Speer: Richards left big shoes to fill

When history looks back on Alpena and Northeast Michigan, people will remember fondly Phil Richards for his leadership, compassion and guidance in capturing the lives and important events of people on the pages of the community’s newspaper each and every day.

He, like his father before him, understood that news was not reported “just to sell newspapers,” but rather to capture accurately and report fairly the trials, triumphs and tragedies of ordinary people. While certainly he wanted to ensure no story ever was missed, he thought it was just as valuable to craft a well-written story on a neighbor’s unique Christmas holiday village collection than it was to report on water rates increasing for residents in the city.

With his death Friday, he leaves behind a rich journalistic legacy for future generations.

As the “new kid on the block” after he retired, I quickly discovered just how extensive that legacy was. I’m not sure what size shoes Phil actually wore, but as far as I was concerned they seemed mammoth in size.

Everywhere I turned, every move I made, it almost seemed as if Phil was right there with me. Much of that would be natural when someone new takes over a position previously held by a legend like Phil, but over the years other areas in community life I experienced it as well.

Joining Rotary, becoming a board member and later serving as its president, Phil had been there and done that before me. The same for United Way, Community Foundation of Northeast Michigan and many other organizations.

When my wife and I were chosen as Alpena Community College Fellows of the Year two years ago, we were honored. Once again I was following in Phil’s footsteps, as he and Frank Kelley were the first two recipients of the ACC Fellow recognition.

To this day, whenever I see Kelley, one of the first questions he has for me is “what’s Phil up to these days.” My answer always is followed by a story or two of “the good old days” in Alpena involving Phil.

All of which speaks to Phil’s passion and commitment to the community. The same was just as true for his profession, which again, I quickly discovered just how big his shoes were.

Whether it was overseeing the Michigan League of Home Dailies or working through the officer positions with the Michigan Press Association, I have followed in roles that again, Phil previously held.

With every step I have shared with Phil, I have felt it an honor and my privilege.

I, and every journalist in Michigan, should be particularly thankful for Phil as it was during his tenure as MPA president that the state’s Open Meetings and Open Records legislation was enacted.

Always gracious, Phil was an encourager to me. He never was one to be critical and only offered suggestions when pressed for an opinion.

Well, almost. He never did let me forget Notre Dame’s victory over West Virginia University, 34-21, in the 1988 Fiesta Bowl national championship game in a battle of our alma maters.

Phil counted among his journalistic highlights a three-hour luncheon with other Michigan publishers and editors in the White House with then President John F. Kennedy. In reading his recollection of the event while researching this column, it sounded fascinating.

When Phil retired in September of 1988, former Judge Douglas Pugh wrote this in remembering his own days of delivering The Alpena News: “With your leaving, Phil, an era ends to an institution that helped define me and many others.”

Indeed, Phil’s path of life crossed with many over the years.

Phil may be gone, but his soul will forever be remembered each time the presses start up and another edition of The Alpena News rolls off the line. His will be a legacy carried on through the ages.