Gary Richards, Man with a Mission

By Rachel Victoria Mills
Notable Neighbors

Gary Richards tells me he is writing a novel about some escapades among people who influenced the Civil War. He began it about ten years ago, researching it thoroughly and thinking about it ever since.  “But,” he warns me, “you can’t reveal the plot.”  I promise, so you will not hear about the exciting, action-packed adventure here.  You will have to wait for the book.  Or the movie.

We meet at the political advocacy table outside the PORCH sort on Monday, where he has been filling in for Kathleen Shapley-Quinn.  He’s the PORCH neighborhood coordinator for the Greenbridge Condominiums between Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and has been since he and his wife Geraldine, who is the president of Chapel Hill NOW, moved from Oswego, New York five years ago.  At first, they came south for half a year (they have children and grandchildren hereabouts), then decided that shoveling snow all winter was something he could do without.  He’s retired from professional work now, but not from advocacy…he fills his days with it, and we are the better for his energy.

In Oswego, he had been cooking for the soup kitchen, so he began volunteering at TABLE, then coming to PORCH, which he likes for its dedicated and nearly entirely volunteer engine.  “Those three ladies [Christine, Debbie and Susan] are my heroes!” he says.  “I’d nominate them for the Peace Prize if I could.”

His activism began early in his college days at Buffalo.  “I’d see posters for films on the NLF [National Liberation Front], mistakenly assuming they were about the NFL,” he laughs.  It was the Vietnam era, so the transposition of initials made quite a difference, as he soon found out.  “Hey, I thought.  Here I am a middle-class white guy.  What does all this mean to me?”  It was an awakening to the many injustices in the country and world that led him to declare himself a pacifist.

Beyond his PORCH days (he works both Mondays and Wednesdays each month), he has joined the Climate Reality Project, an educational organization teaching about climate change.  After his training in Atlanta, he has protested each Friday at the UNC coal plant, bringing to the public eye the danger to our town.  A recent article in the Daily Tar Heel noted the group’s dedication to clean air, spotlighting Gary and quoting his concerns about the necessity of reversing the damage already done to our climate. 

It’s not difficult to see that such issues are personal as well as political for Gary, who thinks of his grandchildren’s school and his own home very close to the plant.  One of his favorite times finds him helping in a classroom at Frank Porter Graham.  “I love all those little kids,” he smiles.  He’s looking out for our safety, too. 

He also urges his condominium members to be more green…advocating for electric vehicle charging stations and voluntary composting, and taking a leadership position in urging his fellow homeowners to give to PORCH.  “We need to find a way to encourage more people to donate,” he emphasizes.  We talk about that need in many parts of the community, for it is a PORCH goal this year.

You would think Gary and Geraldine have plenty to fill their days, but they carve out time to travel.  For their 50th wedding anniversary, they toured Iceland, Scotland, Wales, Penzance and London.  (“The Orkney Islands are so beautiful!”)  Paris was on the way to South Africa, and Amsterdam on the way back.

Guatemala, Macchu Piccu, Spain…their passports have many stamps, and will surely have many more.

Meanwhile, we’re glad he’s on our side at PORCH.  It’s a good reminder that advocating for  those who are food-challenged encompasses a much bigger mission than the collection of food; it means watching out for the world’s needs for clean living.  Otherwise, where would our food come from?