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A Life: George S. 'Rip' Richards, 1927 — 2013; ‘He Always Wanted to Leave Things A Little Better Than He Found Them’

  • George S. "Rip" Richards worked for 33 years at the Holderness School in Holderness, N.H. The institution's long-time director of buildings and grounds, Richards also served the school as a math teacher and athletics coach. (Courtesy Holderness School)

    George S. "Rip" Richards worked for 33 years at the Holderness School in Holderness, N.H. The institution's long-time director of buildings and grounds, Richards also served the school as a math teacher and athletics coach. (Courtesy Holderness School)

  • George S. "Rip" Richards, right, in an undated photograph, had five children of his own but relished the chance to oversee and mentor generations of students at the Holderness School in Holderness, N.H. (Courtesy Holderness School)

    George S. "Rip" Richards, right, in an undated photograph, had five children of his own but relished the chance to oversee and mentor generations of students at the Holderness School in Holderness, N.H. (Courtesy Holderness School)

  • George S. "Rip" Richards worked for 33 years at the Holderness School in Holderness, N.H. The institution's long-time director of buildings and grounds, Richards also served the school as a math teacher and athletics coach. (Courtesy Holderness School)
  • George S. "Rip" Richards, right, in an undated photograph, had five children of his own but relished the chance to oversee and mentor generations of students at the Holderness School in Holderness, N.H. (Courtesy Holderness School)

Wilder — George “Rip” Richards often napped in a La-Z-Boy reclining chair, a bit of delicious irony for those who knew his industrious ways. From building his own college housing in the Vermont woods to riding herd on workers at a Wilder condominium complex in his later years, Richards was out and about, always active.

When Holderness, the prep school in Holderness, N.H., where Richards worked for 31 years, had a chance to acquire the framework of a used hockey rink for $1, he organized and oversaw a crew of students and staff which traveled four hours round trip and lugged the lights and boards back to campus, along with more than two miles of refrigeration piping they’d cut into 40-foot lengths.

A few years later, Holderness had its first artificial ice, thanks to Richards having welded the pipes back together and installed them in a bed of sand. The two compressors that came with that system dated to a 1920s meatpacking plant in Portland, Maine, said Richards’ son, Rocky. The balky machines needed adjustments every two hours, which wasn’t a problem during the day, as Richards, the campus building and grounds supervisor, could solicit regular help.

At night, however, the job fell to Richards alone. He would doze in his recliner and awaken at 1, 3 and 5 a.m. to ensure the compressors were right and the outdoor ice was in good condition.

“He would spend ungodly hours getting the rink to run right,’’ recalled Rocky, whose father died in February at 85. “From the time he put the ice down around Thanksgiving until nearly April, he never slept in his bed. The school couldn’t afford an automated system and my dad knew that.”

Richards was certainly penny-wise and something of an environmentalist before it became a cause. One of his five children might be tucked in a room and reading a book, only to have their father not see them and snap out the lights as he sought to keep the electric bill down. It was an attitude forged during a Depression-era childhood spent on a farm outside Philadelphia. Richards’ father, Gwynne, left the family when his son was an infant and his mother moved herself and the boy in with her parents.

Richards’ maternal grandfather was a successful dentist with the means to have his family summer in Ocean City, N.J., a little down the shore from Atlantic City. There, his grandson learned to sail before heading off to the all-male South Kent (Conn.) boarding school, where he met his future wife, Mary, the headmaster’s daughter.

It was also at South Kent that Richards picked up his lifelong nickname, although it changed from its original form. The teenager teamed with ice hockey mate Harvey Russ to form a formidable defensive pairing known as “Rigor and Mortis” for their habit of sandwiching opponents with violent bodychecks. Over the years, “Rigor” turned to “Ripper” and then just to “Rip.”

Richards joined the Navy in 1945 while still a South Kent student and returned to school after active duty, graduating in 1947. He went on to become a forestry major at Marlboro (Vt.) College, a little west of Brattleboro. A G.I. Bill recipient who drove a 1931 Model A Ford, he acquired five acres of nearby land, on which he built a crude cabin that served as his housing. During these years, he also taught sailing at Tabor Academy on the coast of Massachusetts and was a competitor in ocean sailing races, including one from New York to Bermuda.

In 1952, Richards landed at Holderness, an all-boys school of fewer than 100 students at the time. He began as a math teacher and a football, hockey and baseball coach, but later reinvented himself as the school’s director of Buildings and Grounds and held that job for 25 years.

“He was too restless to be in the classroom and not an intellectual in that way,” said his daughter Kirk Flynn, a Hartford resident who owns a landscape gardening business and runs a ski school. “If a math class could have been taught hands-on, that would have been fine, but he needed to be outdoors and active.”

Richards and his wife were intimately involved in nearly every aspect of Holderness. They initially resided in a dorm near the campus center, but four years after his arrival, Richards convinced the headmaster to let him take over a small building previously used for storing and waxing cross country skis. The structure was jacked up and moved less than half a mile to the outskirts of campus, where additions were tacked on and the expanded domicile sheltered the growing Richards family and about half a dozen students.

