If you are someone who can be easily exercise-shamed by someone who sincerely enjoys running and walking, then 81-year-old Coronado Resident Richard Williams is someone you should avoid. The native of Havre de Grace, Maryland, is however one of the nicest people you are likely to meet in and around our city, who started running at the age of 41 and hasn’t slowed down since.
His story is one of six that will be told in a series of half-hour shows produced for KPBS-TV with the title Re’flect, that will run from Jan. 12 through Feb. 16, 2017. According to Re’flect Producer Heidi Rataj, “The series was created to find people who had the ability to break the stereotype of what age looked like. Our four tenants of successful aging include optimism, resilience, wisdom and compassion. Those tenants guided us.” The Williams episode is scheduled to air Jan. 19 at 8:30 p.m.
Interestingly, Williams showed a minimum level of athletic interest through his younger days and at Havre de Grace High School. “I was editor of the high school paper and I was chief of staff of the high school library,” Williams recalled. “I didn’t play competitive high school sports, but did play Little League Baseball. I was elected Mayor of the City during Senior Day in high school. I got to pick the city council and all of the officials, which was a fun experience.”
Following graduation, Williams pursued the family business, which was working on the railroad. His father had been a conductor and his grandfather and great grandfather had all worked on the railroad. Williams worked on the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad as a telegrapher/operator from 1953 to 1969, learning American Morse Code, also known as Railroad Morse. Fast forward to the present and Williams is the current International Secretary/Treasurer of the Morse Telegraph Club, which endeavors to keep telegraphy alive. Foreshadowing the balance of this story, the Morse Telegraph Club is just one of many activities in which Williams is currently involved.
Williams decided to work for the B&O Railroad instead of going to college for one very basic reason - money. “I got scholarship offers out of high school from the PTA to go to a state teachers’ college, but I could make $4,000 more year on the railroad. I could buy a convertible and have a lot of fun. I avoided college for 15 years.” Maybe we should make that three reasons.
Williams was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1958 and after basic training, with five years of railroad experience under his belt, he was assigned to be a Train Movement Specialist at Ft. Eustis, Virginia. After two years of active duty, he returned to the B&O where he served as a telegrapher and Nigh Terminal Trainmaster until 1968, while remaining in the U.S. Army Railroad Reserve Unit in Philadelphia.
At the age of 37 by taking classes at night for four years, Williams graduated from St. Joseph’s University with a degree in Business Administration and an emphasis in accounting. He parlayed the degree into a job with the IRS as a special agent. “They made me a special investigator,” Williams said. “I was a junior agent working on the Spiro Agnew case, one of 60 people assigned to that investigation. It was a task force than included the FBI, the IRS, and several different agencies.”
While serving as U.S. Vice President, Agnew resigned from the office after pleading no contest to federal income tax evasion. Agnew paid a $10,000 fine, was sentenced to three years’ probation and lost the right to practice law after being disbarred by the Maryland Court of Appeals.
Williams later served for 22 years as the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Deputy Inspector General from May 1985 to April 2007. Williams said, “The job required travel to nearly every Naval Base in the world, which I thoroughly enjoyed.” On a parallel track, in the Army Reserve Williams worked his way up to the rank of Chief Warrant Officer, which is an E7 position.
After turning 41 Williams, who was six feet tall, weighed 215 pounds, which was off the acceptable height/weight table for the Army Reserve unit. Williams picks up the narrative. “My max allowable weight was 208 and I decided I wasn’t going to lose just seven pounds, but to get in shape. I wasn’t feeling good and I started a program of cutting out big lunches and walking the stairs at work instead of taking the elevator. When I was under 200 pounds, I started a lunchtime jogging program. My office was at Third and Constitution Avenue in Washington with a view of the Capitol Dome out of the office window. I started jogging up and down the Mall. My lungs would burn and there was searing pain. I started July 5, 1977, and by Labor Day I was down to 175 pounds. I maintained that weight for 30 years and now I’m down to 160. My first race was the Diet Pepsi 10K on the Mall. Then in 1978 I was inspired to run the Marine Corps Marathon. I was a novice with no marathon experience and I ran a 3 hour and 30-minute marathon. When I was training for the marathon I was putting in 65 miles a week. I have never had a major injury from 1977 until now, which will be 40 years in 2017. Over the years, I have done 13 marathons (26.2 miles in length), 150 half marathons (13.1 miles) and numerous 10-milers and 10K events. I would guess I have run a total of over 1,000 races.”
