Years ago, a new student in Bill Richardson’s Adult Ed Creative Writing class whispered to a longtime student, “I think I’m falling in love with Bill.” The seasoned student replied, “Everyone falls in love with Bill.”
There is nothing more compelling, more enchanting, nothing that can alter a life more than one’s being truly seen. This was perhaps (among a plethora of talents and gifts he possessed) Bill’s greatest gift to others, that of truly seeing them, of giving them countenance. I was with Bill on more than one occasion in a coffee shop when someone would walk up and simply say, “Bill, you changed my life.” When you had a conversation with Bill, no one else in the world existed. He paid attention. He was present. He wanted to see what crossed your face, how you held your mouth, how you held your body. He was an astute observer, interested in the words you chose, what was omitted, the pauses and the cadence of your speech or of the words written for him to read. His particular comments were thoughtful, concise, honest, and piercing. Bill did not suffer fools.
Bill’s ability to focus intently on what was before him served him in the wild country as a subsistence hunter who fed his family and friends the wild pig meat and buck deer he hunted. He could spy the shiny edge of a deer track in the hard clay of a ranch road, the tulip-shaped pig track in the dust, and know how recently they had been made. Once, someone reported seeing large bare-footed prints deep in the wilderness. It turned out to be Bill, who for a long time hunted without shoes.
Bill and his wife, Frankie, were part of the original Mountain Drive bohemian community that flourished in the ’50s in the hills above Santa Barbara. (An eclectic band of merrymakers — artists, writers, and gifted dreamers — the clan held grape stomps and lavish dinners honoring the likes of Robert Burns and other literary notables.) On their parcel of land purchased for a song from Bobby and Floppy Hyde, Bill constructed an adobe house (out of handmade bricks formed on-site) that for a while had no conventional window coverings or doors. Baby squirrels would nest in the rafters above the bed, and a pet deer would, without ceremony, drink out of Bill’s teacup! That house would eventually burn in the infamous 1964 Coyote Fire. With the help of friends, including local architect Peter Edwards, the house was rebuilt along with a writing studio and tack room. The location afforded one of the most magnificent views in Santa Barbara. The home was the site of an annual party Bill threw for many years for friends and writing students, complete with a feast of wild pig prepared in his smoker, also made out of the local adobe. This house, too, would perish, in the 2008 Tea Fire.
Though Bill and Frankie were not able to rebuild on the mountain, Bill often visited the area to marvel at the hawks in the updrafts above the lot and to catch a glimpse of an occasional bobcat. Always fascinated by nature and knowledgeable about wildlife, he would note the regrowth and repopulation of the native species. He possessed a deep sense of equanimity and wisdom that served him well in the aftermath of this second loss of his beloved home. He lived in the moment at hand with resilience, joy, and enthusiasm.
Bill was the quintessential Renaissance man, whose legendary life stretched back to the Battle of Iwo Jima. He served in the elite Fifth Division and was wounded on the fourth day of the invasion, just shy of his 19th birthday, March 16. Amid the hellish carnage, Bill experienced visions of the singularity of the human spirit and of our joined consciousness. He witnessed gestures of human dignity that would imprint upon him an indelible image of man’s capacity for grace and beauty. The belief in this possibility to be our best would inform his work for the rest of his life. Along with his boxing, he would become a diver, a ballroom dancer and partner of ballerinas, a teacher of writing who never had a game plan except to sit on his desk and relate spell-binding stories from the shell holes of Iwo Jima, whose truths were woven in with the work at hand.
Bill was a poetic and prolific writer. He was handsome, brilliant, fierce, funny, elegant, gracious, and loving. You knew where you stood with him. He lived and loved life without reserve and at the last bravely faced a difficult death with the presence and grace he brought out in so many others. The world has lost a prince.