Harold Richards died suddenly Thursday night in his home in Dubuque, Iowa, at age 84.
He was my Pops.
He taught me to love hard work, and to appreciate midday naps. He ignited my passions for baseball and the Cubs.
And, of course, he provided me with that time-honored, white-knuckle lesson: Pops taught me how to drive.
I remember it so vividly — 1968, in the parking lot at the John Deere Dubuque Tractor Works. I was 17, with my permit in an otherwise empty wallet, so eager to show him that I was ready to get behind the wheel.
The lot was nearly vacant on that sunny weekend fall day. He had given up his usual Sunday fishing trip on the nearby Mississippi River to give me my first lesson. I seem to recall a Chicago Bears game on the radio.
Pops parked the sandy brown Buick Skylark near the rear of the lot and let me take the driver's seat. No other cars around.
Zoom, I went — in reverse!
Pops frowned and threw up his hands, but never scolded or belittled me. "You want to go forward," is what I think he said. I can't recall for sure. Panic tends to dull your memories.
Then there was the time we were returning home from another lesson. We lived on a busy street — for Dubuque — and making a left turn into our garage was difficult. I feared hitting one of the rock walls that lined the narrow one-lane driveway with just inches to spare on either side.
Panic time again. I eyed the tight drive with no cars approaching, but behind the Skylark was a car or two.
I stopped, blinker on for the left turn, but did not turn. Instead I stuck my arm out the window and waved the drivers to go around me.
"No, no, no, you go, your turn!" Pops said, a tad of agitation in his voice.
I rolled into the driveway, giving my side as much room as possible — but dad could not get out of his door.
"Back it up, straighten it out," he said.
I did, only to slam my door into the rock wall. The ding and chipped paint remained for years.
As I sit at my keyboard thinking of dad, the tears are flowing and so many memories are flooding into my head. We had a solid relationship, sometimes rocky, but in recent years we grew closer. Our weekly Sunday morning phone calls could last 20 minutes, a long time for two men not prone to lengthy conversations.
He didn't really understand the Roadshow gig; driving in Iowa is sooooo different than on California freeways. But the way I drive is so much like the way he drove — slow (usually) — with no reason to hurry, and always using the blinkers.
Dad was a terrific mechanic — a gene I missed big-time. He bought a used and dilapidated '67 Mustang convertible, which became my car when he got it running after two years of tinkering. A real chick magnet, only I never got a date with it.
The only time I heard him swear was on the toll road leading into Chicago, when he would pitch a quarter into the toll basket — only he missed the basket and had Mom digging for more quarters.
Once he let Mom drive on our way to Minnesota. When she ran out of gas on a lonesome two-lane highway near the Paul Bunyan park outside Brainerd as he dozed, he was not pleased. What were we going to do?
No worries. Pops got out a beach ball my brother and I had packed, cut off the edge and fashioned it into a siphon. He sucked a half-gallon from our boat's gas tank, and our vacation was saved.
It was on vacation when Dad let loose. My favorite moment was on some flat road on the Texas Panhandle as a train roared on tracks parallel to our car. He hit 65 mph, 75, 85, 90 and faster. We were racing the train and the train was losing. My bother and I roared in delight, our hands flapping out the window in joy.
Not Mom. "Ninety miles an hour, Harold!" she sternly said.
Those are fond stories, but I also recall what my dad accomplished. He quit school during the Depression after 10th grade, then marched off to war against Nazi Germany. Afterward he returned and met Mom at the Dubuque packing house, where she sharpened knives and he was a butcher.
He then was hired at the newly opened John Deere Tractor Works, where he worked for 30 years and rose to the rank of a foreman. I've always been so proud of that.
He had street smarts. Before Watergate blew up, he called Richard Nixon a crook. When Mom suffered from Alzheimer's, he took care of her for almost a decade.
Mom died in 1999 and I worried how he would take care of himself. But he surprised us all by marrying again. And Mary was a terrific wife. She took care of him so well and with such kindness as he struggled to walk on swollen legs. She became his joy.
I last saw Dad in October. The man who never cried shed tears as I drove out of the driveway that tortured me in my youth. You always wonder if this visit with an elderly parent will be the last.
Then, last Sunday, we had our weekly talk. The weather, the health of a favorite cousin, my son's upcoming high school graduation, the usual slow start of the Cubs were all part of our final conversation.
And so was this:
"I love you, Dad."
"I love you, Gary."
Contact Gary Richards at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5335.