The Richards have brought out the best in one another

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 13, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

Longtime sweethearts James and Athalia Richards are celebrating more than six decades of living and loving together today.

&uot;When I think of a time like Valentine’s Day, I realize that I couldn’t have picked a better woman to share beautiful children, a home and my life with,&uot; said Richards, 83. He owned and operated Suffolk Professional Pharmacy, the city’s first black-owned drugstore on East Washington Street, for more than 30 years.

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The Richards met as high school students in the late 1930s. James graduated from the former Booker T. Washington High School in 1937, Athalia from the former East Suffolk High School in 1938.

James first noticed Athalia when he and a classmate – who just happened to be his wife’s sister – were looking through a photo album.

&uot;I told her that I sure would like to get to know this lady,&uot; James said.

The next time he saw Athalia, she and a friend were skating on East Washington Street.

&uot;I started walking behind her and got up enough nerve to talk to her,&uot; James said. &uot;And I’ve been talking to her ever since.&uot;

After high school, the two went on to their respective colleges. After graduating in 1942 – he from South Carolina (State) University, she from Virginia State College (University) in Petersburg – the two made plans to get married the next year. Meanwhile, James joined the Army.

Finally, their lucky day arrived. James and Athalia were married during his first leave on June 16, 1943.

&uot;We had a seven-day honeymoon and Athalia got the chance to visit me one time in Mississippi while I was stationed there,&uot; Richards said. &uot;When I was discharged from the Army in 1945, I came home to meet my 18-month-old son, James E. Richards Jr.&uot;

Because he had a family to support, Richards took a job at the naval base after his military discharge. But ultimately, Richards’ career path took him back in school.

&uot;I thought about going back to grad school,&uot; he said. &uot;But as fate would have it, a friend and I started talking about opening a drug store. So I went to pharmacy school for four years and graduated with honors.&uot;

Richards’ first pharmacist job was at Arthur’s Drug Store in Norfolk. Then, in 1954, after joining a group of black professionals who wanted a black-owned pharmacy in Suffolk, Richards set up shop in his hometown, making local history in the process.

Located in the Diggs Building, Suffolk Professional Pharmacy did more than fill prescriptions. He also opened a soda fountain, a place where Suffolk’s black community could be assured they could come in the front door and receive quality service.

In the 1950s, before integration, blacks had to use the back door of most stores and businesses. Even then, they couldn’t be sure they would be served.

Even today, Richards – who generations of Suffolk residents simply call &uot;Doc&uot; – is still known in the community to be a very positive role model for kids and grownups alike.

In the mid-1960s, Athalia started working as a visiting teacher. When the couple’s youngest daughter, Patricia Lynn Richards, was a senior in high school, the Suffolk School Board hired Athalia to set up the city’s first Head Start program.

&uot;Mr. Richards said that she did such a good job that when a vacancy opened up in the 1960s at East Suffolk Primary School in the she was hired as principal of that school. She worked in that position for eight years and resigned in the early ’70s to help her husband as the pharmacy’s bookkeeper.

&uot;My wife was a super teacher and even tutored our children so much so that they were all straight ‘A’ students. She made sure that they did what they were assigned to do,&uot; he continued. &uot;When they graduated from high school, James Jr. and Patricia Lynn were valedictorians of their class.

&uot;Thaye Anne (Kearns), our oldest girl, was a salutatorian of her class and my son was an early admission to Morehouse College in his junior year of high school.&uot;

Patricia followed in her father’s footsteps, becoming a pharmacist. At one time, she came back to help him run the business.

Kearns resides in Louisville, Ky., and followed in her mother’s footsteps by becoming the head person in the Head Start program there. She was the first black to graduate from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg.

James Jr., who resides in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., had retired from IBM. He is teaching math in a local school in Brooklyn, N.Y. He received degrees from both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Patricia resides in Norfolk and received a degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. She is the head pharmacist at Target in Chesapeake Square Mall.

At present, Athalia, 82, is nursing a broken toe and is a little under the weather. Now, just as he has for over 60 years, James is taking very good care of her.

The Richards are members of First Baptist Church, Mahan Street where the Rev. Steven Blunt is pastor.

Names: James E. &uot;Doc&uot; Richards Sr. and Athalia J. Richards

Number of years married: 60 years, married on June 16, 1943

Hometowns: Suffolk

Family: Children, Patricia Lynn Richards, Thaye Ann Kearns and James E. Richards Jr.; five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Education: (James) Booker T. Washington High School Class of 1937, the first class that graduated from that school and class president for four years. In 1950, he received a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy and pharmaceutical science from Howard University; served in the United States Army from 1942-1945.

(Athalia) Received a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Virginia State College (University) in Petersburg. Did graduate studies at Norfolk State College and Old Dominion University.

Favorite thing about being married to each other: (Both) Enjoy being together, loving each other and always had a great passion for children and enjoy being married to a woman who feels the same way.

What qualities did you see in your wife as a mate? She always wanted the best and always sought to make me do my best in order for these qualities to transfer into the lives of our children.

What qualities did you see in your husband as a mate? I could see the qualities in him that I could mold into the husband and the father that I wanted him to be.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? (James) Was able to help so many people in so many ways. As a pharmacist, I had to be a part-time minister, counselor, big brother, and friend. As a pharmacist, people had the faith in me as a doctor. For instance, sometimes a teenager came to me with a problem and didn’t want to go to the parent so I listened to him and later acted as a mediator between parent and teen.

My reward came when later on I would see a person and he would say, &uot;I really appreciate you for the way that you helped me when I needed it.&uot;

(Athalia) Seeing my students after they were grown and making a success of their lives.

Who or what motivates and inspires you? (James) The need for change. I felt that I would make a change and make things better, especially for my race.

(Athalia) The desire to see those around me to become the best that they can be and the desire for me to do what I can to help make that possible.

Favorite way to spend your free time together: (Both) Going out to dinner or to see a good movie.

What words of wisdom would you like to share with others? (James) I have always felt that unless you give, you have no right to receive. Loving is sharing and loving is giving.

(Athalia) The Lord helps those who help themselves. We learned this early in life and taught our children to do the same.

What ingredients are in the recipe for a good life? (Both) Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.