Frank Richards

Frank Richards

Driftwood president Frank Richards dies at 93

Driftwood president Frank Richards dies at 93

  • Jul. 27, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Frank Richards, president of Driftwood Publishing Ltd. and the man who bought the Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper with his wife Barbara in 1967, died on July 19 in Lady Minto Hospital. His daughter Valerie Rogers has written the following tribute to her father.

By VALERIE ROGERS

Special to the Driftwood

When my father died last Tuesday it came as an enormous blow to me.

Despite being  93 years of age, Rich, as he was known to all the family, was a 50-year-old man for almost my entire life. Even in his last days, when his eyes looked a little too blue or his hair a little too thin, I would assure myself that there was nothing wrong with him a nice cup of tea couldn’t cure. For me, my father never grew old.

He was a hell raiser as a boy. Despite the iron fist of his father, Rich and Bill, (or Juicy, as his twin was known), enjoyed trouble. When his father got mad about the broken car sitting in the driveway too long, he and Bill dug a hole in the back garden and buried the entire car. It was their way of calling their authoritarian father’s bluff. Dad used to say that the most delightful of his scholastic pursuits was defiance and by the sounds of his  stories he practised this on his father nearly daily.

As a boy, he attended St. Philip’s Grammar School in Birmingham. Founded by Cardinal Newman in the 19th century, the famed school boasted Hobbit author J.R.R. Tolkien and General Bill Slim among its alumni. A high school drop-out, my Dad went through 24  different jobs, several dozen motorcycles and various cars before he and twin Bill, against their father’s advice, enlisted in the Royal Air Force where Dad enjoyed a  “useful” military career, progressing from Flight Sergeant to Corporal.

The twins volunteered for aircrew training but were both turned down for medical reasons. Dad had “red-outs” when the aircraft was put into a tight turn. His brother Bill had had TB. So Dad trained as an instrument technician, which came in handy later  when he opted to serve at the air force base in Pat Bay.

He was with the first RAF bomber squadron to be sent to France at the beginning of the

war. After the German breakthrough, those airmen who could not be flown to England were told “get to the coast somehow . . . .”

The airfield was in the French champagne country, near Reims where Dad succeeded in making several life-long friends during a brief stay in Epernay. After many dangerous days, having been cut off from the direct route to the English Channel coast, Dad and a few companions managed to reach Bordeaux, in a borrowed air force truck. He boarded what may have been the last boat to leave before the enemy troops arrived.  This was some seven days after the last person had been evacuated from Dunkirk.

With a series of vehicle misdemeanors and a pending court martial to argue with (after generously giving a demonstration of the correct military procedure in the handling of a rifle to his commanding officer, Rich was given the opportunity of volunteering for overseas service), Dad was sent to the Royal Air Force Base at Pat Bay on Vancouver Island. He crossed the Atlantic on the Volendam, a Holland America ship redesigned for the war, and recalled crossing the country: “I enjoyed Saskatchewan. I loathed Alberta. I fell in love with British Columbia.”

At Pat Bay, the squadron’s job was to protect the Royal Navy’s graving dock in Esquimalt Harbour. By all accounts, Dad did a bang-up job. He used to say that the closest he came to gunfire was when he would leave grapefruits fermenting until they exploded under the barrack room cots.

When he left Pat Bay to return to England he realized he was leaving what had become home.

Back in England, Dad cruised the party scene and when nurses at a nearby hospital in Hereford spread the word about a party in the psychiatric wing, my father went. It was there he met my mother in a padded cell and about six weeks later proposed to her as she boarded a bus looking a lot like The Flying Nun.

“Will you marry me?” he yelled. He reminisced about her little head, hardly perceptible  behind the grimy glass of the crowded bus, but visible enough that he recognized her assenting nod.

It was Feb. 14, 1946. They were married in Birmingham in September of that year, my mother looking demure and small while my father was rakish and handsome. With change left from the proceeds of the sale of the billiard table they boarded the Queen Elizabeth and set sail to the land of opportunity where Dad found himself delivering coal before securing a job at the Sidney post office and later at the Sidney Review.

At the Sidney Review, Dad discovered his vocation and took up life as a reporter for a small-town newspaper with gusto. By and large, he was a conscientious employee and worked long days for very little money.

He would regale us with stories of his hectic deadlines and assignments and we imagined our Dad as an Anderson Cooper kind of figure, chasing down the firetrucks on the Saanich Peninsula in his 1951 Hillman. One day, he came home from work and shamelessly explained how, that very afternoon, he had fallen asleep while interviewing a Saanich Peninsula farmer.

The kitchen got “bloody hot,” he elaborated while my mother’s eyes grew wider. He described the scene while I winced, fearing he might be fired.

“My elbow slipped off the table and my head fell into my arms, but I woke up still holding the pen.”

