Richard Kirschman was a presence larger than life. Many stories and reminiscences about him are sure to be told at his memorial next month, but I would like to offer some of my own here.
Richard was a member of a group of which I am part that meets for lunch once a week, called the ROMEOs—the acronym for Retired Old Men Eating Out—so named by a waitress who served them. Richard was the chief Romeo, and he reported to the others on his endless array of clever ideas and projects. He often distributed publications of various crusading organizations of which he was a member, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and, especially, the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
Although he championed many causes, none was more important to Richard than atheism. He approached the topic with the zeal that Southern Baptist preachers display in their sermons about Christianity. He paid to print advertisements from the Freedom from Religion Foundation in the Light, and he designed and produced a Boy Scout merit badge with a symbolic “A” for atheism.
Somewhat more seriously, he endowed the Richard Kirschman Free Thought Fellowship at the Mesa Refuge “…to support the work of writers, filmmakers and radio/television journalists working in the area of free thought, particularly individuals dedicated to the separation of Church and State, atheism and agnosticism.”
His ideas were not always about religion. Once, a Catholic priest asked him to go to Romania to establish a hospital for abandoned children with AIDS. Even though he did not speak the language or have any connections in the country, he went. Though he was unable to establish a hospital, he found a way to make these children’s experience more home-like and comfortable.
At another time, he engineered an alternative freewheel for single-speed bicycle rickshaws to ease the difficulty of navigating hills and heavy loads. He traveled to India to promote the idea and persuade government officials to adopt it nationwide, but was thwarted by a tangled bureaucracy.
Richard was a generous man. Locally, he donated a valuable piece of land for the Point Reyes Community Health Center and gave grants to local schools so that youngsters could themselves make donations to worthy applicants. When, in his 70s, he learned to play the flute, he put his newfound skill to philanthropic ends, playing at senior gatherings to positive response. In typical fashion, he went further, producing a CD of 1920s and ’30s standards and distributing it to nurses and the Alzheimer’s Association for use with patients and members.
After building the Fox Plaza in San Francisco, Richard retired at age 35. Not long afterwards, he became the unofficial mayor of Dogtown (successfully petitioning the Board of Supervisors to restore its historic name), where he designed and built an uncommon nine-story home and accumulated animals, among them Scottish highland steer, San Clemente Island goats, Jacob sheep, llamas, chickens and geese.
Richard’s fondness for animals was well intentioned, but sometimes the results were not beneficial. He liked to tell the story of feeding a fox that appeared in his yard after he moved to Point Reyes Station. He offered food every day and the fox continued to come closer. Richard was excited that a fox would soon be eating out of his hand, so he arranged to get a rabies shot. Upon hearing his plan, however, the physician who was to administer the shot warned Richard that a fox that learned to be friendly with one human might then come too close to another and bite him. Then the fox would have to be hunted down and killed to determine if it was rabid, and if it wasn’t found, the person who was bitten would have to go through a gruesome treatment.
The moral of this story, “A fed fox is a dead fox,” was a mantra that Richard repeated on many occasions.
On a personal level, Richard was always well dressed and poised with an easy sense of humor. As a dinner host, he was sure to offer his guests a dry martini to start the evening. When his guests prepared to leave, he proudly pointed out a bookshelf in Doris’s office where the many books she has written and edited were lined up.
These reminiscences reflect only a small part of Richard Kirschman’s story. A memorial gathering will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 6 at the Dance Palace Community Center, in Point Reyes Station. Everyone is welcome to join in this celebration of Richard’s life.
Herb Kutchins is professor emeritus from Sonoma State University who learned a lot from Richard Kirschman about how to retire vigorously and gracefully. He lives in Inverness Park.