Gardner's book, "The Pursuit of Happyness," was made into a movie of the same name starring Will Smith in 2006.
"When the biggest movie star in the world decides to do his next film based on your life, your life changes," the 55-year-old Gardner told a crowd of more than 1,200 at the Show Me Center at Wednesday's Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Dinner. "It is strange."
As a young man, Gardner had numerous opportunities as far as what he could have pursued as a career. He wanted to be a musician, like jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, and had the chance to work for a renowned heart surgeon, he said, and did well as a salesman in San Francisco. Yet as his salary increased he wanted something more.
"I wanted to become world class at something. I just had to find that one thing that turned me on as much as the music did," Gardner said.
The place he wanted to be, he determined, was Wall Street.
"What looked like chaos for everybody else, for me it was like reading a sheet of music. I could feel it," Gardner said.
So Gardner applied for training programs at brokerages. For a year he and his son lived on next to nothing, on the streets, to survive. Gardner's persistence paid off after he passed a training program and joined Bear Stearns & Co. as a broker. He became a top earner and founded his own company in 1987.
Gardner Rich LLC is a brokerage firm that now specializes in debt services, equity and stock transactions for some of the nation's largest institutions, public pension plans and unions. Today, Gardner is a philanthropist whose story and work has been recognized by numerous nationwide organizations.
Despite everything Gardner experienced in pursuing happiness, his favorite part of the book, he said, was when he and his son found their first place to live after living on the street for a year.
"I remember going through the hood in California, with my son in the stroller ... and I saw a house that was different than any other house in the neighborhood, but with one exception," Gardner said. "There was a rosebush, and I had never seen roses in the ghetto in my life. I remember thinking then, 'This is the most beautiful place in the world.'"
Even more special for Gardner was being able to tell his son the two of them had a key to their home and that no longer would they have to carry all of their belongings all the time.
"I don't have the words to convey to you what it feels like to be able to say that to your son," Gardner said. "The only way I could convey that to you would be if I could levitate myself off this stage."
Gardner wrapped up the dinner with a book signing and a scholarship offering to five Southeast Missouri State University students featured in a video that opened Wednesday's event. In the student-produced video, each individual portrayed how they have the courage for the pursuit of happiness. Four students received $1,000 and the fifth student received $2,000.