Shock turned into sadness for many long time activists here in Rhode Island over the holiday season when, on December 27th, Richard Walton, in his 80th year (for the 4th time) passed away from leukemia after a number of treatments and hospital stays.
The shock, for many of us, is in how quickly the end came. He was with friends on Christmas Eve and two days later, he was gone.
An era is over.
A fixture at so many events, and with so many organizations, that they all seem changed now, never to be the same. He was an anchor to many, an inspiration to more. Most of the time he was quiet, but his eyes were vigilant, observing all that was going on.
He loved music, beer, gardening, teaching, baseball and helping people. He advocated for the homeless, stood with strikers, protested against war and stood up for the hungry and those in desperate need. He was a scholar, an activist, an author, reporter, a mentor and a wonderfully, good friend. He touched so many.
A memorial and tribute for Richard is being held this Saturday at 3pm at the Roots Cultural Center, 276 Westminster Street Providence. You are invited to help us celebrate a life well lived. The mailing address for Amos House is P.O. Box 72873, Providence, RI 02907. They aceept on-line donation via credit card, including a space on the form for an “in memory of” designation: www.amoshouse.com/tabid/209/default.aspx
One story leads to another… and then another and another and another. What follows are the thoughts and reactions of some of those who knew him.
Karen Malcolm – lived with Richard for 10 years with her daughter Erin
We had just spent Christmas eve with him. We just didn’t think it was that imminent. He didn’t like living with the stillness. It’s like losing a grandparent.
Journal article captured his totality. There was this side of him that was so close to family and friends. He was always 150% committed, centered around Stone Soup, Nicaragua, and his students. He woke up to Classical music every morning, reading and grading for the day. He loved to cook, and volunteering at Amos house; he didn’t like being idle. Working, music or traveling were all connected. He felt his students needed a wider view, a connection to the larger world. He saw folk music as connected to mental health, homelessness and making a better world. He was optimistic but melancholy too. He had a belief in people’s essential goodness; except every single person for who they were. He had an intimate hope and empathy for people’s individual and collective structures. It’s going to be a great loss.
He was a bit of a homebody. He cultivated an image for himself. When he was running for Vice President (with the Citizen’s Party), he wanted to be out splitting wood when they arrived so they would see the old Yankee at work. He had such a good sense of humor, always made fun of himself.
When traveling, he would access the culture through food; stalking all the neighborhoods, and looking over the menus on the local eateries wherever the locals ate. He took local transportation – no first class for Richard… always traveling with the people. It was always such an experience and so much fun. He would make friends with travelers and local people and he would follow up even years later and they were always happy to see him. It was his way of having a true experience.
He and Erin became very close. It was wonderful for her, even as a little kid. Once, in France, when she was 8 or 9, we met one of his students and spent a whole day on a French farmhouse. We had bread and wine and escargot. No English and only a little bit of French so we had fun navigating the whole experience. What a time we had. You could always count on him. He had a true commitment and was able to balance that with fun and work and travel in his life.
Most of us get so involved in our focus but he had such a wide level that is not something everybody could do. I just really admire that in him. I learned a lot about my own life. He walked the talk. If it’s true of anybody, it’s true of Richard.
He was so charismatic. He was my greatest cheerleader in some ways. He was always there. He filled this space that I don’t think anybody else can fill now.
I think that Richard’s genius was that he was definitely not doctrinaire. What he really wanted was for everybody to get along and everybody to be taken care of. He had a politics of kindness. He would support the cause with his presence and example. He was a Uniter; especially on a grassroots level.
‘When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I call for change they call me a communist.’
We’re all going to miss him more than any of us realized.
Debbie Block – wife and producer of Bill Harley, was also one of Richard’s closest friends
He was larger than life. He was a model of what you get when you pay attention to your better angels. He was an incredible teacher. That’s one of the other things that was most inspiring: how did you use your gift? And he lived so simply. That’s something else to admire. He’s going to be missed for a long time. I do hope we take that part of Richard that we admired and go forward and make it a part of what we do.
Often in life joy and sorrow live side by side. That’s just one of the things we have to deal with.
Joyce Katzberg – long time activist and folk singer, another founder of Stone Soup
I just saw him at a party on the 23rd. It really hit me… we were caught by surprise… I went over and gave him a kiss on the cheek. He was a fabulous drinking partner. And he was a part of so many different communities. He brought together so many communities from very different places.
Richard Walton was not afraid to use the F-word; and by the F-word I mean fascism. Richard was always the moderating voice. He had a great sense of humor. I loved that he saw things on his own terms. He didn’t need to conform to the tie and suit crowd.
I will never forget sleeping out with Richard on Representative Claudine Schneider’s office lawn one very cold and icy night. Richard and I told stories and laughed most of the night away as we were side by side, each in our refrigerator boxes. For years after that, when he would introduce me at Stone Soup Coffee house, he would teasingly brag that he had “slept” with me. LOL! “I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve slept with Joyce Katzberg.” I’m having a hard time dealing with Stone Soup. I’m sad for myself and everybody else. Richard led a glorious life. The sadness is for those who are left behind.
It reminds me how lucky we are that we have this activist community. There are some people who are ‘hugs’ people and he was certainly one of them. He didn’t need to label you. And he was able to retain respectful relationships with people who were 180 degrees from him. He came from a place of deep respect. He was much more interested in getting work done. That is so rare.
That leaves us as the new, old guard. All the people who taught me are almost all gone. The pain you feel is almost in direct proportion to the love you felt.
Dennis Byrnes – Richard’s cousin and long time activist
My mother always talked about him. I met him later in life. He had dealings with Alger Hiss, you know. He interviewed him when he was a Daily News reporter in NY, I think, during the McCarthy era. His book about Kennedy got him on the Merv Griffin show. He was so inquisitive, was always ahead on the issues. In his gentle manner, he always managed to get his point across. He hardened my feelings on activism. Mother collected everything about Richard. His mother Gertrude took in anyone during the Depression. Richard gave a lot of his money away for the benefit of the people of Nicaragua and others. If he heard you had problems, he would be there. He was never afraid to be out there. Cold, wind… it would never occur to him to be anywhere else if you were a true American – unselfish.
He knew how to talk to both sides of the fence. How could you not like Richard? You would warm right up to him. And he had the oddest assortment of friends; right, left, they all respected him.
I was stunned when I heard he was gone. It was the finality of it. To never ask him what he thought again… He always gave his absolute honest opinion. He would give you all the time that you needed. And he always got back to you.
Dana Holmgren – long time friend and traveling companion with Niquinohomo Sister City Project
In 1987 a group of Rhode Islanders went again to Nicaragua, this time to build a school a couple miles out of town. The group had brought down bicycles to use in our daily commute and then distribute to the community afterwards. The bike distribution process amongst us brigadistas was fairly haphazard… I ended up, for my two weeks, with an undersized banana seat bike. Riding it was bothering my knees a bit, young as I was at the time. I did, however, figure I was entitled, somehow, to a ride-able bike as I, as a nurse, was also the health person ‘responsible’ for the group. While talking with a few people, I floated the idea of a bike rotation amongst the brigadistas, for the selfish purpose of relieving my knees. Richard, who had a great bike, and who had to have been around 60 at the time, immediately offered to trade bikes with me. I was completely chagrined about my whining and shut up immediately.
Richard continued to visit his host family in Niquinohomo for many years, long after the Sister City Project was no longer sending work brigades, and continued to benefit Niquinohomo (as well as Amos House) via his now legendary birthday parties on the Bay.
Rick Wahlberg - long time friend and past-president of Stone Soup
He was a like a grandfather. Community was his gift. Hope. Nobody should feel sad; he’s at peace. He is. He brought people together. He was not afraid of influencing you through non-violence, you would come along eventually. He was just a reasonable man. There are very few of them out there. He was friends with republicans! He was literally a real friend.
Tony Affigne – long time friend and Professor of Political Science at Providence College
I knew him for 30 years. He was my campaign manager in 1986 when I was the Citizen’s party candidate for governor. He was instrumental in formulating our fair labor policy progressive statement: minimum wage, bargaining rights, labor rights, alternative energy – using Quonset for windmills, solar; Central America policy – support for the people of El Salvador. His writing ability gave him lots of credibility. Back then, the RI National Guard built roads for the army to attack the rebels and the Governor of RI was the Commander in Chief. He had an idea to paint all of the National Guard vehicles white for emergency, environmental response units.
The first Green Party meeting was in 1992. Richard was always the stalwart through all the turbulent times and had a clear vision: the Democratic Party was where progressive ideas go to die. He traveled all over the world and gave voice to foreign policy, history and contemporary politics. He kept the minutes of 6-hour national meetings, one of a handful of leaders because of his long experience. If Jill stein had gotten 5% of the RI vote, he would have been the convener of the party.
He always did the hard work, so that it would always be there, always be ready in the future, when the time came. The public would realize that there was not another option. And when it was the most discouraging, he didn’t feel like he had wasted his time: someday the Green party would be there. But he had a long life before the green party too.
He spent Christmas with the homeless and was the first to write about it. He knew that the best way to write their stories was to live with them; and lovingly tell their story. He wrote about them not to make himself famous but to really bring home to RI the plight of real people, the normalcy, to show that they were just like us. He wanted to really humanize the struggles about housing.
Richard’s art was always to make progressive politics normal to people, taking care of people, The thought came naturally, he would wake up each day and know that he was part of the society and he recognized that he had a responsibility to give back, to take care of others.
Richard walked the picket line at Brown & Sharpe when he was campaign manager for Hillary Salk’s Citizen’s party campaign for governor. Margaret Kann, Paul McNeil… Joe Buck was involved. We met and put together a campaign for the run for governor. We held our first press conference in South Providence. We knew it would impact coverage but it was the right thing to do. The Press wouldn’t come because they thought the equipment was unsafe at the corner of Public and Broad. People needed to know that there was a party and campaign that cared. He walked from Pawtuxet to the office.
The Green party formed after the Exxon Valdez incident. The Citizen’s party was national; the Green party was international. It was a way to make progress if not here then in other states that it would trickle over to.
I think he started Stone Soup to keep himself grounded and alive. He got as much out of it as he contributed to it. He still felt hopeful because he kept seeing young people every year learning the skills.
Part 2 is available Here