Illness is an interesting sculptor. It pulls the cheek bones higher. Hollows out the spaces near the mouth. Brightens the eyes just a tad. And, as the man across the table laughingly told me, “It is a hell of a weight loss program; it is effective, but I don’t recommend it.”
We laugh, because we haven’t been together long enough to cry. We sip our coffee quietly.
Frankly, when I first met him 34 years ago, he was an irritant. Over the tops of the 5-foot high cubicles at the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, his voice would boom and shake. A flyover on a quiet work day. Startled, we would all stop working and wait for the ruckus to subside. It could take a while because hearing the voice meant Rich Richards was back at the AG’s Office after being in court. Good for Rich, but bad for the second floor of the Hoover Building.
“I still have timbre in my voice,” he proudly tells me.
The second time I met him, he surprised me. The opera was all new for me as I sat near the edge of the stage in Indianola. Amazing singer after amazing singer would appear. I saw a large man enter stage left. He was a good 6-and-a-half-feet tall, with that tell-tale handlebar mustache. And there was the voice. Booming across the stage. Rich Richards. Opera singer. Who knew?
“I had the unique opportunity to perform with the Des Moines Metro Opera for quite a few years. About a dozen. Sometimes as the lead and sometimes as a secondary character. But the shelf life of an opera singer is strictly defined — it is so demanding on your voice.”
Perhaps, but YOUR voice sounds just fine. In fact, the studious people in the coffee shop are starting to edge away from our table.
The third time I met him, he and I argued. The federal building was a bit more open in those days. A few of us went from the Polk County Attorney’s Office to talk to the United States Attorney’s Office to see who would prosecute a case out of Polk County. We all argued what the other should do. Complicated, of course, because we all thought we spoke with the voice of God. And there was Rich, on the feds’ side. Slapping me on my back. Welcoming. Larger than a man should be. A big personality.
“Been with the Department of Justice since 1983. U.S. Attorney’s Office. Trial attorneys learn just enough to be dangerous on a particular subject, and then they are done with that particular case. They forget all about what they just did and move on to a whole other area. A rewarding professional situation for me to have this kind of practice.”
His head shakes as he looks backwards over time. He then laughs — just as you’d expect — large and loud.
The fourth time I met him, he was (and is) performing with Repertory Theater of Iowa, “Clarence Darrow: A One-Man Play.” Yup, he is the one man. As we talked, I couldn’t tell when Rich was talking as himself or when Clarence Darrow was talking. He flowed from one into the other and back again.
“There are things Darrow says about the practice of law. ‘It is a bum profession as generally practiced because it’s devoid of idealism, almost poverty stricken as to real ideals.’ I absolutely agree. It is a bum profession as practiced.”
Rich looks at me to see if I agree. But with whom am I agreeing? Clarence Darrow or Rich Richards?
“Some of the issues Darrow debated — for instance, does man have an immortal soul? ‘Once when I was debating a man he got so carried away he told an audience, “I’m the master of my fate, captain of my soul.” ‘Captain of his soul? Hell, he wasn’t even a deckhand on a raft.’ ”
I’m beginning to wonder if Rich has internalized all the characters he’s portrayed over the years. Is he Marley’s ghost from “A Christmas Carol”? Is he Lane from “The Importance of Being Earnest”? Is he Giles Corey from “The Crucible”?
And then Rich Richards talks of being sick.
“I was ill for a long time. I was so sick I could not even attend my youngest’s kid’s graduation party. MRSA [Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus] did so much damage, they were saying my liver was failing, I was eligible for a liver transplant, kidneys were starting to shut down. I was incredibly ill. It was really 50/50 whether I was going to make it. I still have residual problems with my liver. But I feel good. Feel better than I have in a long time.”
A shoulder replacement, a fused ankle and a tremendous loss of weight, thanks to MRSA. Rich is sanguine.
“Clarence Darrow talked a lot about life and death. ‘A lot of people were sure as I got older, closer to my final exams, I’d get religion. Never did. I still believe when I die there will be nothing left over. Neither heaven nor hell.’ ”
“Darrow’s second wife is named Ruby,” Rich says to me as an aside. And then continues as Darrow.
“ ‘Ruby had a slightly different point of view. She does believe in a heaven and a hell. But it won’t make any difference which one I go to because I have so many good friends in both places.’
“That’s the kind of guy he was.” Rich gives me one last smile.
This is the kind of guy Rich is.
And, with a shake of hands that pulls into a hug, off we go to follow our separate paths once again. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.