Published on: April 1, 2019
Last but not least…I wrote here in January about the passing of Richard Coulter
, for whom I worked in a men’s clothing store during much of high school and college, learning about retailing and, to a great extent, life.
Over the weekend, I had the privilege of eulogizing Richard at a memorial service for him in Larchmont, New York, and I wanted to share it with you here…
A reading from the book of Richard Coulter…
Several men are in the locker room of a golf club.
A cellular phone sitting on a bench rings and the man sitting there picks it up using the speakerphone function.
“Hello?” he says.
A woman responds: Hi Honey, it's me. Are you at the club?”
"I'm at the shops now and found this beautiful leather coat. It's only $2,000; is it OK if I buy it?”
"Sure, go ahead if you like it that much."
“I also stopped by the Lexus dealership and saw the new models. I saw one I really liked.”
"OK, but for that price I want it with all the options.”
"OK. I'll see you later! I love you so much!"
"Bye! I love you, too."
The man hangs up, and turns to see that everyone in the locker room is staring at him, their jaws hanging open. They can’t believe what they’ve just heard.
The man smiles, holds up the phone and says, "Anyone know who's phone this is?”
This is one of the countless jokes that Richard Coulter used to send so many of us on an almost daily basis. Often they made us smile. Sometimes, we’d laugh out loud. Occasionally, because they were often politically incorrect, they’d make us wince. (The list of jokes I couldn’t tell here is longer than the ones I could.) But they were an almost daily ritual and I think I speak for everyone when I say I miss them.
What those jokes illustrated, day in and day out, was the size of Richard Coulter’s heart - filled with love and joy and enthusiasm for so many of us and so much of life.
He was the kind of man who, while in college and wanting to demonstrate to everyone his undying love for Linda, went out and bought the largest pair of women’s underwear he could find, wrote “Linda, be my valentine” on them in bold letters, and then literally ran them up the flagpole to see what would happen. There was never any doubt where he stood. (It must’ve stuck … )
Richard was the kind of man who, when Linda and he got involved in an ecumenical group that involved all matter of Protestants and some Catholics, including my parents - and this was somewhat radical for the time - mentioned at the first meeting that when he was a kid, he wasn’t allowed to play with Catholics. (Sometimes, you never stop rebelling from your parents, no matter how old you are.)
At one meeting, Father Henry Mansell from Sts. John & Paul was late for one of these ecumenical meetings that he was supposed to attend because his car broke down. So he borrowed an old pickup truck from the parish janitor, and when he pulled up to the house where the meeting was taking place, Richard looked out the window and quipped, “I guess that’s what he uses to collect all the converts.” (I loved that sense of humor.)
He was the kind of man who didn’t quite understand everything about his daughter Susan’s move to Northern California - for a time, she lived in an old school bus that had no amenities, with neither a toilet nor running water, and then moved to a small house with, to be kind about it, had limited amenities. But rather than challenge her decisions, he just talked about how he didn’t understand how the hippies who moved into the old school bus after her had two little kids who ran around without clothes on and were named after trees: “What happens where they get their diplomas?” he asked, as if that was the biggest obstacle facing little Sequoia and little Cedar…
But Susan remembers always feeling as if Richard understood her need to live a different life, that this is sometimes necessary if you are going to be your best self. (“Sequoia” was just a little too much to wrap his head around, but he did love the idea that his teacher daughter once lived in an old school bus.)
I loved the story that Steve told about Richard taking his grandchildren to follow fire engines that went roaring by … that was so him. It was an adventure and he was curious and he wanted to share the moment. (I have to wonder if this is when his grandson Steven got the journalism bug … after all, one of the things that reporters love to do is follow fire trucks to see if there’s a story there.)
He asked me years ago to do this eulogy. When I saw him, for what ended up being the last time late last year, he reminded me of my commitment. It was never a responsibility I looked forward to, but there was no way I could or would disappoint him. He was way too big a part of my life for that - he and Linda were, in fact, my other parents.
I knew Richard Coulter for most of my 64 years, but my life as part of his extended family really started, best I can remember, in the summer of 1970, when I was 15, and he asked me to go to work for him at County Boys’ & Men’s Shop. In one capacity or another, in any of the three stores depending on the season and staffing levels, and with time commitments depending on what I was up to, working for Richard Coulter at County Boys’ was a formational experience. He taught us to take care of customers, to stack jeans, and to navigate the occasional floods we’d get in the store’s basement.
In many ways, I learned a lot from him about how to be a responsible adult. I had to behave - people often assumed that he was my dad. (Must be the Irish thing.) I learned to drive from him, because he’d always pick me up on the way to work and drop me off on the way home … and as soon as I got my permit, I had to do the driving.
