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What a Man Was

by Leo Downey


I got to meet Bill Richardson when I worked up the courage to ask his beautiful daughter, Jolie, out to dinner. I was 17, just beginning to learn who I was and what a man was. My glimpses of Bill were vivid and had a profound effect on me. They still do.

In the candlelight at a restaurant in Ojai, she told me that for their meat, he’d run through the backcountry, hunting wild boar, with a knife, and his dogs. They’d ride their horses deep into the desert mountains north of Santa Barbara. She made a lean fist with her hand and held it up for me, coiled at the end of her arm; it was a rattlesnake standing its ground in the dust on the trail one day. I thought of Bill many times when I was alone, learning what a man was and how to pray and survive in those mountains.

Bill and my father fought against an enemy in WWII that wanted to bring hell to Earth and rule over it. Bill received a Purple Heart at Iwo Jima. My dad fought the Nazis, and he was my hero, but I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s thinking rock musicians and Hells Angels were what a man was. Like men who go to war, it all turned out to be very different from what I thought. Sometimes a father has to let his son find his own way. If I had known Bill Richardson in more than glimpses, I think I would have made more beauty on Earth. He would have shown me different glimpses of what a man was.

Bill Richardson partnering Susan Manchak in a ballet choreographed by Richardson.

The first time I witnessed Bill dance was after composing a piece for a ballet in Santa Barbara. I sat in the audience at the Lobero and watched as he held the prima ballerina’s waist and danced with her across the stage. He held her in the air as she sprang like a gazelle, and then with no anticipation, in her final leap, she just kept going up, floating above his head like an angel in his arms. He was so strong, I love telling people about it, and I’ll never forget it. In awe after he did this, I glimpsed over my shoulder and met the eyes of this dignified and beautiful South American woman and thought, “This is the kind of woman I want to marry,” and years later, I did. I wish I would have walked a few doors down on Mountain Drive, knocked on Bill’s door, and asked him what a man was. It’s taken me 50 years to find out, and ironically, it’s a Virgin that’s shown me, but in Bill I saw glimpses.

I’ll end with a glimpse my mother had of Bill. He was her creative writing teacher. She would come home from his class on the bus and walk up Hot Springs road glowing with a joy and excitement I loved seeing in her. One day she told me the class was debating about a right we’d been given she thought only God should have. My mom said all the usual arguments for and against leapt back and forth across the classroom floor, while Bill sat still, watching them. He had a look on his face she said, “I’m not sure what it was, but it felt like exasperation.” Bill was tall, and without anticipation, she said, he rose, with his hands at his sides in a shrug, and said in a deep voice, “Everybody knows it’s wrong!” She said there was this effect like suddenly they were all … humbled. I can’t judge anybody, because I’m one of them, but I think Bill would have told me that to rise up for what is highest, what is most beautiful and true; is what a man was.

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