I don’t know the year, but I remember the time. We had been in our new building for a few years when the big guy showed up. He met with an old friend, Richard Coon. Richard was struggling with cancer and had diminished in size so when he met with this new Richard, they seemed quite the odd couple. They were soon Big and Little Richard. Sadly, we lost little Richard soon afterwards to that dreaded disease.
Richard Smith (Big Richard) soon became a steady regular as did our conversations. I found that Richard was the construction supervisor at Habitat for Humanity. Since my daughter, Carrie, had been on the list for a house for some time, I asked him one day if he knew how far along she was. To my amazement, I found that she was right up at the top of the list….number 2. He came in grinning one morning and told me not to tell her but the person on top had just stepped aside and she now was to get the next house. It was hard for me not to tell her as she had become a bit discouraged as to whether she would ever get one or not.
Habitat had just had a big plate supper to raise money and I wanted to help also….especially since my own daughter was soon to be a recipient. I poured over ideas with Richard one day while sitting at the counter. Now, recently, my best friend Frank Patka and I had gone to a couple of free Texas Holdem tourneys down in Sunriver and I mused whether we could actually raise some money while playing this card game that had become so popular.
I decided to give it a go and purchased some table tops and chips from Walmart that I found on their closeout isle. I began to promote and Frank and I hosted the first event on a Monday night. Two people showed up. I was quite discouraged. But, the next Monday four people showed up and it grew from there. Soon, we had two to three tables of players every week. I had some sweatshirts made up and gave them to the winners in those first months of the growth of the event. I also gave it a name….Holdem for Habitat. And the person who was working on my logo agreed to make a logo for the event as her donation.
The popularity grew and while Richard played in those early times, he soon decided to be the chip boss for the event and to coordinate it rather than play. To me, this seemed a boring task as I loved playing but Richard seemed to take it on with gusto and gained the respect and admiration of the players. I recall when the local TV station decided to run a piece on our event. With Big Richard between us, the newsman interviewed us sitting at one of our tables. This helped bring in even more players.
Then, tragedy hits a bit when my office was broken into after one of the Monday night events. A dishwasher who quit the next week seemed to be the culprit as he was sitting out behind the building and must have seen me place the bag in my desk drawer. The burglar knew exactly where to go as he broke through my door and pried open my desk drawer stealing over $1000 of Habitat’s money and around $500 of mine. It was a lesson learned of never leaving money in my office and of being more discreet around short term employees.
As you can imagine, the theft became big news and it reached out to other areas of the state. An officer of the Department of Justice called me up one day. At first, I thought that someone had found the thief. But, I soon found out that I was the one being investigated. Now, I had studied the laws and found nothing that I could see as a problem. But, the investigator soon showed me my error. Money down for chips, chips played to win, and a prize given to the winner meant gambling.
I was told to rectify the situation, one of those items needed to be eliminated. I thought that it was going to be the end of the game. But, I woke up one morning with an idea. First off, we had recently had a larger tourney where we garnered prizes from some businesses on the coast and also local when Habitat asked us if we could help them raise some money for a special need. So, what if we eliminated not one but two of the items. First off, we would donate the original money at the register and then instead of a prize, we would make it a qualification of sorts for the big event that we would run once a year and hold it under the auspices of Habitat for Humanity thus remaining legal. I contacted the DOJ officer and he said, “I think you might have found yourself a loophole.”.
While we lost some players, the others soon became quite consistent as did Big Richard. Every Monday, you would find him there before anyone else setting up the game.
In fact, Richard did much more than that. One night after cleaning up afterwards, we sat once more over a cup of coffee. “Lyle”, he said, “I really admire what you do in this community with all of your events. I want to be a part of this. Don’t ask me if I want to help. Just tell me where you need me and I will be there.”.
Soon, at all of our events, you would find Richard either running the register, or taking tickets, or cutting pies at Thanksgiving. In fact, when we had to give up our yearly Thanksgiving affair recently, it seemed almost fitting as how could we do it without him. When Jimmy would get involved with Chili cook offs, Richard was right there next to him, helping him serve. And then one day he came in to tell me of a group of vets that he had just joined that were looking for a place to meet. I agreed to let them come in to my back room. After the first week, he asked if they could return the next. He even talked me into joining up with them. I found them to be a very interesting and fun group so when they asked me to let them make us their permanent home, I not only agreed but appreciated it. In fact, I hold it as the defining moment of finally joining my veteran brothers who I had been looking at from the sidelines since I was still somewhat in the closet from my unpopular war of years gone by in Vietnam.
I came to look forward to this group of “Old Farts” as they called themselves. They and Richard were the foundation of so many things that I do and became the catalyst and center of my mission in life (of sorts). This might have never happened if not for my friend, Richard.
