A class act takes his final bow
Dick Richardson will never forget the day in 1967 when his 3-year-old daughter Anna looked at him in his flowing black graduation robe and in her big, little-girl imagination saw Batman.
“What do you think Anna?” Richardson asked as he reached out to her. Anna saw Batman wings.
“Now fly,” she said.
Two years later, when Richardson moved from Michigan to Carolina to teach political science, he really was trying to fly, but too far, too fast. “I crashed down soon enough,” he said.
By 1970, he was carrying a heavy teaching load while writing a textbook, caring for a sick daughter, buying a house and responding to campus protests against the Vietnam War. By November, the strain of it all left Richardson at Duke Hospital for two weeks recovering from physical and mental exhaustion.
The episode had him convinced that he was not cut out for Carolina. He was ready to leave, but his wife Sue and friend Thad Beyle wouldn’t permit it.
“I was falling apart and hiding out in the house, and Thad broke into the house and wouldn’t pay attention to anything I said,” Richardson said. “It was an extremely intensive handholding kind of thing, and Thad is not really that kind of guy.”
Richardson remembers Beyle telling him “you will want to avoid me when you get well” because Beyle had seen him in such bad shape.
Richardson made sure that never happened. Today, Beyle, Pearsall professor of political science, remains one of his closest friends. Now, as Richardson prepares to retire from the University he once sought to flee, he thinks back on that episode as one of the most formative of his life.
The experience gave him the perspective he had lacked, he said, and the sensitivity to help countless students and colleagues who would come to confide in him over the years.
“One thing I am confident of is that I don’t threaten people,” said Richardson, Carolina’s provost since 1995. “People who come to talk to me are not threatened by me and therefore share an enormous amount with me. Hundreds and hundreds of people have talked to me about very personal things.”
His advice, most of the time, is the same advice he once needed: Believe in yourself. And more important, never forget to be yourself.
“I’ve tried to get people to recognize that they should be themselves instead of striving to turn themselves into something different to conform to others’ expectations of what they should be.”
Black snakes, ghosts and dreams
At the age of 65, he is a cherub of a man with a bulbous red nose and an expansive belly that gives away the fact that he loves food almost as much as people. Ask what his favorite food is and without hesitation he will tell you, “Everything — except rhubarb.”
“He can’t get as close to the table as other people, and that presents a problem,” Sue Richardson said. It is a problem she is reminded of every time he opens his closet and flips through all his soup-stained ties. “I told him I was going to stop buying silk ties.”
She met Dick Richardson at Harding College in Searcy, Arkansas. They dated a couple of times, and while it was nothing serious, she found herself drawn to what she described as “his absolute warmth and his sincerity — and his sense of humor.”
After graduation, he went off to Ireland to study on a fellowship, and they lost touch until Richardson arrived at Tulane University in New Orleans. Richardson, once there, got involved in some fund-raising drive that Sue found out about. She sent in a contribution and a note.
A flurry of letters followed. Sue got to know him well enough through what he wrote to fall in love.
He did, too.
When he finally came to see her, they went for a walk and he announced, “I’m going to get married in December during break.”
“I said, `Oh, is it anybody I know?'”
His grin gave away the answer.
“That was my proposal,” Sue said. “He was pretty sure of himself.”
To understand the source of her husband’s easy confidence requires knowing something about the way he was reared in Depression-era Missouri, Sue believes.
“He was the first grandchild in a very close family,” she said. “He was very special from the time he was born, and they all doted on him.”
He recited “The Night Before Christmas” in front of them before he was 5.
Richardson has said often that his storytelling ability is a family tradition. No one family member was any better at it than “Mom Watson,” his maternal grandmother.
At night, Mom Watson would gather Dickie and his little sister and a dozen or so of their cousins into her bed and wait for the headlights of passing cars to shine in through the window. Each beam of light, she told them, was a ghost coming to get them.
The children would squeal, then snuggle closer for protection. It was fear mixed with love, Sue thinks.
Because he was the oldest, the unpleasant job of fetching the eggs that the hens laid under the house always fell to Dickie. Each time he was asked, Dickie would say, “Now Mom Watson, you are not going to say anything about that black snake are you?”
And every time, she would lie to him and say she wouldn’t.
She would tap her walking stick above the spot she had heard the hens cackling, and Richardson would follow the sound as he crawled through the darkness. Then she would stop tapping and shout, “Now Dickie, you didn’t happen to see any signs of that black snake did you?”