Together, my parents laughed, more at the foibles of my father, who was known to fall asleep wherever he could find a chair.

He was full of stories about the war and much of his scatological commentaries and ditties originated from those halcyon days of peripheral combat. When he would announce to us regularly “My father owned a bawdy house. Hullabaloo Belay,” we could tell by our Mother’s grimace that we would never hear the rest of that song.

Along with the bawdy houses and the sergeant major songs, my brother Tony, affectionately known as “Tub,” and my sister Jill and myself, who he called “Snurge,”  were serenaded with the likes of Ali Baba’s Camel, and Up and Down Balloon Boys, all equally indelicate as they were entertaining. Our all-time favourite was Bunky Do Di Lido, which Dad reserved for special occasions only.

My father loved to tell stories. To teach us humility, Dad told us that our grandfather had been hanged for stealing sheep. Sometime later, when one of us must have been just a little too high and mighty, he decided to set us straight yet again and we learned that my other grandfather was nothing but a pirate.

Another story that got wheels, so to speak, was the one about Auntie Ginny who had put a pea up her nose and had consequently gone deaf. He forgot to set the story straight and I innocently passed this important piece of medical history on to Dr. Peter Rowell while being treated for hay fever.

“Who told you this?” he asked me.

“My Dad,” I explained. “Auntie Ginny was on my Dad’s side,” I elaborated.

Dr. Rowell laughed and shook his head. “It had to be your father,” he said.

Dad loved buying books. In 1950, after working for the Sidney Review for two weeks, he returned home with several books in his arms. Mum recalled his excitement with his purchases and herself sitting in the kitchen crying because they had no money for food.  But we have books, my father appealed to her optimistically.

Years later, when we were living in the old Lockhart house on Scott Road (later called Long Harbour Road) on Salt Spring Island, we had thousands of books, all of which one summer Dad asked us to properly enumerate, a relatively large undertaking that kept us  fortuitously occupied for our entire summer holiday.

My father was a victim of English haberdashery and rarely went anywhere without a look of uncontrived elegance. He dressed each morning, for nearly all of my lifetime, in a shirt and tie, and deplored elastic waist bands or baseball hats. He never answered the door in slippers or lay on the couch wearing sweats nursing a lager.

He was the consummate Englishman. He could never lick his fingers or eat a pizza without a knife and fork and had an aversion to exotic foods that included salads, peanut butter, rice, macaroni and cheese, or any kind of food that was inclined to slide. He dreamed of treacle tart and pork pie, and if I could add more regrets to that list we’re endlessly compiling at the death of someone we’ve adored, it would be that he didn’t get enough of these two less-than-heart-smart foods.

Dad spent his weekends providing us guided tours through used car lots in Victoria, which was a fairly inexpensive form of entertainment. By the time we were nine or 10, my sister and I could call out the make, model and year of nearly any car as it flew past our Hillman Minx on the Pat Bay Highway. We would have arguments as to a car’s year and find ourselves kneeling in car lots, blowing on tail lights and polishing off the plastic with our gingham dresses, only to call out victoriously that we were right and that “it was a 1958.”

Dad framed photos of cars he’d driven and used licence plate numbers from 1936 as debit card passwords in 2000. Our walls and bookcases were full of cars. When my aunt was travelling with my father and mother through Greece in 1985, she admitted that touring the ancient ruins of the Acropolis and Delphi had been truly extraordinary, but just as amazing had been the variety and complexity of Greece’s automobiles about which she’d had so little previous knowledge. “Your father could tell me the history of every truck and car on the road,” she boasted admiringly.

Throughout Dad’s life, his faith gave him reason to breathe. Raised in the Catholic church, educated at a Catholic school, Rich was a faithful son of the church. He convinced my mother to convert to Catholicism upon marriage and he believed later that she was the more devout. He rarely spoke of his faith and he disliked evangelism.

We were surrounded by faith’s artifacts and had rosaries and prayer books, crosses from Palm Sunday and a never-ending array of bedtime prayers. We had priests for Saturday night haircuts and nuns for Sunday lunch and Saturday afternoons were saved for confession. Dad’s message to us as children was that giving to charity meant never giving away something for which you yourself had no use.

He was active at St. Elizabeth’s in Sidney and spent many years on church committees developing church policy. It was when he defended St. Paul, who my mother needlessly disparaged as a misogynist, that he finally gave her the sobriquet “Women’s Lib,” celebrated in his long-running Driftwood column, To be Frank, by Richards.

Whether he was “cocking the snook” at impatient drivers or removing his teeth to the delight of his grandchildren, my father didn’t miss an opportunity to enjoy himself. It wasn’t so much this formidable and enviable life-long pursuit of entertainment that was admirable as much as it was his ability to do so without being anything but a true gentleman.

Ah yes, one of his favourite quotes by Wilde: “A true gentleman is never unintentionally rude.”