‘Doc’ remembered as community man

Published 10:36 pm Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Family and community members remembered James “Doc” Richards Sr. this week as a quintessential medical professional, community leader and family man.

Richards, former owner and operator of the Suffolk Professional Pharmacy, died Sunday at the age of 89. The pharmacist was affectionately called “Doc” by generations of Suffolk residents.

“He meant everything,” his son, James Richards Jr., said. “One of the ways he influenced me was having a deep respect for his country and his military service.”

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Richards served in the U.S. Army during World War II.

“I always like to reflect on his love for America and his dedication to this country,” James Richards Jr. said.

Richards attended South Carolina University, graduating with a degree in chemistry in 1942. After his military service, however, he discovered that his race prevented him from practicing his chosen career — so he returned to school and completed a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy.

“That focus on education and excellence permeates throughout the family,” James Richards Jr. said. “Both my sons are Ph.D’s, and they were heavily influenced by their grandfather.”

In 1943, James Richards Sr. married his childhood sweetheart, Athalia Richards, and together the couple had three children — James Jr., Ann and Patricia Lynn. Athalia died in 2007.

According to a feature on the couple in the Suffolk News-Herald in 2004, Richards’ first pharmacist job was at Arthur’s Drug Store in Norfolk. In 1954, Richards joined a group of black professionals who wanted a black-owned pharmacy in Suffolk. Richards came back to his hometown and opened Suffolk Professional Pharmacy.

“It is always the drugstore to me,” said Suffolk native Donna Harper, whose father owned a dentist’s office upstairs from the pharmacy. “We always called it the drugstore.”

Harper fondly recalled afternoons sitting at the counter in the pharmacy, having conversations with the women who worked behind the counter. The snack bar served soda, ice cream and hot dogs, she recalled.

Richards’ pharmacy soon became a stalwart organization in the community, in the area known as The Fairgrounds. Many black medical professionals set up shop in the area, Harper recalled. The pharmacy became a place where blacks, even in the 1950s, could walk in the front door and be assured of service, according to the 2004 News-Herald article. Before integration, black customers had to use the back door of most businesses, and even then did not know if they would be served.

Harper recalled Richards himself as a compassionate member of the community, who did everything he could to ensure his customers got the medications they needed even if they could not pay the full amount at one time.

“It was an incredible service to the community,” Harper said. “I am very much touched by his life and always will remember him fondly.”

Richards’ daughter, Patricia Spruill, recalled that her father often would get out of bed in the middle of the night to fill prescriptions for people who had just left the emergency room.

“If they were too sick, he would send them home, he would fill it and he would deliver it to their house,” Spruill said. “If someone came in really sick, they did not leave my father’s counter without medicine, even if they didn’t have money.”

Spruill, who followed in her father’s footsteps and became a pharmacist herself, remembered coming to work with her father when she turned 16.

“I walked in all dressed up and my father looked at me and said ‘Baby, why are you dressed like that? You’re going to get dirty,’” Spruill said, remembering that her father made her work at the soda fountain before she moved up. “He taught me the business from the ground up, and I will always remember that lesson. I didn’t like it at 16, but at this point in my life I appreciate it.”

Richards’ other daughter, Ann Kearns, remembered her father’s generous spirit.

“I just think nobody else could love me as much as he did,” Kearns said. “His generous spirit, his love for others, I think that was the greatest legacy that he left us.”

James Richards Jr. said many of his father’s former customers still remember his legacy.

“He had a deep regard for the community and a desire to help people,” Richards said. “People tell me they didn’t feel just like customers. They felt like they were part of a caring community. When he worked with them, he was working with more than just somebody who was bringing business to him. He exuded a feeling of caring about their wellbeing.”

“People tell me that’s one of the things they liked about the way he did business,” Richards added.

In addition to owning the pharmacy, Richards was a longtime member of the Suffolk Planning Commission, Fairgrounds Plan Steering Committee, and the Alpha Iota chapter of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

A viewing and wake service will be held at First Baptist Church, 112 Mahan St., Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m. A homecoming celebration will be held at the church Friday at noon, with interment in Holly Lawn Cemetery following the service.