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TWMP Column: Missouri’s perfect warrior, Missouri’s perfect knight: Senator Ron Richard 1947-2023

Being from southeast Missouri my respect and in the end love for Senator Ron Richard did not come naturally.

In fact, for the majority of our relationship, he exclusively referred to me as “Tilley’s friend”. A label I took as a great honor although I’m confident that it wasn’t intended as such.

However, the longer I observed him, the more I got to know him, and seeing his strength during the time in this generation when Missouri was her most vulnerable, gave me not only a respect but almost a reverence for his devotion to Missouri, her institutions, and perhaps most of all for the Missouri State Senate.

I first knew Ron as the former Mayor of Joplin who was all but assured to replace former Rep. Chuck Surface, but more than that as a bowler. And the ol boy was a hell of a bowler.

From the time he got his legs under him in the house to the last time I saw him, he had a presence. When Ron Richard walked into a room you knew a big damn deal had walked in. You wouldn’t need to know anything about Missouri politics to tell that someone important had entered the room.

Love him or hate him you could literally feel his presence in a room. However, he had a way of seeming as though he was at ease in any room. I’ve been with him in rooms with Governors and leaders from around the nation, and I’ve been with him in run-down bars where the customers were undoubtedly plotting to rob us and he was the same guy.

While in the house, he won a tight, tight race to be the first Speaker Designee. I think he will go down as a good Speaker during a tough budget time. He was fortunate enough to serve over a manageable majority, you know it’s interesting how the bigger that majority is the less the Speaker smiles.

However, I never thought he really loved it. I think he definitely liked being in charge, that was just his way, but it seemed to me he enjoyed his friends like the legendary Jay Wasson or Steve Hobbs as much as he enjoyed the job as Speaker.

Let’s be honest when we think of Ron Richard, history will think of Senator Ron Richard, of course, the man who led both chambers, but we will think of Senator Ron Richard.

I believe part of the reason he was more naturally a senator was the times. He served during a truly dramatic budget crisis which tends to focus everyone. Then he never had a great foe.

I’ve interviewed both at length and I know there was a mutual respect, and I know Governor Nixon frustrated Ron, but I’ve always believed that he could never really find it in him to get too riled up because at the end of the day, both men recognized that the other loved, truly loved the state of Missouri.

I firmly believe that without Ron Richard that capital would have fallen into the river. In any era of politics, it’s far more appealing to put your name on a new building or a new bridge than to restore an old building.

Well in this era when most leaders can’t think past their next Facebook post much less the next hundred years of the state capitol it took a special leader with a keen appreciation for history to by the force of his own will save that building. He will never get enough credit for his foresight and leadership.

It’s ironic that I’m writing about Ron Richard in St. Louis (I know, it’s a long story, most of it makes me look like a wuss so I won’t share it, but I do think in the end it’s gonna turn out well). No one would mistake either of us for a city slicker.

However, again Ron was a businessman, he saw the numbers and what the St. Louis economy meant for our state, and ask anyone there was no better friend to St. Louis than Ron Richard.

Ron Richard built highways, highways that connected this state. It is so important to have people in government who have signed both sides of a paycheck. You can spot those men, they build highways because they know those highways grow this state’s economy and improve the lives of the names on both sides of that paycheck.

The last time I spoke with him was just after session. He was so proud of Lincoln for pulling together the funding for I-70. It’s the type of thing he would have done. He was so proud that Lincoln had become such a good senator and that he was from southwest Missouri.

In the senate he again rose to lead the place. I’ll be an old man and I’ll never forget the Senate leadership race after the 2012 elections. A senator by the name of Mike Parson was for a long time the only candidate, then at the end it was rumored that another senator from his class by the name of Ron Richard was tossing his hat into the ring.

Now I knew there was well north of 16 senators who had committed to then-Senator Parson, but Ron Richard was always excellent at counting votes, and he won. That could have set off a grudge fight that could have crippled this state a few years later, but in the end, they developed a relationship of trust and respect. The state would be so much better for it later.

So much of his life, his upbringing, his love for the state, his respect for our customs and traditions prepared him to be the one to stand in the gap for Missouri when her enemies had laid her vulnerable.

Senator Ron Richard did have an opposite, there was someone who detested this state and its institutions every bit as much as he loved them. There was someone who despised this state’s traditions and customs just as much as he loved them.

