Reverend Robert Richards was known as the “Vaulting Vicar” and the “Pole-Vaulting Pastor” – a highly decorated Olympian who became both the face of American fitness and a highly respected spiritual leader.
Bob Richards passed away on Sunday in Texas at the age of 97.
People of a certain age will immediately recognize Bob’s photograph, because for over twelve years it was featured on the Wheaties box. He was the first athlete to grace the product.
But before he became Reverend Richards and won two gold medals in the Olympics, Bob grew up in Champagne, Illinois, the third of five children. He was a strong athlete as a child, participating in and winning various YMCA events in diving and tumbling. He was the star high school quarterback, too. But Bob discovered track and field events in junior high school, and especially loved pole vaulting. It’s that event that would catapult him (pun intended) to stardom.
If you were to have seen Bob’s backyard as a boy, you would have seen a homemade crossbeam, which he built and set up between a telephone pole and a tree.
Yet, Bob Richards’ childhood was less than ideal. His parents divorced when he was in high school, and as a teenager, he sought affirmation in all the wrong places. He joined a gang. Many of its members made a habit of stealing from local businesses.
But then came a man who would help turn Bob’s life around. It was the Reverend Merlin E. Garber. A local pastor with the Church of the Brethren, Reverend Garber invited Bob to move in with his family. His mentorship provided the stability and security Bob was lacking.
After high school, Bob enrolled in Bridgewater College, a church-affiliated school. At the same time, he was ordained into the ministry, and proceeded to soar – literally and figuratively – as a pole vaulter. He wound up transferring to the University of Illinois and became an NCAA champion. He was appointed pastor of the Church of the Brethren in Long Beach, Calif.
Bob Richards wound up competing in three Olympic games – 1948 in London, where he won a bronze medal, 1952 in Helsinki, where he brought home a gold, and he earned another gold in the 1956 Melbourne games.
In Australia, Bob’s gold medal jump came on his last attempt, and it almost didn’t happen. As the story goes, the crossbar was wobbling after his vault and Bob’s outstretched praying hands as he lay in the pit kept the beam from falling. Bob later admitted he wasn’t praying at all.
“I did look up and point at the bar, but it wasn’t a prayer,” Richards acknowledged. “It was like, ‘Oh Lordy, is that thing going to fall off?’ I can see how people thought it was a prayer, but it wasn’t.”
Even as he preached and witnessed, Bob parlayed his fame to great commercial success. He became the director of the Wheaties Sports Federation and was pictured on the cereal box between 1958 and 1970. He was idolized and lionized for his athletic, spiritual, and moral strength.
In addition to preaching, the Reverend Richards became a motivational speaker. He was a popular and beloved public figure throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, especially at student award banquets.
Reverend Richards beautifully combined his athletic prowess with his faith convictions. He used to say, “The family that plays and prays together, stays together.” He was well received because he was right and his message resonated with the public.
Yet, here’s the curious thing. Bob was considered the poster child for athletic greatness for years and years – even though his jumps don’t stack up all that well to historic trends. But he dominated an era, had a good message, and preached solid principles that spanned the generations. His reputation aged well.
Bob Richards was elected to the United States Olympic Hall of Fame, and even ran for president on a third-party ticket. He lost that race, running to the right of Ronald Reagan in 1984 – but he was successful in most other things in life.
Given the intensity of today’s Olympic training program, it’s unlikely we’ll see another bi-vocational athlete and pastor anytime soon, if at all. Yet Bob’s philosophy and history of persevering can still inform and inspire us all. He knew the Lord had created him for a reason, and he was determined to fulfill his mission.
“Goals give purpose,” Bob once wrote. “Purpose gives faith. Faith gives courage. Courage gives enthusiasm. Enthusiasm gives energy. Energy gives life. Life lifts you over the bar.”