Remembering Professor Robert Richman


Bob Richman will be remembered for his big heart, his modesty, his wit, and his intelligence.

Bob died on July 30, 2011 at the age of 88. He never expected to live so long. Since the males in his family had always died young, he was surprised that he lived into his sixties and astonished that he almost reached 90. His longevity was due in part to his love of hiking. He would regularly drive to Mount Rainier for a day hike. When he had a class he would often walk from his house in Madrona to campus and back again"”a long beautiful walk traversing the arboretum. These walks in the arboretum were traded for walks in Seward Park when, after retirement, he and Carol switched neighborhoods.

Bob entered our Department in 1961. We had snatched him from the University of Oregon, where he had landed after getting his Ph.D. from Harvard. Within two years he was, for a quarter, acting chairman; within three he had begun a five-year term as permanent chairman. He returned to the chairmanship, for one quarter, yet again in 1971. Though he didn't particularly like administrative duties, he performed them well.

Bob's big heart is illustrated by a story that came to be told about him. When Bob was chairman, the chairman was also the graduate advisor. In that role Bob sometimes had to tell a graduate student that he had flunked the qualifying examination. Since Bob hated to disappoint or discourage anyone, he would begin by stressing the positive aspects of the student's (failing) performance. In one instance, so the story goes, Bob did such a good job of stressing the positive that a student who had failed the qualifying exam left the chairman's office thinking that he had actually passed. That the story is probably apocryphal is unimportant. Its significance lies in the fact that it was taken to capture Bob's nature.

Bob's sly sotto voce humor is difficult to recreate, but some of it lives on in his underappreciated little gem of a book God, Free Will, and Morality. Those who know the book will recall that Bob's humor infects even the Table of Contents, which lists such chapter titles as 'Was Free Will a Pseudo-Problem?' (implying that philosophical problems and their solutions are temporally indexed), 'The Fly in the Flypaper' (improving on Wittgenstein's famous image), 'