December 13, 2017

Remembering Vic Richards

 

“Topanga is what you make it,” said the man who set the standard for service to his community.

PHOTO BY ANTHONY VEREBES

Remembering Vic Richards

Richards “embodied the spirit of volunteerism,” said Anthony Hall, who took the reins of the Town Council after Richards stepped down, and identified himself as one of many others who was inspired to become active by Richards’ example.

A front window of the Topanga Community House, painted with palm trees, and the words, “Aloha, Vic,” greeted friends and family members from near and far as they donned Hawaiian attire and gathered on Sunday, May 2, where the main hall had been transformed into an island oasis to celebrate Vic Richard’s life.

Through tears and laughter, hugs and reminiscences, a picture emerged of a man who loved life, lived it to the fullest and was a much beloved teacher of government and economics. His own life was perhaps his greatest civics lesson.

William Victor (Vic) Richards died in hospital on March 3, 2010, of pneumonia and complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was born October 15, 1928, in Coronado, California, the eldest son of a Naval aviator who spent much of his military career stationed along the coasts of California and the Hawaiian Islands. At that time, Coronado had neither a bridge connecting the island with San Diego nor a regular hospital, so when Richards’ mother, Dorathylea, went into labor, she was rushed to the local Dog and Cat Hospital where her first son was delivered.

From his mother, Vic inherited a devout Christian Science faith, a big laugh, a great sense of humor, a mischievous twinkle in his eye and an ability to achieve objectives. Dorathylea’s ability to quietly navigate her way around her strict officer husband through charm and gentle persuasion, without argument or rancor, was not lost on her son.

PHOTO COURTESY OF JEANINE RICHARDS

Remembering Vic Richards

Richards’ athleticism and strong good looks, along with his boyish enthusiasm for life, first caught Jeanine’s eye when they met in the winter of 1962. The feeling was obviously mutual, as the young man, whom Jeanine described as a “magnificent physical specimen,” patiently taught her to ski and later to play tennis.

From his father, Vic derived a love of sports and a lifelong commitment to public service. Hiking, skiing, sailing, camping, tennis, volleyball, swimming, Richards loved them all. He attended college on a football scholarship. Drafted into the Army in 1951, Richards, who qualified as an expert with the carbine, was headed for combat in Korea when superiors tapped him instead to play on his division’s football team in Japan. He spent two years on active duty in Japan where his team won the championship for the Far East.

He was promoted to corporal, honorably discharged, then served the next five years in the Army Reserves. In the late 1950s, he became one of Los Angeles County’s first certified SCUBA instructors, and was chosen by U.S. Divers to field-test their equipment (a perk he used to leverage himself off a long waiting list into an early membership in the Surf Club at San Onofre).

World War II in the Pacific

Richards’ father, stationed at Hawaii’s Ford Island, was flying on patrol on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched their attack on Pearl Harbor. He was radioed not to return to base for fear his aircraft would be lost. Thirteen-year-old Vic and younger brother, Tom, could only stand and watch as wave upon wave of Japanese bombers and torpedo planes passed so low overhead that the two boys could clearly see the Rising Sun emblazoned on their wings and fuselage as they wreaked destruction on the American fleet.

Vic and his family, along with thousands of other military dependents, were evacuated, first to a Hawaiian plantation and later to the U. S. mainland aboard the Lurline, a luxury liner pressed into service during the war as a troop ship. Fearful of a submarine attack (that didn’t materialize), the ship ran in “silent mode,” zigzagging across more than 2,000 miles of Pacific waters and sailing without running lights at night.

PHOTO COURTESY OF JEANINE RICHARDS

Remembering Vic Richards

Vic is the oldest of four pictured with his brothers Tom and John, and his sister Vicky Richards Higgins. His brother, Tom, remembered that Vic was a prankster. He “liberated” flares from the Navy base and hid them under his bed; then he and his brothers snuck down to the beach at night and fired them off, laughing at the commotion it caused among the sailors who were “entertaining” their girlfriends who thought they were under attack. His dad, the base executive officer, got in trouble when the culprits were identified, and the pranksters learned a hard lesson from the military expression about what rolls downhill.

Tom went on to follow in his father’s footsteps as a military, and later, a civilian pilot. Vic failed the visual exam, but nothing could diminish his love of all things aviation. He could recognize any plane by sight, and until the day he died, his father’s worn leather flying goggles hung in the hallway of his Topanga home, carefully crafted wooden model planes filled his office, and a well-thumbed copy of Jane’s reference guide to the world’s military aircraft sat on a bookshelf.

Richards was still surfing and playing tennis well into his 70s, until a hip replacement and Parkinson’s disease limited his sports activities to snorkeling on his annual pilgrimages to Maui with his wife Jeanine.

Former student Janice Harmon remembered “Mr. Richards” as “friendly, fit and … witty” in the classroom.

Many remembered his dry wit. “He did have a great sense of humor,” said Susan Nissman, a friend for more than 35 years. It was “something you had to really pay attention to, because he didn’t announce his ‘jokes,’ and you could miss them if you weren’t paying attention. “

“Vic was always looking for adventures that the other kids didn’t do,” recalled brother Tom. “He would always lead the way — unless he wasn’t too sure about it, and then he would push me out front.”

After the army, he enrolled at UCLA where he earned three degrees — a B.S. in business, a B.A. in political science and an M.S. in administration — as well as a teaching credential.

His teaching career spanned more than 39 years, first, as a Physical Education teacher at Berkeley Hall, a Christian Science school, and then to teaching government and economics at a high school in the city of Orange.

It was Richards’ athleticism and strong good looks, along with his boyish enthusiasm for life, that first caught Jeanine’s eye when she met him on a ski trip in Mammoth in the winter of 1962. She described him as a “magnificent physical specimen,” and he patiently taught her to ski and later to play tennis. She was 29 and teaching sixth grade at Franklin School in Santa Monica.

Smitten, Richards racked up the miles on his Volkswagen camper as he traveled from Orange County to Santa Monica to pick up Jeanine for a date. By that summer, Vic had applied to Santa Monica High School (Samohi), where he would teach for the next 31 years, and on August 18, 1963, the two were married.

For their honeymoon, Vic convinced her to head north to San Francisco, camping. The one concession she demanded of him was a dress-up dinner out on the town. When the night arrived, Jeanine was dressed to the nines in an elegant black cocktail dress and high heels. Vic donned a natty black business suit, purchased especially for the occasion, an elegant match for his bride until the eye moved down to his feet and a pair of glaringly white tennis shoes. He had forgotten to pack his dress shoes but never his beloved sneakers.

PHOTO COURTESY OF JEANINE RICHARDS

Remembering Vic Richards

Vic and Jeanine enjoy an ice cream in the rain during a visit to Maui.

The same year, the couple purchased a half acre in Topanga’s Post Office tract, where they built the home they would share for the remainder of their lives. “We love Topanga,” said Jeanine. “We always loved Topanga. We have such wonderful friends, such wonderful people.” She recalled how she and Vic would often sit on their back deck, enjoying their majestic views of the Canyon and the Channel Islands, and ask each other, “Do you realize how lucky we are?”

Meanwhile, the popular young teacher, who arrived in the teachers’ parking lot each day on the back of a motorcycle, was quickly establishing himself as one of the most beloved and respected educators ever to teach at Santa Monica High. His first exposure to teaching was during his Army stint in Japan, where he helped local students learn English. That experience also piqued his interest in social studies, when his Japanese charges, growing up in a democracy only a few years old, peppered him with questions about U.S. government.

“I found I didn’t know much about our government and I really had to dig for all the information,” Richards later told his students at Samohi.

PHOTO COURTESY OF JEANINE RICHARDS

Remembering Vic Richards

The popular young teacher, who arrived in the teachers’ parking lot each day on the back of a motorcycle, had quickly established himself as one of the most beloved and respected educators ever to teach at Santa Monica High.

“He always read the political and business sections of the newspaper,” recalled Jeanine. “Every day, right up to the day he died. He loved the kids and the kids loved him back. They absolutely adored him. We couldn’t go anywhere in Santa Monica or the Valley without current and former students coming up to him.”

His efforts on behalf of his students went beyo