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A teachable life

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Secretary of State Dennis Richardson's long political career is well known to many Oregonians, but behind that public legacy was a family man who danced, sang and laughed with his nine children.

Richardson, of Central Point, died Tuesday at age 69 from a brain tumor. He often joked that he wasn't new to politics because he raised eight daughters. He also raised a son and has 31 grandchildren.

"Our dinner conversations were lively," remembered Rachel Whoolery, Richardson's 42-year-old daughter who lives in Idaho. "He saw every moment as a teachable moment."

His children gathered at their mother Cathy's home in preparation for his funeral, planned for Monday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 3900 Grant Road, Central Point. Friends and family are invited to the viewing, which will be from 9 to 10:30 a.m., with the service following from 11 a.m. to noon. Interment will be at Memory Gardens.

Richardson, the 26th secretary of state of Oregon, will lie in state for public viewing from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday in the rotunda of the Oregon State Capitol at 900 Court St. NE in Salem. A state funeral will follow in the House Chamber from 2 to 3:45 p.m. All are welcome.

Richardson was born on July 30,1949, in Los Angeles. He served as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War before earning a law degree from Brigham Young University. He was an attorney in private practice for many years.

He served on the Central Point City Council, was treasurer of the state Republican Party and GOP chairman of the Second Congressional District before running for state representative in 2002. He served six terms, rising to co-chairman of the budget-writing Joint Ways and Means Committee in 2011, when the House was split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

Richardson ran for governor in 2014, losing to Gov. John Kitzhaber in a hard-fought campaign. Kitzhaber won but quickly resigned over an influence peddling scandal involving his fiancée. In 2016, Richardson made a bid for secretary of state, and became the first Republican to win statewide office in 16 years.

Lawyer, businessman, volunteer and a devout Mormon, Richardson was sometimes referred to as the energizer bunny because of his relentless pace, a pace that kept his children busy as well.

“He kept us so busy that we stayed out of trouble,” Whoolery said.

He’d wake most of the daughters at 5 a.m., sometimes cranking up the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on the stereo to rouse them, and then kept them involved in a dizzying routine of sports, school and church, while offering many teachable moments throughout the day.

“He was teaching all the time — sometimes it was annoying,” recalls Valerie Harmon, his 44-year-old daughter who lives in Utah.

Even in the car, he would slip in motivational or religious recordings to keep his kids occupied. Richardson would insist his daughters memorize Newton’s laws of physics.

As kids will be kids, Richardson’s daughters would break into song or an impromptu talent show. One of his favorite tunes that they still harmonize to this day was “Sisters,” from the classic “White Christmas” movie.

While Harmon sometimes didn’t always appreciate her father’s ways as a teenager, she said in retrospect that his advice and attention have proved invaluable for her as an adult.

No matter how busy her father was, she remembered he always had time for each of his children and was a good listener.

“He was an amazing dad,” Harmon said.

Richardson made sure all the children learned to speed read, could speak or sing in public and be active in the community and at church, as well as help friends and neighbors. By the time they graduated high school, he expected them to cook, change a flat tire, speak Spanish, sew, and type well.

“He would take us over to a widow’s house to help pull out weeds,” Whoolery recalled. “Afterwards he’d take us out for ice cream.”

Each Saturday Richardson would devote one-on-one time with a different child.

“He tried to recognize our own talents and gifts,” said Jennifer Vranes, who is Harmon’s twin sister and an artist.

She said she is stunned by some who have called her father “sexist.”

To the contrary, she said her father gave his daughters the sense that they could accomplish anything. Her father told her he didn't ever want his daughters to see themselves as weak girls, but to grow up to be strong women.

“He would say, ‘You are not a label, you are not shy,’” she remembered.

“He didn’t want us to be defined as girls.”

Whoolery, who has a property management business in Utah, said she recalls how her father encouraged her to take on building a 344-room student housing project several years ago in Idaho, while others said she couldn’t do it while raising a family.

When the project fell behind schedule, Whoolery said her parents came to live with her for two months, rolled up their sleeves and helped her finish it.

“My dad said, ‘This is hard for you,’” she recalled him saying a few weeks ago when she came to his side. “I said, ‘I’m in debt for all the years you sacrificed for us.’”

While the Richardsons’ daughters are quick to point out that their religion helps hold their family together, they say their dad’s upbringing helped shape him as well.

Whoolery said that when her dad was a teenager, before he deployed to Vietnam, he had a group of friends who was getting into bad behavior, including breaking into houses.

“That was a defining moment,” she said.

Richardson chose a different path and never veered from it, Whoolery said. Some of his childhood friends ended up in prison.

“He always erred on the side of following rules,” she said.

Harmon quickly added, “But with a huge dollop of love.”

Whoolery said it was only in the last month that her father’s health declined to the point where it was difficult for him to speak and to keep up his busy schedule. His tumor was the size of the palm of a child's hand when he died, family members said.

Whoolery said the last few months allowed the family to share many wonderful moments together with their father.

“It seems strange to say that the cancer was a gift,” Whoolery said. “We were able to get all the finances in order, all the paperwork organized and filed. We were able to share all the words we wanted together.”

Richardson’s other children include Scott Richardson, 49, of Utah; Nicole Hom, 39, of Greece; Mary Burnell, 37, of Oregon; Marie Coffman, 37, of Indiana; Laura Jones, 35, of Arizona; and Alyssa Coombs, 30, of Oregon.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com Follow him on www.twitter.com.reporterdm.

Valerie Harmon, 44, left, Jennifer Vranes, 44, and Rachel Whoolery, share a moment together as they talk about the life their father Dennis Richardson on Friday. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune
Richardson’s family members say they’ve cherished the last few months, which gave them time to get his affairs in order and share with him all they’ve wanted to share. Courtesy photo
Dennis and Cathy Richardson share a moment. Courtesy photo
Dennis Richardson loved spending time with his 31 grandchildren. Courtesy photo
Dennis Richardson and two of his daughters. Courtesy photo
Dennis and Cathy Richardson in the early years of their relationship. Courtesy photo
Dennis shares a laugh with wife Cathy on the coast. Courtesy photo