John Champlin Gardner, Jr., was born 21 July 1933 in Batavia, New York, to John Champlin and Priscilla Jones Gardner. Nicknamed "Bud"--Welsh "Budd," the poet--he is the eldest of four children raised on a dairy farm outside of Batavia. Though his environment was rural, his literary interests were stimulated by his father, a lay preacher and public reader; and by his mother, an English teacher in the local schools. He began writing "novels" and poems at eleven. A strong interest in the Boy Scouts, which held their meetings at the First Presbyterian Church in Batavia, eventually led to his becoming an Eagle Scout and "Mayor of Batavia" for a day. A crucial incident in his life was the death, on 4 April 1945, of his brother Gilbert, run over by a cultipacker that Gardner was pulling with a tractor.
While attending high school at Alexander Central School, he drew a cartoon of an elephant in Mary Greco's art class and, at her encouragement, sent the cartoon to Seventeen Magazine, which published it in July 1948. It was, apparently, his first "professional" publication. During this period, and later, after transferring to Batavia High School, he took lessons on the French horn at the Eastman School of Music's Preparatory School in nearby Rochester. Upon graduation from high school, in 1951, he entered DePauw University, where he planned to major in chemistry.
At DePauw his literary interests began to develop. He published a story in the campus magazine and wrote the book and lyrics for a musical comedy entitled The Caucus Race, which won the Monon script competition and was produced 11-13 February 1954 as the "1954 Monon Revue." By the time of its production, however, Gardner had transferred to Washington University in St. Louis, a move inspired by his marriage to Joan Louise Patterson on 6 June 1953. During the two years he attended Washington University, Gardner came under the influence of Jarvis Thurston, editor of Perspective and, Gardner claims, one of the two finest teachers he ever encountered (the other was John C. McGalliard of the University of Iowa). Under Thurston he began early versions of what would later evolve into chapters of Nickel Mountain. In his senior year ( 1954-55) he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. His interests were by now clearly literary and philosophical.