It wasn’t always about being responsible, though - I got drunk for the first time at a County Boys’ Christmas party, when I had punch that I didn’t know had been spiked. (My parents weren’t pleased when I had to stumble out of midnight mass that night, but Richard saw it as a necessary part of my education. And he was right … and, in retrospect, I know that he was looking out for me. Which, when you think about it, is the best way to get drunk for the first time.)
As you might imagine, I’ve thought a lot about those years at County Boys over the past weeks, and I think that my main memory of the Heathcote store is of it being a boisterous place. We worked hard, but there always was a lot of laughter and a lot of jokes - many of which will not and cannot be repeated here - and I know that this was an extension of his big and boisterous personality.
It was a constant education, but one that was not unique to me. Richard took enormous pleasure in hiring local kids and family friends to work in his stores, because he knew how important an experience that first job could be.
I wasn’t even the only one in my family to work at County Boys - my brother Tim and sister Amy both worked there, too. Years later, I told him that Tim and I had engaged in a friendly debate about who had been the better employee, and had agreed to give him the final word. So I asked him: “Who was better? Tim or me?”
He didn’t even hesitate: “Amy,” he said.
He really knew how to cut through it. I was chatting with his grandson, Steven, about today, and we both agreed that as loving and big-hearted a man as he was, Richard had little tolerance for nonsense - and he had a single, favorite word to describe it: “Bullshit.” When Richard said it, this wasn’t just a word. It was a soliloquy. It was almost musical.
(We debated, by the way, who was going to use that word in church today, and agreed that it should be me, since I don’t have to share Thanksgiving and Christmas with you people, and Steve does.)
In the mid-nineties, after a decades-long run as the prototypical mom-and-pop neighborhood clothing store, it came to an end for County Boys. While it was his life’s work, on the outside, at least, Richard was unsentimental about its passing. He knew that there are no indelible links between a shop and its customers, that change is inevitable, and that in the end, County Boys’ simply was unable to compete in a radically changed retail environment.
Time to move on. In his case, literally.
The end of the business could’ve meant just closing the stores, abandoning creditors and just washing his hands of all his responsibilities. But that’s not what he did because that’s not who he was. Richard and Linda moved to Chicago where they ran a camp supply business for a number of years, paying off every debt and, at the same time, exploring every facet of the city of Chicago that they could. I saw them there fairly often - we met for dinner, went to Cubs games, and they’d even come to parties that my business would host, and would have a great time chatting with my readers and my friends; our son moved to Chicago while they were there, was very active in the storefront theater community, and I think they went to every show he was in. (Richard confided to me once that he thought David was better onstage than I had been at his age. I didn’t take it personally because, as always, there was no B.S.)
I always thought that Chicago was transformative for Richard and Linda … that they were largely freed from the limitations imposed on them by expectations, and they were able to create a new life for themselves. They always seemed so happy … it was an adventure, and they lived it to the fullest.
The last few years haven’t been easy for either Richard or Linda health-wise. I think I had a sense, when I saw him late last year, that it might be the final time … there were hugs and a few tears and we have a selfie of the three of us, with Richard’s big Irish smile dominating the frame, that I’ll always treasure.
When my dad died, Richard sent me a poem that, at the time, struck me as being unusually sentimental for him; I was used to just getting politically incorrect jokes. But it is possible that it wasn’t just about my dad. The poem read:God looked around his garden
and found an empty space,
He then looked down upon the earth
and saw your tired face.
He put his arms around you
and lifted you to rest,
Gods’ Garden must be beautiful
he always takes the best.
God knew that you were suffering,
He knew that you were in pain,
He knew that you would never
get well on earth again.
He saw the road was getting
rough and hard to climb,
So He closed your weary eye lids
and whispered ‘Peace Be Thine’.
It broke our hearts to lose you,
but you didn’t go alone,
For part of us went with you
the day God called you home.
Finally, because I am who I am, I want to finish by remembering a scene from a movie … and appropriately enough, it is an Irish movie - Waking Ned Devine
There is a scene in which the lead character is delivering a eulogy from a church pulpit in a small town on the coast of Ireland .… but because of a variety of circumstances too complicated to explain here, the man he is talking about, Michael O'Sullivan, is sitting in the first row. And he says:"Michael O'Sullivan was my great friend. But I don't ever remember telling him that. The words that are spoken at a funeral are spoken too late for the man who is dead. What a wonderful thing it would be to visit your own funeral. To sit at the front and hear what was said, maybe say a few things yourself. Michael and I grew old together. But at times, when we laughed, we grew young. If he was here now, if he could hear what I say, I'd congratulate him on being a great man, and thank him for being a friend.”
We miss you, Richard. Thanks for the jokes, the laughs, the friendship, the caring, the continuing education and for making our lives better for having you in them.
You were the best.