OMAK – Wally Richards is this year's Omak Stampede grand marshal. He and his wife, Libby, have lived in Omak since 1996.
Omak Stampede Office Manager Sarah Grooms said the Omak Stampede Board recommended him because of his “phenomenal involvement” with kids and the community.
“I don't think people know the extent of what he's done,” said Grooms. “He is an exemplary example of a Grand Marshal.”
Grooms said when the idea was brought before the Omak Chamber of Commerce, everyone agreed Richards was a great choice.
“It's quite an honor, but I think there a quite a lot of other people more deserving,” said Richards, who has a long history of serving others.
When the Richards family adopted their son Lee, who struggles with autism, they became very involved in Special Olympics and went on to found an independent program that allowed students not enrolled in school or workshops to participate. Their avid involvement caught international attention when they were selected in 1987 as the Special Olympics Outstanding Family of the Year.
Libby Richards laughed as she recalled the phone call letting them know of the honor.
“I answered the phone and heard a voice say, 'This is the secretary for Eunice Kennedy-Shriver,' and I said 'Yeah, right.'” Libby said she put her husband on the phone then, and Kennedy-Shriver came on the line.
Wally finished the story with a Boston accent as he imitated Kennedy-Shriver asking, “Is this Wally Richards?”
The Richards family was flown to New York City and honored in a luncheon at Madison Square Gardens, where they met Kennedy-Shriver and her husband, Sargent Shriver.
“Eunice started Special Olympics, she and John and Bobby and Ted had a sister who was quite retarded,” said Wally. “They started it in their back yard, then had a big meet at Soldiers Field in Chicago and it took off from there.”
When the Richards family moved here from Everett, they continued their involvement with Special Olympics, the Kiwanis and a program Wally founded to provide social opportunities for youth and adults with severe developmental disabilities. Called “SPIN” for Serving People in Need, the program offers monthly get togethers featuring dances, bingo and craft nights. Held in the Cornerstone Church, Richards said the events draw people ages eight to 80.
“We have seen a lot of people progress over the years by coming out and socializing,” said Richards. “It's a nice group of people that like to get together and we dance.”
Richards said his granddaughter Chelsea Arleigh provides the music, along with her husband T.J.
Richards invites anyone wanting more information about SPIN to call him at 509-322-3227. “There's always room for more.”
Richards also serves the community through his skills as a woodworker, and his talent for pulling people together to accomplish bigger goals as a team.
Building toy trains of wooden letters for children to learn to spell their names and other wooden toys, Richards involves the Builders Club during the school year, which is the Kiwanis program for middle schoolers; and Omak High School's Key Club all year long.
Wally said Valley Lumber gives him scrap lumber to build toys, which he includes in gift baskets at Christmastime.
“Omak Kiwanis give away 300 food baskets every year at the AgriPlex, and the Key Club and Builders Club come and help give them away,” said Wally. “It makes nice little presents for the kids who might not be getting much.”
Sitting in his workshop on a hot day in mid-July, Wally looks at a pile of train pieces on his work table. “We're giving away 100 of these four-piece trains, so we have to sand them, wood-burn them and seal them with canola oil. There's 700 pieces that require wood wheels, which the Kiwanis buy, along with the plywood,” said Richards, adding he was expecting several Key Club members to show up that evening to help with the work.
“We have a good time. They humor me,” Richards said of the high school students. He points to a saying spelled out on the wall of his shop with wooden letters he cut himself. “Those high school students have accepted this motto, 'The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service to others,' by Mahatma Gandhi. He was quite a man. He had a lot of sayings, and they all made sense.”
Despite having until December to finish the toys, the students were willing to give up a mid-summer evening to help out.
The letter trains have been donated to preschools around the county. The sets include an engine, along with three copies of every letter in the alphabet for kids to learn to spell their names and other small words. Since moving to the Okanogan, he's already given out 40 sets.
“I worked on them in Everett as well, and when I came over here it just took off and the kids wanted to help out,” said Richards. “We need to find someone who needs them. We've just about tapped out everyone in Okanogan County, and we made a set for Bridgeport. We still need to make one for the tribal Head Start in Keller, and we will be working on that as soon as we get these toys done for the Christmas baskets. It keeps me busy. The Key Club, I tell them, 'You won't let me sit down and grow old, you keep me hopping.' But that's good I stay active. I had Key Clubbers that have gone through college and married and have children. That's when I feel old, when I bump into them.”
Wally is 87 years old.
Married 68 years, he lives with his wife and son Lee. His daughters Trish and Michelle also live in Omak, with son Steve in Everett, Jeff in Las Vegas and oldest son Michael in Portland, Oregon.
The family enjoys camping, and were heading the following week to Conconully.
“I take the toys up there and wood-burn while sitting around,” said Richards. “I get a lot accomplished that way.”
Wally said the Everett Herald once featured him as Man of the Year.
“What I do, I don't do for notoriety. But people put your name in,” said Richards. “Like this, for the Omak Stampede Parade. Someone nominated me, I don't know how it happened. There are a lot more people, more deserving.”