Everything that made the great Ron Richard a legend was everything that kept Eric Greitens from being great.

The stage was perfectly set. Missouri was laid bare by millions spent from outside her borders laying her vulnerable to those who would auction her off for parts. Most of her elected leadership was willing to bow out of fear or ambition or weakness…Not Senator Ron Richard.

He was the perfect knight to defend Missouri when most were too afraid. Just as Stan Musial was “baseball’s perfect warrior, baseball’s perfect knight Senator Ron Richard was Missouri’s perfect warrior, Missouri’s perfect knight.

Once the non-Missourian geniuses came up with a brilliant idea to move the inauguration to Columbia so it could be more of a rally for Greitens.

Senator Richard recounting the conversation in one of the early times calling me by my God-given name instead of Tilley’s friend told me that, “I told that lil Georgia Peach that they could go to Columbia, but the Missouri Senate would be right here at noon on the steps of the state capitol just as it has been for every inauguration and would damn well show up here at that time if he wanted sworn in”.

Now how can a Missourian not love that man?

I recall one night when Greitens was angry about one of Holsman and Silvey’s plots. Now the truth is that the plot was aimed at Ron, but Greitens never missed a chance to shoot himself in the foot so he did what no good governor ever does, get in the middle of inner Senate drama.

That night there were probably 22-23 senators who showed up ready to teach Ron Richard a lesson. By the time Greitens got done threatening and yelling at them all 34, well there were still one or two of what Ron would call kissasses, but the vast majority of them had a common enemy, and sending Ron a lesson was a clear second priority.

Speaking of Ron Richard’s pragmatism, a year later it would be Ron Richard who would a year later be sponsoring Senator Silvey to be on the Public Service Commission leading to one of the most epic Senator with appointee pictures in senate history.

One afternoon Senator Rob Schaaf was on the floor filibustering, giving leadership fits when a skinny spiked-haired freshman stood up to inquire of him.

That freshman was Senator Caleb Rowden. With the paper he was holding in his hand, nearly shaking, and having to speak over his left shoulder because he couldn’t break the plane of his shoulders.

Well, by all rights Caleb lost that inquiry to his very experienced colleague, but the guts it took to do it impressed everyone. I noticed that standing in the back of the room were Senators Richard, Wasson, and Kehoe. All taking in the entire inquiry and you could tell just by watching them they had identified the man they were going to pass the torch to.

I remember when Greitens was wanting to stack the board of DESE. I heard him say several times that if that commission wanted to fire the director or do whatever they damn well wanted, that was their prerogative, but before making major changes to a state department they needed to first be confirmed by the Missouri Senate.

Greitens would find someone in southwest Missouri to do his bidding, then Ron and Peter Herschend would pull up and they would choose Missouri over Greitens. That cycle repeated three or four times before they finally found their patsy. Trust me none of those patsies were confirmed by the Missouri Senate.

Lastly one evening, during one of the darker ones of the 1700 days of the Greitens administration, I saw Ron walking with then Speaker Todd Richardson. You could tell this was two men while at different stages of their lives had a connection over the well-being of this state.

I saw the clear personal affinity they shared and the depth of the burden that had been placed on them. Then I saw Ron pat Todd on the back, then crack a joke. Just watching the two of them, you knew Missouri would be alright. If Missouri could still produce leaders like those men Missouri would find its way.

Now of course Ron wasn’t perfect. He could hold a grudge. If you made his list it was pretty well written in ink if not blood. After all, it took a constitutional crisis to get me off of it.

However, I did see his willingness to mend fences. A while back he reached out to Steve Tilley and buried the hatchet. I knew then that he must have been sick.

He was kind enough to come to our roast last year of Caleb. I know he was sick, but it meant a lot to me that he would come. Now his jokes were just awful, but they were so awful, and his deadpan delivery was so excellent that they went all the way around the world to hilarious.

When he was done he received a standing ovation from every single person in the place. That is the respect any Missourian should have for the legendary Ron Richard.

Missouri is weaker, less fair, and with a lesser sense of itself without its perfect warrior.

Catch Sunday’s This Week in Missouri Politics with our featured guest candidate for State Senate Kurtis Gregory

If you want to listen to the interviews with Senator Ron Richard or Governor Jay Nixon click here.

You can also listen to our three-part retrospective on Richard. Part One, Part Two, Part Three