One problem: the house got stuck between a phone pole and a set of granite fence posts while being moved. A second problem: Mary then went into labor with Tom, the couple’s second child.

“The whole road was blocked and dad wasn’t too happy with mom’s timing,” joked Rocky Richards.

Said Flynn: “It was so typical of Rip. A cobbling together of something, plus an unexpected challenge and then life goes on.”

The fence posts were eventually moved and the building successfully relocated. Richards dug out its septic system by hand and continued to thrive in his surroundings. One of his significant accomplishments was the overhaul of Holderness’ jobs program, which assigned each student daily chores to help the school function on the cheap. Tasks from washing dishes to raking leaves to cutting lawns were sternly overseen by Richards.

“He always said he wasn’t there to be the students’ friend, but to teach them what to do and not to do,” Rocky Richards said. “There were a lot of well-to-do kids at Holderness and my dad was probably the first one to tell them to do something they didn’t want to do. If it was your job to get out of bed and shovel the walk, you’d better be there and do a good job, or you’d be there for hours.”

Rip’s attention to detail was legendary, relentless and sometimes exasperating. Late each winter, while snow still blanketed campus, he would make repeated announcements at the early-morning school assemblies instructing the students not to cut across the lawns. This would stunt or kill the root structure, he explained, usually to no avail.

“I probably heard that lecture a couple hundred times in four years,” said 1973 graduate John Sargent. “He was right, but students are lazy and it became like an airline crew’s preflight announcement. People just tuned him out.”

Jonathan Bourne worked under Richards for more than 20 years and praised him as fair, frugal and exceedingly thorough. Bourne also remembers, however, that not all the faculty enjoyed Richards and that a sardonic saying evolved among them.

“Folks used to say there was a right way, a wrong way and the Ripper way to do things,” Bourne said with a chuckle.

Peter Barnum has worked at Holderness since 1980, first in admissions and more recently in alumni development. He recalled a “wonderful and complex character” with both caring and cantankerous sides.

“I talk to a lot of alums and there seem to be similar feelings in that you wanted to hug Rip and knee him in the groin at the same time,” Barnum said. “He was a real taskmaster, but he gave his lifeblood to this place.”

Paul Bozuwa, a Norwich resident and 1978 Holderness graduate, interpreted Richards’ gruff demeanor as somewhat necessary on a campus full of unruly teenage boys. Once you knew the man, there was no doubting his character and deep love for the school and its students, Bozuwa said.

“People respected him and maybe feared him a little bit, but he was as kind as could be,” Bozuwa said. “He was part of the adventurous spirit of the school. You come across a lot of people in your life and you forget many of them, but you always remembered Rip.”

For many, their lasting memories of Richards center around the Holderness hockey rink. As a former player and outstanding skater, he loved the game’s speed and worked diligently to produce the hard, smooth surface that allowed the Bulls to play an up-tempo style. This wasn’t easy during his early years on campus, when the open-air rink lacked a refrigeration system or a Zamboni resurfacing vehicle. Not only was a certain temperature range needed, but the ice had to be constantly cleared of pine needles and snow, both from the skaters’ blades and from the heavens. It also had a tendency to crack during cold spells.

Laboring with a hose, a barrel of hot water and various chipping and scraping tools, Richards worked throughout the winter to keep the rink playable. The arrival of more sophisticated technology aided his efforts, but even after a roof was erected over the ice, considerable work was needed to maintain the surface when temperatures could be 30 degrees one day and minus-30 two days later.

Jay Mead, a Holderness hockey player during the 1970s, recalled when shots off the goal posts or crossbar would break a puck in two. Regardless of the temperature or whether a varsity or pickup game was in progress, however, Richards always seemed to be around.

He showed similar interest and dedication when it came to redoing 11 acres of the school’s athletic fields, traveling to attend classes conducted by a lawn and garden company so he would be fully prepared for the mammoth job. With nearly a foot of soil atop a sand bed and with proper drainage a critical feature, the fields became among the best in New England, although Richards faced initial criticism for letting them sit unused during the year after their makeover.

“He took a lot of heat but he wanted the root structure to have time to grow,” Rocky Richards said. “New Hampton and Proctor had spent more money to do their fields at the same time, but they didn’t stay off them long enough and those fields weren’t as good.”

Rip Richards used a block-and-tackle setup to winch an old Model A Ford transmission and an electric motor to the top of a hill on the Holderness campus. Those components became part of a rope tow that pulled skiers up the slope. He also salvaged a school bus that was used by Holderness for years and regularly combed auctions and mechanical sales for useful items others thought past their time.

“He was a frugal, clever Yankee,” said Bourne, who recalled Holderness getting 10 years of use out of a turf cutter that had fallen in a lake and been bought by Richards for a pittance. “He didn’t see the point in buying something new if you could find an old one that was running decently.”

