Allen Richards — known to all as “Alkie” — was a poster boy for what can happen when a poor kid gets a chance to blossom.
Born in Bristol, Tenn., he moved with his family to the Miamisburg area when he was 5. His father, a talented woodworker and builder, figured there was more work in Ohio than back in the mountains, but the Great Depression was just starting and with only a fourth-grade education, it took him a few years to get himself into a secure situation.
But there were struggles in the beginning.
“Dad had this story he told us kids,” said Julie Richards, the oldest of Alkie’s four children. “He said he was so poor in those early days that he used to go down to the railroad tracks and throw rocks at the hobos on the trains, just so they’d throw coal back at him. He’d pick it up and they used it to heat the house.”
Alkie also worked as a kid, picking strawberries for five cents a quart.
But it wasn’t until he stepped out of the farm fields and onto the football fields, the basketball courts and baseball diamonds that he showed he had a wealth of talent.
“He was just a remarkable athlete,” said his sister, Linda Hockett.
A three-sport athlete at Miamisburg High School, Alike — thanks to Vikings coach Henry Schneider who drummed up scholarship interest in him — went on to forge one of the more prolific college careers any athlete has had.
He started out at the University of Dayton on a basketball scholarship, but soon quit school to work a factory job. A year later, in 1942, he landed a football scholarship to the University of Cincinnati and although his career would be interrupted by World War II — he served as a Marine in the Pacific Theater — he would end up earning an unheard of 16 varsity letters at UC and at Penn State combined.
His senior season at Cincinnati, he was named the best student-athlete on campus and in 1985 he and Oscar Robertson were among the inductees into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
After graduating from UC, where he would earn a master’s degree later, he was contacted by the Chicago Cubs, as well as by Chicago Bears’ owner George Halas.
He once said Halas was offering just $2,300, so he turned him down, figuring he could find better financial security and more human reward in teaching and coaching kids and helping them the same way Schneider once did him.
Over a 30-year period, Alkie coached football, baseball, track and basketball at Tippecanoe High School, coached football at Troy High and served as the athletic director at both schools. Today he’s in the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s Officials’ Hall of Fame.
After the 89-year-old Alkie died last month in Cape Coral, Fla., where he lived with Rosemary, his second wife, his family back here, especially his two daughters, Amy Grescowle and Julie, decided to honor him with “A Celebration of Life” this Saturday from 4 to 7 p.m at the old Broadway Gym (233 W. Broadway) in Tipp City.
More than a reminiscence of glory days past, it will unveil the Tippecanoe Educational Endowment Fund as a way people can help students in need.
“In Tipp City now, kids have to pay to play sports at the middle schools and high school,” Alkie’s son, Mark Richards, who runs a Dallas construction company, said by phone. “The funds will help families in need with those fees.”
The concept is simple, Julie explained: “Our family wants to pay it forward.”
Roots of a nickname
As for that nickname, it came to Ohio with Alkie from the mountains. No one is exactly sure of the origin, although there are some guesses.
“It might have had something to do with the stills,” said Mary Jo Richards, who was married to Alkie for 35 years and is the mother of their four children.
Mark agreed: “He told stories how his uncle had a still.”
Although she is 19 years younger than Alkie and was born here in Ohio, Linda knows some of the family’s mountain lore.
“You’d hear stories how people had to flash their lights in just the right (sequence) before they’d let them drive over the bridge back to the stills,” she said. “And my Aunt Myrtle actually ran moonshine. She was the best driver you ever wanted to see.”
While the roots of the nickname are still foggy, one thing is crystal clear. Here in Ohio, Alkie Richards became synonymous with athletic excellence.
After a year at UC, he enlisted in the Marines and eventually was sent to Penn State to take part in the V-12 Officers’ Training Program. He spent 16 months as a Nittany Lion, earned five letters — including two for football — and then went to war.
Afterward, he used the GI Bill to return to UC and formulate a Hall of Fame career playing three sports. After ignoring the pro offers, he settled into a life as a science teacher and coach, married Mary Jo Kennedy — a Julienne High grad and Dayton nurse he met on a blind date — and began to set a standard for the young athletes who came under his tutelage.
“He had a no-nonsense reputation as a coach,” Mark said. “He took their academics seriously and if they gave 100 percent effort on the practice field, he found a way to play them and those who were good enough, he did what he could to get them into college.”
Walk through history
Amy and Julie said over the years they often heard from former players who were appreciative of the sports experience they had with their dad and felt his lessons had helped them later in life.
Those conversations resonated as they thought of a way to memorialize their father.
Saturday’s celebration will include a walk through a timeline of photos including Alkie’s own athletic career and posters featuring his teams at Tipp City and Troy. There will be memorabilia and trophies, including the hardware from the Southwestern Buckeye League football championship won by his Tippecanoe team in 1964.
But the main reason the family is doing this is to spur interest in the Endowment Fund, to which anyone can contribute by sending a donation to P.O. Box 626, Tipp City, Ohio, 45371 or by contacting Amy (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Julie (email@example.com).
“We want kids in need to get the same opportunities our dad did,” Amy said. “He showed what can happen when you are just given a chance.”