Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

A Good Joe

For the Reverend Joe Richardson '89 the spiritual life is not a theory. He lives it.

This article on Rev. Joe Richardson first appeared in Prospect, the Elmhurst College magazine, in 2000. Since that time, Reverend Joe, now 77, has scaled back his activities at the College in order to focus his energy on his church, St. James Community Baptist church in Broadview. He nonetheless continues to be a presence on campus and a loyal member of the Elmhurst community, according to Elmhurst College Chaplain Rev. Scott Matheney. The former football team chaplain, Richardson currently acts as honorary athletic chaplain. While no longer a fixture in the football locker room before every Bluejay contest, Richardson does make frequent campus visits. “He was just here for the athlete’s worship service at the beginning of the year,” Matheney said. “He addressed the athletes and led them in prayer, and I can report happily that he still has that deep, booming voice that raises the hair on your arms.”

He is reverently referred to as the voice of God at Elmhurst, and not even the Good Lord himself could have laid hands on a more friendly or fervent messenger. After more than a decade of service to the College and its students, the Reverend Joseph John Richardson Sr., '89, is much beloved on the campus for his good deeds, as volunteer, chaplain, cheerleader, counselor, and friend.

Reverend Joe, as he is universally called, will celebrate his seventieth birthday in February. His official title is co-chaplain and special adviser to students. He is a cuddly bear of a man with a slow, easy gait; graying sideburns and moustache, and little hair above his forehead. Chiseled by a lifetime of struggle, his face brims with expressions that can change—from lowbrow discipline to wide-grin happiness—in the blink of a glistening eye.

He loves to meet and greet. "Hey, bro." "What's happening?" "Bless you, man." A hands-on person, he makes contact with massive paws that are equally adept at a firm handshake or a gentle touch of assurance. "I can be no more aloof from people than be the man in the moon," he acknowledged. "That is not me."

Reverend Joe is the E. F. Hutton of campus spirituality; when he talks, people listen. His trademark is his deep, booming voice, which never needs a microphone—although the pitch rises considerably when he laughs, as he often does.

His responsibilities include working specifically with African American males and with the football team. No job description, however, could circumscribe his influence. "I try to give support, whether it is the males or the females,” he said. “I don't stop with one group of people. I have a good time being around the students, listening to them, meeting their parents, all of this."

His spiritual approach can be subtle. "In my conversations with these kids, it is never religious,” he said. “It is very open. I don't pinpoint religion, but I may speak from the position."

Reverend Joe knows the position well. In life's hard time, his unwavering faith has seen him through.

"Many times I feel, by the grace of God, because of the love I have for him, the Lord keeps blessing me," he said. "I am continually blessed by Him. I think things don't just happen in life."

Joe Richardson was born in LaGrange, Illinois, on February 6, 1930. His father, Ansel Richardson Sr., worked as a machinist at a quarry in Hillside. His mother, Pauline, did domestic work in other women's homes as well as her own. Joe was the "baby" of four children, two boys and two girls.

Both parents were no-nonsense, especially his mother. "Back then it was respect for your elders, whoever they may be," Joe recalled. "'Yes, sir; no, sir. Yes, ma'am; no, ma'am.' My mother was a disciplinarian; she kept me in line."

He grew up in a melting-pot neighborhood, alongside Irish, Italians, Croatians, Chinese, and African Americans like himself. He learned to get along with all kinds of people, mostly by being himself with them.

"Basically, what you see now I have been all my life," he said. "I’ll do what you ask me, but I won't kiss your butt."

As a youth, his great love was for sports, especially baseball and football. "I used to lay out on the floor, listening to the Bears on the radio all the time," he recalled. "I can remember Bulldog Turner, George Halas, all those guys, and the Packers with Vince Lombardi."

Joe also earned a reputation as a pretty fair hoofer in his younger days. "That's a fact," he said with a giggle. "When I was growing up, they used to circle around me, because I guess I was supposed to be that good. I loved to dance."

He attended Lyons Township High School, in LaGrange. In 1950, when the Korean War broke out, he dropped out and enlisted in the U.S. Army.

That July, Joe shipped out for Korea with the Second Infantry Division, bound for Taegu by way of Pusan. "We were the first ones who left from the States," he said. "I was a scared mess. I hadn't seen any of this stuff."

Nevertheless, he earned his corporal stripes, and the life-and-death responsibilities of commanding a platoon. In times of need, he pulled out his pocket Bible and read the Twenty-seventh Psalm.

The Lord is my light and my salvation; of whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail against me, uttering slanders against me, my adversaries and foes, they shall stumble and fall,
Though a host encamps against me, my heart shall not fear;
Though war arises against me, yet I will be confident....