That attitude came somewhat out of necessity. Holderness didn’t have the budget of big-money prep schools like Exeter or Andover, and it couldn’t pay its faculty and staff much, either. The Richards family was sustained in part because its members could eat at the dining hall and reside on campus for free, but the arrangement also meant that Rip was either working or on call 24 hours a day. Mary Richards was a registered nurse and she and her husband saved with determination to buy a house on Cape Cod and after selling that property, a small farm in North Pomfret.

“After four years of active duty in the Navy, I was making more money than my father,” Rocky Richards said. “I can’t tell you the number of times there were (Holderness students) in our house until 10:30 or 11 at night who needed help with something. My mother and father truly loved kids and would have had 25 if they could have afforded it.”

Richards retired from Holderness in 1983 and he and Mary settled into North Pomfret, where Richards joined the volunteer fire department, as he had in Plymouth. The Upper Valley caught the couple’s eye when their daughters attended a Woodstock horsemanship clinic during the summers, and in his retirement, Rip became deeply involved with the Green Mountain Horse Association, acting as a timer and toiling to install an effective drainage system in the dressage ring.

During the winters, Richards worked as a goal judge at Dartmouth College women’s hockey games and he was involved in the Vermont Rural Fire Protection Task Force’s dry hydrant program, which aids firefighting outside of municipal water systems. A pipe to which a pumper truck can attach is installed and connected to a pond or stream that can supply at least 30,000 gallons of water in drought conditions.

Richards would sometimes take two of his grandsons, twins and 2008 Hartford High graduates Bart and George Flynn, along with him while examining water sources for the hydrant. He also enjoyed sailing with the boys, who recently graduated from college and live in Wyoming, and became a fixture at their high school soccer games. Richards would amble on to the field after contests to introduce himself to their teammates and give them his personal grip test.

“He wanted that firm handshake and to see if you’d look him in the eye,” Bart remembered. “If he didn’t get it, he’d tell us the guy had given him ‘the old dead fish.’ ”

Mostly, Richards worked on his farm, taking in two or three cuts of hay per season and tending to nine horses and a large vegetable garden, the products of which his wife would often can. He raised beef cattle, hogs and chickens, made cider and bartered with neighbors and others for various good and services. Richards also replaced the foundation and roof on the farmhouse, redid the foundation on the barn and installed a series of cables to reinforce its frame.

“The farming suited him,” Kirk Flynn said. “It was full of challenges, and to him, the bigger the challenge, the more fun it was.”

That’s another thing to mention about Richards: he was decidedly fun, at least in what he considered the proper time and place. This was a man known to send his children away from the dinner table if they passed gas loudly, but who decades later enlivened a family Thanksgiving dinner by hiding a remote-control machine under the table that made flatulent noises.

“You could swear in the barn, but not at the dining room table,” George Flynn said.

John Flynn, George and Bart’s father and Kirk’s husband, recalled his father-in-law gleefully rigging a 55-gallon drum with fuel gas and a slow fuse that created a concussive blast and accompanying fireball at the farm on Independence Day. A neighbor would then light more conventional fireworks in reply.

After Richards and his wife sold part of the farm and moved to a house in a Wilder condominium community during the early 1990s, he would drive his pickup truck through the development after a snowfall with his twin grandsons holding onto tow ropes and skiing along behind. True to his nature, however, when warmer weather returned, Richards, who became head of the homeowners association, would buttonhole lawn care workers who ran over sprinkler heads with their mowers. Eventually, he took to placing brightly-painted tin cans over the sprinkler heads before the mowing crew arrived.

“They hated to see him coming,” Kirk Flynn said. “He wouldn’t yell at them, but he’d take 30 minutes and work on their conscience. ‘You wouldn’t want to be the kind of person who did such a thing, would you?’ ”

It was Richards’ desire to make sure everything was shipshape that tripped him up in the end. On an icy night in 2011, he received a phone call from an arborist acquaintance who had forgotten a chainsaw near a walking trail on the condominium complex grounds. Would Rip mind taking a look for the tool? Of course not.

Unfortunately, Richards fell when he embarked on the search, breaking a hip. He used a cell phone to call Kirk, who helped him back to the house but couldn’t convince him to seek medical attention. After a day or so of sitting in pain, however, Richards was instructed to go to the hospital by a visiting nurse who arrived to check on his wife. A successful operation to install an artificial hip followed, but Richards’ active lifestyle was curtailed and his daughter said he became depressed, blaming himself for the accident.

“He wasn’t able to drive again and he didn’t like being so dependent on others,” Kirk Flynn said.

Added her son, George: “He had become the kind of person he didn’t want to be.”

Richards eventually stopped eating and died peacefully in his sleep on Feb. 15. Holderness created a tribute web page and nearly 30 people responded with happy and grateful memories.

“My dad always used to say you have to give something back,’’ Rocky Richards said. “He always wanted to leave things a little better than he found them. If you hung around with him, he’d get the best out of you and more than you would have thought.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.

CLARIFICATION

This article has been amended. The following clarification appeared in the Thursday, June 6 edition of the Valley News.

Holderness School uses a Plymouth, N.H. mailing address but is in Holderness, N.H. A story and photo captions about the late George "Rip" Richards in Monday's Valley News were unclear on that point.