And every time he’d go berserk and bang his head against the floorboards.
Both his parents wanted great things for him, Richardson said, but each went about showing it in their own way.
“My mother had very high aspirations for me, but I never felt her love for me was conditioned by whether I was meeting them or not,” Richardson said.
His father was more stern, more the distant authority figure who expected the best out of his son and demanded he give it.
His father, a former farmer and teacher, went to work for the Farmer’s Home Administration during the Depression. The agency gave out loans to farmers to keep them from losing their land. For Richardson, his father’s work was his first window into how government can work to change people’s lives.
They expected him to be a good student, but they wanted him to be a good person even more.
He tried hard to be both. He was an Eagle Scout, and in both high school and college he was elected student body president.
His biggest struggle in college was deciding whether to be a teacher or a lawyer. He finally decided that he should become a political science professor so he could teach how law and government work.
He earned a bachelor’s of science in public affairs from Harding College in 1957, and a master’s of arts in 1961 and a doctorate in 1967, both in political science, and both at Tulane University.
In 1965, he was hired at Western Michigan University to teach political science and spent four years there before he made his crash landing at Carolina.
`A very special touch’
David Lohse, the associate director for sports information, first met Richardson in 1977 when Lohse arrived here from Purdue to pursue a doctorate in political science.
By that time, Richardson had become chair of the political science department and won the Tanner Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Richardson was one of the reasons Lohse had decided to come to Carolina for his Ph.D. Lohse spent hours sitting in Richardson’s classroom to observe a master at work.
Lohse said he is the kind of person you wanted to be around outside of the classroom as well.
“When you are around him he doesn’t have to say anything — he makes you feel better about yourself,” Lohse said. “I don’t know what it is. He is this short, squatty, lovable guy who had a very special touch with people and commanded an enormous amount of loyalty among his students. It’s what made him, in addition to being a great scholar, a great undergraduate teacher.
“If they had cloned him they would have done the world a service.”
Part of his gift as a teacher was that he did not try to imbue students with all that he knew but told them just enough to make them want to know more, Lohse said.
“This guy had such a gentle manner, yet you knew when you walked into the room that he was the boss, and you were in the presence of greatness. It wasn’t just his credentials. It was the sense that when you walked into his class you couldn’t help but fall in love with the experience.”
Richardson said he was careful when he taught not to throw out so many facts that they got in the way of him and his students.
“I wanted them to fall in love with the subject matter,” Richardson said. “I wanted them to like and become interested in government as something that was going to affect them in very profound ways. I tried to show them things that government did were significant and why they were significant and how it would touch their lives.”
The summons to South Building
He did not jump from the classroom to South Building. He was pushed.
The man pushing was Michael Hooker, an eager new chancellor shrewd enough to know that the best way to get faculty members on his side was to have Richardson at his side.
Richardson had been on the search committee that saw Hooker’s great energy and vision.
Richardson was at the beach with his grandchildren after Hooker took over as chancellor that summer of 1995. When he returned, Hooker called him for a meeting at the Siena Hotel on Franklin Street.
Richardson said he figured Hooker might want to ask him about the provost job, and he came up with names of people he thought would be good for the post. He found out when he arrived that Hooker had his own list — and Richardson’s name was the only one on it. “Look,” Richardson told him, “let’s do this over again. I really don’t want to be this at all.”
He left the meeting hoping to come up with the right excuse to tell Hooker no. His youngest daughter, Megan, and his 85-year mother wouldn’t let him.
Megan asked if he did not want to leave the classroom because of what he had to offer students or because of what he got back from them.
If it’s what you can give to students, she told him, you can make a bigger difference for more students as provost.
He was having trouble seeing it, Richardson said, until his daughter pointed it out.
When he called his mother, she posed two questions.
“Is he a good man?” she wanted to know about Hooker.
“I think so,” Richardson told her.
“Do you have a nice suit?”
He said yes, “because if I didn’t she would give me $50 — to buy two.”
Richardson told Hooker yes, too, but that he would be provost only for a year. But after a year, Hooker urged him to stay on another four years.
All right, Richardson told him, but on the condition that the Faculty Council get to vote on his selection by secret ballot.
And so, people say, did Hooker and the University.
“It was not an easy relationship because we had many differences,” Richardson said, “but I do think we complemented each other. He had great vision. He was very energetic. He also had a great ambition for the school and for us and for himself.”
