Click here to read the article.
I learned about Richard Baumgardner’s death sometime in December. I stopped for breakfast at the Friendly’s Restaurant on Claremont Avenue and noticed he wasn’t sitting at his table by the window.
One of the waitresses told me that he had died of pneumonia a few weeks earlier.
I wanted to write some sort of tribute, even if the paper wouldn’t print it. At least I could post it on my Web site, or maybe pitch it to Common Ties, a blog site that specializes in that type of personal story.
I told the waitresses what I wanted to do, wrote my cell phone number on several business cards and asked them to pass them out to any of the regulars who might be interested in talking about Richard.
I had hoped to get a few of them together – along with the waitresses – and do a group interview one morning.
A few months went by and one of the regulars, Kevin Kern, finally called me. We arranged to meet over breakfast and talk about Richard. Another regular, Jeff Marshall, was already there. After the waitresses saw what was going on, one of them called Richard’s longtime friend, Greg Dravenstott.
With the exception of Dravenstott, none of us knew much about Richard. It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, with pieces that didn’t necessarily fit. But we did the best we could.
At one point, Kern made a poignant remark. Like many of us, he didn’t find out about Richard until sometime after he died.
“I missed the funeral, so this is sort of like a funeral to me,” he said.
Somebody, maybe it was Marshall, mentioned that Richard liked to look at photos of mountains on the walls of the restaurant because they reminded him of someplace he once lived – someplace out west, but he couldn’t say where.
According to Dravenstott, it was Centralia, Washington.
I later learned from Richard’s Aunt Ruby Fox that he had stayed out there in the summer when he was a teenager.
Richard had lived with Fox and her husband from the time he was 12 until he was 18.
It wasn’t until weeks after that morning in the restaurant that I learned about Richard’s aunt. I had been trying to contact a relative, someone who could tell me a little more about him.
By then I needed some sort of peg to make the story fresh and newsworthy. Even then, I wasn’t sure that my editor, Ted Daniels, would want it. It almost seemed too offbeat. I was reluctant to pitch the story, but he liked the idea.
I happened to be in the restaurant the week before they auctioned off Richard’s belongings. One of the waitresses, I think it was Sherry Flickinger, told me about the auction. I had my peg.
It was on a Saturday and I had been working for two solid weeks, but I had to go. I knew it would be a sad thing to witness. (It reminded me of something that happened last year. I forced myself to stay at the scene of a fatal crash to watch them cut the victim out of the wreckage. I have no desire to see stuff like that, but I felt a need to experience and witness the range of emotions. I went home that night and sent my daughter an e-mail describing what I saw and felt.)
I also hoped to contact family members at the auction. I was able to talk with Joe Mason, an attorney who handled the family’s affairs and, I would later find out, helped them from time to time.
He managed to salvage a fairly recent photo of Richard from a box of items at the auction so I could use it in the newspaper.
I called Richard’s Aunt Ruby after I left the auction. She’s 90 years old and lives at Belmont Tower. She was touched to learn that the people at the restaurant thought so highly of Richard. Her voice broke as she said, “I’m so glad they liked him, cause I loved him too.”
I think she was crying as I said goodbye and hung up the phone.
I spent most the day Sunday writing the story.
I later heard from Richard’s cousin, Bea Walker, who handled his finances and, ultimately, his funeral arrangements.
She was able add a few more pieces to the puzzle. I won’t go into it, but I guess none of it surprised me. He had a rough life. And he harbored some bitterness. But that was part of him he chose not wear on his sleeve.
Walker told me she arranged to have a simple graveside service for him. A woman from Mason’s office sang and Walker said a few words.
We had a funeral for him too — over coffee and breakfast.