Richard J. Richardson

(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the Annual Alumni Luncheon and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)

Distinguished Service Medal Citation

Richard J. Richardson

Many people who are very good at what they do reach a gut-wrenching moment in their careers when they must decide whether to continue doing what they love or take the leap to power, fame and wealth that’s called management. At the top of the anxiety scale, when this moment comes, is the teacher.

So when Dick Richardson was asked to leave the classroom, indeed leave the campus for the position of associate vice president for academic affairs in the UNC System, he prayed to God for guidance. He prayed and prayed, and he said that if he was going, he wanted God to come with him. The answer was a long time in coming: Finally, God said, it’s all right if you go, and I’ll go with you as far as the Institute of Government.

With Dick’s talent, he probably could have handled the job just knowing the Lord was that close by. But, truth be known, that wasn’t the issue. The problem was, Dick knew the students weren’t coming with him. After a year in the General Administration, he hurried back up the hill to his own Heaven.

So many in the University know him only as the heartbeat of academic Carolina. He served as provost with compassion, wit, and a refreshing frankness—and also a certain reluctance. Dick is famous on the campus and in the town for going unfailingly where he was needed. But his real stage was in 100 Hamilton Hall, and his best times were in his office, on benches, on steps, in coffeehouses– talking to students. He never thought talking to them about political science was more important than talking to them about their boyfriends, their families, their roommates.

At one of those retirement events he squirmed through, Dick acknowledged that he was not a scholar. He isn’t well-published. It’s been suggested that the 10-year chair of the political science department wouldn’t qualify for tenure today. He simply didn’t care for that which took him away from the students. All he has to show is a stack of undergraduate teaching awards and three or four calls every week from former students years removed from his classes.

Sue Richardson may not be fond of the story about the piece of paper on which she wrote the word “No” and made Dick carry in his pocket for use the next time he was asked to do something extra. When it came time to use it, Dick always seemed to read the word upside-down. He took one semester of leave in 31 years. Sue, Carolina loves that story.

When he took on the enormous task of heading up the Bicentennial observance, he could have made it a desk job. But he was out in Polk Place, watching as a man stood up in the branches of the Davie Poplar shaking down seeds to be planted in every North Carolina county. We can see him there now–his heart swelled, and a tear came in his eye at the thought of two centuries of Carolina history. But Dick is a practical man. At that moment, he said, he was thinking, “Oh, what have I done? What in the world am I going to do if that man falls out of that tree?”

When time permitted—and it always did—he went on the back roads of the state, delivering speeches on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We can see him burst into laughter at the small-town marquee he encountered, which advertised “Dr. Richardson and the Ruritan Gospel Singers.” Dick got an education of his own during that time. He wasn’t sure just what kind of reception the professor from ol’ liberal Chapel Hill could expect. He discovered, in his words, “They are so proud of this place.”

Dick’s friend and colleague Joel Schwartz had this to say: “The thing that most distinguishes him is what political scientists used to call ‘civic regardedness’—service to your department, your academic community, your immediate community and the community of North Carolina. And he was the Will Rogers of our time.”

Dick is still going where he’s needed. And he’s excited that, finally, it’s a service mission that Sue is going on with him. They’re getting heavily involved in The Heifer Project International, which builds economic opportunity and purposeful lives by teaching the people of developing countries how to raise farm animals. Dick will do a dozen rallies in and outside North Carolina for the coming fund raising campaign. And he is helping get the unique Robertson Scholars program going.

The only bad thing we can think to say about Dick after his 31 years of service to Carolina is that he attended college somewhere else. But be assured that no alumnus ever mattered more in the lives of the people who love Carolina.