And Richardson saw in Hooker the same impatience that he had displayed as a 34-year-old political science professor trying to do more than he could. Like Richardson once had, Hooker wanted to fly, but was trying to fly too far, too fast.
“I had the uncomfortable task of constantly having to ground him and explain to him there were things he had to do to achieve these things.”
And one of those things was having the patience to allow the process of faculty governance to work so that more faculty members would buy into such initiatives as improving the intellectual climate.
Early in 1999, Richardson took on extra duties as Hooker fought lymphatic cancer. Then in March, Richardson suffered a heart attack.
On June 29, just weeks after both men had returned to work, Hooker died.
Richardson presided over the funeral, then began working with Interim Chancellor William O. McCoy to make the spending cuts needed to deal with a $6.8 million budget shortfall.
The two men have continued working closely to raise money for long-delayed capital needs and to improve faculty pay.
Linda Naylor, Richardson’s secretary the past five years, thinks his greatest ability as a leader is his willingness to listen to anybody who knocks on his door.
“He has a way of relating to people that makes it easy for him to see where they are coming from, what their agenda is and what they need from him when he knows they are also looking for what is in the best interest of the University.
“When he disagrees he is able to state it in ways that do not antagonize or make others feel he is not willing to support their final decision.”
Richardson said the key is to never take yourself, or your problems, too seriously.
“Frankly, in the total scope of things, it is important to remember how small most of these things are. We get incredibly agitated and inflamed over really small things. That’s why I think it would be useful for all of us to go over to Morehead Planetarium and sit and watch the stars and the whole universe. Coming out of there would help all our own problems seem smaller.”
A community builder recognized
When he retires on June 30, it will be the first summer he will have had off in 31 years.
Sue Richardson said it may take a while for her husband to get used to having so much time on his hands at their home on 10 acres of woods along the Haw River in Chatham County — a place his wife chose, Richardson is quick to point out.
“This is going to be a real adjustment,” Sue said. “Dick doesn’t play golf. He doesn’t fish.”
He’s not much for fooling around with the yard, either, she said. “I garden. He likes to watch me garden.”
The couple plan a four-month trip to England after which Richardson hopes to do a lot of reading and writing. And with eight grandchildren spread from North Carolina to Florida, there will be plenty of birthday parties to go to and school performances to see.
And in one way or another, Richardson said, he will keep connected to the University.
His tenure here may be ending, but his influence will endure through the people he touched and those who touched him.
“The plaques are wonderful,” said Richardson, who this year won a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award, one of the highest honors bestowed at Carolina. “I’m delighted to receive them, but it’s the personal relationships that I treasure. Those are the memories I will carry with me, along with the memories of all the things we were able to do collectively together.”
Whether in the classroom or the boardroom, Richardson used the power of his storytelling not so much to make a point as to make a connection with people. And he always seemed to have a story to fit every occasion.
David Williamson, research editor in News Services, remembers a reception Richardson held to thank people who worked with him on the Bicentennial Observance in the early 1990s.
“Dick spoke about his long service to the University and said something like `Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be at Carolina for this many years.’ Then he stopped as if a fresh thought jumped into his head, looked out the window and said, `Come to think of it, my wildest dreams have nothing to do with Carolina.’
“Everyone almost fell on the floor laughing so hard,” Williamson said. “By breaking the ice the way he did, he immediately put everyone at ease and made them feel appreciated and part of a community. As a natural leader, he is magnificent in a truly human way.”
It was this same quality that former Chancellor Christopher Fordham saw in Richardson in 1987 when he talked about Richardson’s “capacity to help people see themselves more clearly and constructively, to recognize their dependence on one another and to intensify their common bonds.”
And it was that same quality that Chapel Hill Mayor Rosemary Waldorf cited when she proclaimed May 24 as “Richard Judson Richardson Day” and praised him as a community builder.
That same day, during a retirement tribute in the George Watts Hill Alumni Center, McCoy talked of Richardson’s grace and wit before an audience that included Bill Friday, Molly Corbett Broad and members of the University Board of Trustees, the UNC Board of Governors and the N.C. General Assembly.
“We all know and love Dick Richardson,” McCoy said, “and we all want to say, `Thank you.'”
Richardson’s response: “If I’d known it was going to be so much fun I would have retired earlier.”
And then, at the end, he turned serious. Love and purpose, he said, are the most important things in life. “You’ve given me that.”
Originally published by University Gazette: June14, 2000