While it was his relationship with Danny and the Thomas family that brought Richard to St. Jude, it was Richard’s kind, direct approach that claimed his spot in the St. Jude family. Patients, staff and celebrities were treated alike by Richard and counted him a mentor or a friend.
The kids of St. Jude loved working with Richard, who never shied from making a clown of himself to draw out their joy even in the midst of difficult times. Richard empowered families to make meaning of their stories even in the face of childhood cancer.
To those of us who worked with him, he was a force, emanating kindness and still always getting the job done. He taught us how to treat our families with dignity and tell their stories with respect. Richard conducted countless on-camera interviews and instead of talking to the subject, he connected with the person.
“Our daughter fell in love with him and then we did, too,” said Enrique, father of St. Jude patient Arianna. As Richard followed Arianna’s journey with the camera, the family’s friendship with him grew. Richard was invited by the family to be at Arianna’s bedside in her final days in 2014, and returned to Memphis for her funeral. Arianna continues to live in the hearts and minds of those who love St. Jude because Richard shared her story with the world.
Richard even set up an editing suite in his hospital room when he was admitted for his own stem cell transplant during the course of treatment near his home in California. Sharing the St. Jude story was more than work for him. It was his passion.
Richard described his own journey with cancer as “walking around to the other side of the lens.” Empathetic to the end, he was crushed by his medical experiences not because of his own suffering, but because of a new understanding of what happens to the little children whose stories he spent a lifetime telling.
“That’s why you’re here,” he told ALSAC employees, even as he talked with them of his own mortality. “That’s why I’m here. That’s why Danny Thomas started the hospital. If you’re working in some cubicle crunching numbers or if you’re out on the west coast and you don’t come to the hospital very often — you’re important. You’re vital. You’re awesome.”
We all remember well our first meetings with Richard in the medicine room and waiting rooms and halls of St. Jude, bringing with him a generosity of spirit louder than his continuous wardrobe of Hawaiian shirts. He was filled with realness, empathy and humor. His voice was our voice.