"What helped me to survive was the discipline I was taught as a child, being able to listen and to adhere to what I was told," he said. "Army life continued to develop that discipline in my life. At the same time, it continued to teach me respect for others."

When his tour of duty in Korea had ended, Joe was assigned to Fort Dix, New Jersey, as a recruit trainer. With an Army buddy from Cleveland, he traveled often to New York and Philadelphia to shake a leg at the dance clubs. He also continued to play basketball and football. He has one regret from those days. "I feel that, if someone could have taught me the intricacies of track, I'd have been one heck of a track man. I could run. I could fly!"

Honorably discharged from the Army, Joe returned to Lyons Township in 1952 to earn "my little piece of paper," his high school diploma. With that accomplished, he took a job at International Harvester. After nine months there, which included a layoff and talk of a strike, Joe left and joined Commonwealth Edison, as a janitor.

About that time, a mutual girlfriend from Maywood, Illinois, introduced Joe to Rita L. Sherp, who became the love of his life. Joe and Rita dated for a year, then married, on March 14, 1953.

Over the next nine years, Joe and Rita welcomed six children into the world: Cherlyn Christopher, Joseph John Jr., Denise Michelle, Leonard Michael, Anthony Lawrence, and Kenneth Scott.

The youngest, Kenny, born in 1962, is mentally retarded. A client of the Ray Graham Association in Elmhurst, Kenny has lived for fifteen years at Alden Valley Ridge Rehabilitation and Health Care Center, in Bloomingdale. "We see him all the time," said Joe. But the visits are as limited as is Kenny’s life. "He doesn't walk. He doesn't talk."

Kenny’s birth was the family’s first great crisis. The second came in 1967. One Friday night, Joe noticed a story in the Chicago Tribune about flammable clothing. "I am reading all this and I say, 'I have to tell my kids about this in the morning,'" he recalled. "Well, I never got the chance to tell them about it."

The next morning, Denise, then 12, was burned and nearly died when an electric stove ignited her nightgown. Rita Richardson used her husband's big Army jacket to extinguish the flames that engulfed the screaming girl as she ran from the kitchen into the living room.

During one hospital visit, father and daughter sang "Fearless Lord Jesus," a hymn Denise loved. The girl never fully recovered from her injuries. In 1974, Denise, blind and suffering from grand mal seizures, "slipped away." She was 19.

"I always said that she was going to be the first black Miss America," Joe said. "She was that cute."

"At that time brothers were not getting good jobs," Joe recalled. "So I kept striving and striving."

At Commonwealth Edison, Joe worked his way up to night watchman, and then storeroom clerk, before becoming the first black meter reader in the utility's Western Division. It ran west from Cicero Avenue to Elgin, and north from around 127th Street to Higgins Road.

In time, Joe became the second black lineman in the Overhead Department of Com Ed. After a transfer to the Underground Department, he became the first black cable splicer and crew leader. In his spare time, he became a licensed realtor, with Dorona Realty in Maywood.

On July 12, 1963, Joe became Reverend Joe. Sensing in himself a deepening "commitment to God," he came into the ministry in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The first seven years of his ministry were a struggle. Initially, Reverend Joe did not have the benefit of seminary or college training, and depended heavily on his mentoring pastor, Reverend James. On July 5, 1964, near the end of Reverend Joe’s first year of ministry, Reverend James collapsed while preaching in church. Reverend Joe was present and administered CPR to the stricken man beside the pulpit. The pastor was taken to West Lake Hospital, where he died.

It was a huge loss to the young clergyman. “After Reverend James died, there was nobody to give me guidance within the confines of the Methodist Church,” Reverend Joe said. “I was just out there with a boat that didn’t have a paddle.”

He stayed afloat, however. In 1965, Reverend Joe delivered his first pastoral script as an ordained deacon at Good Shepherd Church in Chicago. Two years later, he was ordained as an elder, but he remained a pastor without a flock, "a lost ball out there in the hay somewhere."

At the time, the Richardson family was living in Glen Ellyn. The pastor of the United Methodist Church in town encouraged Reverend Joe to start his own pastorate, in Glendale Heights, and offered his assistance. "That gentleman told me, after I talked to him once or twice, 'I will help you meet some people, and help you with your education, and give you some money.'"

His prospective parishioners in Glendale Heights included many well-educated persons. Reverend Joe worried that he was ill equipped to minister to them. "I said to myself, 'These people out here have degrees. Doctors, lawyers — what am I going to tell them? What am I going to do for them?'” He declined the pastor's offer. "I was frightened then."

As it happened, his fear would not have the chance to hold him back for long. Reverend Joe’s work for Dorona Realty was about to have an unexpected impact on his ministry.