For Williams, it’s not just the quantity of races he runs, but the quality of the results as well. In 2015, Williams won the USA Track and Field National Masters Championship 10K race by two seconds. When asked when he thought he could compete at the National level in distance running events, Williams smiled and said, “When I got old guys started dropping out and the field of competition became smaller. I know almost all the competitors and there are only a few out there who can beat me. The competitiveness started when I became 60 and started winning an occasional age group award. At 65 I really got serious and finished first in a marathon in Richmond, Virginia. Then I went back the next year and won it again with a 3:44.” Williams has competed in both the Boston and the New York Marathons, with his best finish being a fifth place in the New York event.
Williams described how he and his wife of nine years Kitt, who met each other at running events, currently stay in shape. “We’re on a reduced schedule right now and generally we run one race per weekend. Sometimes we have weekends with two races back to back. Thursday, we ran from here to Tidelands Park and back which is four miles. Then we have a loop around town that is six miles. We take Friday off for weekend races and we run a half marathon once a month. In addition to that, we spend at least 20 minutes to half an hour doing physical stretching, keeping the body in condition and doing isometrics. We do a walk (from Oxford Park near the Coronado Post Office) to the Shores, City Hall and back, which is about two miles and we try to do that every day.”
Williams provided his racing itinerary for 2017 which currently has the couple entered in 17 running events staged primarily in California. However, planned trips to Cabo San Lucas, the Balkans and a New England/Canada stop, all in 2017, could easily expand that number. Williams now keeps the medals and trophies just from the major races he has won, which are both numerous and impressive in scale.
In 2007 Richard and Kitt moved from the East Coast to Imperial Beach. He started a tradition of volunteerism, working as an AARP Tax Preparer, instructor and Electronic Return Originator in the Coronado and Imperial Beach Libraries and Senior Centers for 10 years. He is now the Local Coordinator of the National City AARP/VITA tax site, a position which includes quality review of the tax returns prepared by five volunteer counselors.
With Kitt serving as president of IB Beautiful, Richard was secretary-treasurer and helped with the collection of the proceeds from the group’s successful Imperial Beach Certified Farmers Market operation, which is held Fridays on the IB Pier. Williams served as a guide at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista for five years. Currently Williams is the president of the Oxford Park Homeowners Association, which has 33 units. He was named the Coronado Historical Association’s Docent of the Year two years running for his tours of the Hotel Del Coronado. And yes, he believes in the ghost of Kate Morgan (1865-1892) and tells a compelling story to prove it.
But nothing prepared Williams for the Re’flect experience, which included an extensive interview and about 20 hours of filming by his estimate. “The main theme as I understand it is showing how we have evolved through life to be a healthy and active senior at the age of 80 plus. The folks I have been working with are super nice. They interviewed my sister, my daughter, my entire group of running friends and we were filmed endlessly running in Balboa park. All my running friends are involved in the production. It’s been quite interesting. The limelight has been a little too much, but I volunteered for it and here I am. I do enjoy it to some extent. I’m here and I’m healthy.”
Re’flect Producer Heidi Rataj, who has a 25-year television production background that includes the Carol Burnett Reunion Show, the Bonnie Hunt Show, Moesha, and Cosby (1996-2000). Rataj reflected on the creation of Re’flect and estimated that each of the six half-hour episodes probably consumed a total of 15 10-hour days.
The genesis of the project centers around Rataj living with her 77-year-old mother in Mira Mesa and the medical challenges her parent has faced. “My mom is nurturing and supportive like Maria von Trapp,” Rataj said. “She created hope in all of us and I wanted to find other people who are going through aging process who had the ability to break the stereotype of what old age looked like. With Richard, what we see is his optimism is way above and it’s infectious. He is resilient because he has pushed through. He was unhappy in Washington and not healthy. It was the element of finding a purpose, to know what it is you are and what you do. His volunteering and love of life all kicked in. Interviewing him and being around Richard you realize that anyone can start over at any time. It shows that life can have an interesting turn of events and it is what you make of it.”