When the group grew out of the back room and I decided to buffet them in the front, it was Richard who volunteered to stamp their hands when they purchased a buffet meal so that we knew they had paid before joining the line. That also placed him at the door and he became the official greeter of sorts for the group. All new members saw his smiling face as he directed them where to go and what to do. It was Big Richard doing what Big Richard did….volunteering his time to help others.
Richard knew that his weight was a problem and pursued what he could do to help himself there. He agreed to a stomach surgery. They would decrease the size of his stomach thus forcing him to eat less and lose weight. He was a bit nervous of this event but felt that it was needed and went through with it. I remember when we picked him up at the hospital and took him home, they needed a special wheelchair to accommodate his larger body.
He struggled with eating afterwards but soon grew into a diet of sorts that would sustain him. But other things soon came to be problems also like blood pressure and sugar. He fought through it all however between revisits to the hospital. Other family issues became bigger in his life also. His brother who was living with him had major health issues and soon passed on. His son needed his help and he was right there as a good father. And, he missed his daughter and granddaughter down in Southern California. He would often talk of them and show pictures around to us all. His little granddaughter had garnered a huge piece of his heart.
He would talk of his other son who lived close by. Something had happened between him and his wife and it had placed a barrier between them. While Richard was proud of him, his son held anger over the breakup of the marriage. This bothered Richard but he could do nothing about it.
One of our servers, Cindy, had become a real estate agent and talked to Richard of a program that he may qualify for to get him into a house. Before we knew it, Richard had picked out a home south of Sunriver and although it was a struggle soon owned a mortgage on it that he could afford.
While we were happy for our friend, we soon saw less of him. The cost of coming in every day became just too much. Our daily meets soon turned into two to three times per week. I missed my morning greeting of “Good Morning Sir Lyle”. It actually led me to appreciate him even more when I did see him. I would come in early on a Monday evening to share supper with him before the poker tourney.
But it did not deter Richard from being Richard. He saw a need in my kitchen. Crystal (our lead cook) was on her own. She had left her husband and was now bringing up their three kids alone. Richard told her that he would help her get into a Habitat house.
He soon became her mentor encouraging and pushing her to continue on. He even saw another need through it all. Her kids had never been to Disneyland. He took it on as his cause and soon he was taking them on a trip south. His big heart beat loudly on that trip and it is something that they all will never forget.
Then, one day he told me that he was going up to Portland for a special need. The numbers were up on his blood work and they had decided that he might have a bit of cancer. They told him not to worry as they felt that they could get rid of it early.
His appointments kept getting put off and one time he even drove to Portland only to find it put forward again. This was frustrating for him and I understood that. He was assured once more not to worry. So, it was just another trip up for him last spring.
Then I got the call. He told me that they had opened him up and then just closed it all back down. He said that cancer was on an artery and that surgery was out of the question. I asked him what that meant. He said, “They give me six months.”. The shock hit us all but it did not deter Richard…..at least at first.
And then his absences grew and we saw less and less of him. I took a couple of trips down to see him. His family brought him in on the fourth of July. He looked at me and said, “This is the first fourth that I have not worked with you.”. He would always take tickets for the BBQ that evening.
I will never forget the last time I saw him. Richard was laying in his bed watching TV. Ken and I sat at the foot of his bed and visited. I looked over and Richard was staring at me. I stared back and two old friends just looked at one another. Without a word, tears welled in both of our eyes…..no sound was needed….my friend was saying goodbye.
We held a service for our friend in early August. I carried his ashes while Ken carried his flag. David performed his sword ceremony and JW and I piped him off. It was a beautiful service but a sad goodbye.
But that was not the end of Richard’s story. His legacy lives on. Crystal’s house was named the Big Richard build. Richard made it to the dedication ceremony where a sign with his picture was placed in front of the lot.
Two weeks ago, I spoke in his place at the dedication of the house. It was a happy event where we spoke of Richard’s dedication and his drive to get Crystal into a house. I also spoke of how the Band of Brothers may have never taken off if it had not been for Richard. The bend group is now over 1100 strong thanks much to him.
And last week, I spent Thanksgiving in the house that Richard built….the Big Richard build….Crystal’s new home. As I listened to the laughter, thoughts and memories of my old friend wafted through my head. If he were alive, he would have been right there with us.
So….when we sat to eat, I placed a setting on the table for him. And before we ate we raised a toast….to Big Richard.
Now a family has a home….a roof over their heads and a warm place to retreat at the end of the day.
All thanks to Richard Smith….Big Richard….a part of his legacy will always be close by.