to a stone tossed into a pond. “The ripples just keep going out,” Mrs. Warner said. “Very few of us have the power she had to leave a legacy.” …