"It was that same week,” he recalled. “I was over in LaGrange, looking to list this property that a gentleman had called me about. He told me, 'If you can sell this, I'll let you sell that, across the street.' I said, 'What is that?' He said, 'It used to be a store on the corner, and the other part is an educational building.'"

Within two weeks, Reverend Joe secured an agreement with the owner to use the property. In one building, in a room twenty feet by twenty feet, he established "a church to serve people," St. James Community. His first service in his new church was on Sunday, July 5, 1970, six years to the day after the death of his mentor, Reverend James. Reverend Joe delivered his sermon that morning to fourteen parishioners, his wife and children included.

The congregation grew to more than 200 members over Reverend Joe’s ten years in LaGrange. St. James Community became affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, the predominantly white denomination of two presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. "If I were to name the best thing that happened to our church, it would be becoming part of the Southern Baptist Convention," the pastor said. "Need help and want somebody to come out, they're there." In 1980, the pastor and his parish moved to larger quarters in Broadview.

Reverend Joe’s formal education remained unfinished business. In 1964, he had begun taking classes at Elmhurst College, while juggling jobs, raising his family, and otherwise answering God's call. The College, he recalled, took a chance on him. "They said, 'OK, we will take you in.'" Thus began his twenty-five year journey to a bachelor’s degree.

"I really didn't know what I was doing, but I was going to go to college,” he said. “Really, my grades were bad. I guess my g.p.a. was maybe around 1.0 — it was down there. I’d come to class; I’d stop; I’d come; I’d have to work overtime, and I’d stop. I wasn't that sharp to where I could be missing classes."

He continued going to classes in the evenings, off and on, "year after year after year," not only at the College but also at the Moody Bible Institute, on Chicago's North Side. The Institute awarded Reverend Joe a Certificate of Graduation in 1979. Eventually, he took early retirement from Commonwealth Edison and began to study full time.

Actually, more than full time: he re-enrolled at Elmhurst, majoring in theology, and entered the master's degree program at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Lombard. “I was carrying seven classes, leaving here, going there, sometimes coming back here for another class,” he recalled.

After one semester, the College notified Joe that his student status was in jeopardy. His faculty adviser, the Reverend Dr. Armin Limper, now a professor emeritus of theology and religion, helped him plead his case to the Academic Standing Committee. They were successful, and Reverend Joe turned things around. "I started pulling A's and B's.”

To this day, he is thankful for the encouragement of several Elmhurst faculty members, especially Robert and Barbara Swords and Kenneth E. Bidle, all of the English department, all now emeriti. He also speaks highly of Ronald G. Goetz, chair and professor of theology and religion, and a faculty member since 1963.

"I wouldn't trade that man for love or money," Reverend Joe said. "Not only has he been a professor to me, he's been my friend, he's been my brother, he's been my counselor and my pastor. I listen to him."

Joe Richardson was graduated from Elmhurst, with a Bachelor of Arts degree, in January 1989. Six months later, he received his Master of Divinity degree from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary. He entered the seminary's doctoral program a day later.

He never left Elmhurst, of course. After his graduation, the President of the College, Ivan E. Frick, hired him as a co-chaplain. Six years later, Dr. Frick's successor, Bryant L. Cureton, gave the co-chaplain the additional title of special adviser to students. Today, Reverend Joe serves as adviser to the Black Student Union and the social fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, as a member of the mentoring committee for African-American males, and as "spiritual leader" of the football team. In 1991, with Rita, he established a scholarship for African-American students.

He has received two of the College's highest honors: the Alumni Merit Award, in 1993, and the Founders Medal, in 1998. Many members of the College community have honored him less formally, by asking him to preside at their weddings and funerals. In June, for example, Reverend Joe did the honors at the wedding of Clark Jones, the men's baseball coach, and Kim Smith, the women's softball assistant, in Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel.

"Where people have me, and what people think about me — I am thankful to God that somebody thinks something of me," Reverend Joe said. “See, all these years, all that period of time — it is only because people have helped me that I am where I am today."

Today, Joe and Rita Richardson are grandparents, eight times over. Last year, their son Anthony followed his father into the Christian ministry.

Length of years has not meant an end to his trials and tribulations. "What really got my attention was when the Lord blessed me with it," Reverend Joe said.

"It" is prostate cancer. Reverend Joe was diagnosed with it two years ago. The subsequent outpouring of love and prayers from the College community humbled him, he said. Today, his prognosis is favorable, but guarded.

These days, he favors a line from First Corinthians, second chapter, ninth verse: "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him."

"The word I have is blessed," said Reverend Joe.

And blessed is this messenger of the word.

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