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‘He was a gentle giant’

South Boston News
Henry Gatha Richardson Sr., / May 17, 2018
Henry Gatha Richardson Sr., a longtime county educator and school principal who passed this week at the age of 85, made a lasting contribution to Halifax County as one of the founders of the Mentor Role Model Program — “a man among men,” said fellow founder Harvey Dillard, remembering his late friend this week.

Richardson, who died Saturday at VCU Medical Center in Richmond, was a person of many achievements: an Army veteran, accomplished athlete and recent inductee to the Halifax County-South Boston Sports Hall of Fame, and beloved teacher and principal of Sinai Elementary and later at Wilson Memorial Elementary, where he served as principal until his retirement in 1991.

He was active in local Democratic Party circles, worshipped at Christ Episcopal Church in Halifax, led the local Salvation Army and took pride in his alma mater, Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, where he played for the basketball team for all four years of his college career.

However, the Mentor Role Model Program is the association that many make when they remember Mr. Richardson. After retirement, he, Dillard and a third founder, the late Carter Hicks, came together around a shared desire to help struggling African-American youths.

“We needed to do something to help these young black kids,” said Dillard, recalling the early conversations he and Richardson had about starting the Mentor Role Model program. Longtime friends — Dillard said he met Richardson soon after moving to Halifax County from West Virginia in 1959 — the men were troubled by the disciplinary problems that seemed to follow around the youngsters they came in contact with. As principal at Sinai Elementary, Richardson watched over students who lived at nearby Westside Village, and he yearned to find a way to help children who were struggling with dysfunction at home.

“It’s like a light went on with the both of us, and we began to think of what we could do to help them.”

Their idea, said Dillard, was to find adult men who could be the steady presence that black youths, many raised in fatherless homes, were missing. “He just took that idea and ran with it,” said Dillard of Mr. Richardson. “That day was when we started the Role Mentor Program.”

Initially focusing their efforts in the Sinai and Halifax areas, Richardson, Dillard and Hicks went about recruiting friends and associates to serve as mentors. From the start, they received help: American Legion Post 99 in Sinai was and remains a stalwart supporter of Mentor Role Model and proved to be an early recruiting ground for volunteers, and then-school superintendent Kenneth Walker offered the school division’s backing for the program. The organizing founders also found strong support in the legal community, and from business leaders around the county — white and black. The easygoing and gregarious Richardson was a crucial part of that success, recalled Dillard.

“I don’t believe he ever met any enemies,” he said.

In 1997, Mentor Role Model received official charitable status and hired its first full-time director, Laurietta Faulkner. She oversaw the countywide expansion of Mentor Role Model, which by then had taken on the challenge of helping not only young African American males, but all children in need, boy or girl, white, black or brown. “He was one of the most gentle men I’ve ever known,” said Faulkner. “ I called him a gentle giant — tall, heart of gold, a meek and humble guy.

“He was a visionary — they had no idea of what would come about, but they started it to help kids throughout the county … He was hands-on about everything in the community. No favoritism,” she said of Mr. Richardson. Faulkner said the founders of Mentor Role Model had no way of knowing the impact they would make when they came up with the idea for the program: “They didn’t have a clue, the far-reaching effects they would have.

“He [Mr. Richardson] was known throughout the state, but he never wanted any accolades,” said Faulkner of the local organization’s reputation. Along with coordinating the program, Richardson served as a mentor himself. One of his young mentees, Andrew Logan, became like a member of the Richardson family.

“Andrew just needed a male figure in his life, and it was a match made in heaven,” said Faulkner. “That was one of the things we wanted to do, to get kids exposed to men like that. Just having a positive person in your life, someone like Gatha who was well educated, who would make sure these kids would not fail.”

Richardson was essential to overcoming a big early challenge with adult mentoring programs: finding volunteers.

“They kinda knew where they wanted to go with the program,” she said. “They reached out to business and industry to get them to buy into the program.” Richardson, Dillard and Hicks “were leaders in that respect … they were very personable people, they did a lot of footwork with business leaders, and they would make sure people were comfortable with what we were doing.

“Gatha and Harvey were always there — to me that was big. Not only being founders, but men who would go with you and know about every aspect of what you were doing. They’ve had their fingerprints on the program to this day.

“Gatha was part of my life, he meant the world to me and all the people he worked with.”

Henry Gatha Richardson Sr. was born in Halifax County on Aug. 23, 1932 to the late Henry Clay Richardson and Ella Tucker Richardson. He was married to the late Odessa Gilmore Richardson and is survived by three sons: Henry Gatha Richardson Jr. (Shavonda) of South Boston, Marcus Richardson (Kristin) of Chesterfield County, and Andrew Logan (April) of Scottsburg. He also leaves behind 10 grandchildren, one great grandchild, and a host of nieces, nephews, other relatives and devoted friends.

He was preceded in death by his brother, Charlie Preston Richardson, and three sisters: Mildred Chalmers, Winnifred Cobbs and Lena Harris.

A funeral will be held Saturday, May 19 at 11 a.m. at Grace Baptist Church with Rev. Jack Stewart, and Father Jim Mathieson conducting the service. Burial will follow in the Richardson Family Cemetery in Halifax with military rites by American Legion Post 99.

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Correction: Funeral will be held Saturday, May 19 not May 12.

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