I stepped back into time as soon as I entered the Iannotti Funeral Home to pay my respects to the family of Walter Richardson, who died Nov. 30 at the age of 88.
Like many other wakes, a display of family photographs stood near the book for visitors to sign. The pictures showed Walter at birthday parties, at Christmas, on vacation and at other events during his life. Often he was one of many, but there was no mistaking him and his trademark smile.
But the image that melted away the years and returned me to the late 1960s, when Tony Ritacco and I bought the Beacon, wasn’t a photo. It was a sketch by Warwick teacher and artist Karl Rittmann.
It is a classic Rittmann piece, featuring Richardson with rough sketches circling the portrait, depicting events and people in Walter’s life.
Karl did countless of these drawings, throwing the spotlight of notoriety on someone in the community. Karl’s drawings appeared periodically in the paper and became a sort of admission to a select group chosen for the honor. Often one of us at the paper, more likely photographer Hap Mathews, who was always about town, would make a suggestion and even provide Karl a picture to work from. Those chosen for the feature ranged from athletic coaches to priests, politicians, scholars, business leaders and just about anyone else who made Warwick proud.
Karl’s drawing was of a younger Walter than I remember. It was most likely done earlier in Walter’s political career, as councilman from Ward 2. It also told the story of an event I certainly would have recalled, and carried on the front page, had I been here. Evidently, Walter ruffled some feathers and raised eyebrows when he took it upon himself to direct firefighters to use a ladder truck to repair the tent at the Warwick Musical Theater. The action caused quite a controversy, says Walter III, who immediately singled it out when I asked him what he remembers of his father’s 20 years on the City Council.
Karl gave the action a positive slant, suggesting that instead of a misuse of power, Walter saved the day and enabled the show to go on. That was a Karl trait – always show the good side of things.
Walter had that quality, too. As his wife Marilyn told me, “Walter loved Warwick.” He could always be counted on for an opinion on how to improve the city or its services.
Walter was the used car manager for Norwood Motors Chevrolet but, first and foremost, was a salesman for the city.
His constituents loved it, judging from the way they kept returning him to office, even when the Democrats virtually cleaned the council of Republicans. During his tenure, at one time, Walter was one of eight Republicans. Some years later he was only one of two Republicans elected. That must have been one of those years when Councilman George Whalen ran the Democratic Party and had it ticking like a fine Swiss watch. But the Democrats could never dislodge Walter.
It’s funny, of all the council meetings and the controversies I covered – the battles over budgets, zoning changes that account for much of the retail development on Route 2, bonds for schools and who would get elected council president – what remains crystal clear was the routine of stopping in at Father & Sons Restaurant the night of a council meeting. I’d find a place at the counter among council members and be welcomed as if I was one of them. But then I wasn’t anyone special. Leo Coutu, who ran the place, that is now a Chinese restaurant, would often join the conversation while refilling white porcelain cups with coffee.
I related this to Walter’s son at his father’s wake, only, at the time, I remembered pie and coffee at Father & Sons coming after the meetings. Young Walter smiled; my memory wasn’t all that crystal clear after all. Coffee didn’t come after the meetings. There were other post-meeting watering holes. Oh yes, now I remember those, too.
The often-voiced observation – at least from some old timers – is that, if today’s council were more like those of the past with camaraderie and a shared commitment to the city and perhaps a beer or two as friends, things would run much better. Maybe so, although there’s always been remembering the past as better than the present.
There’s no way of forgetting Walter, however. He loved this city and was proud to show it.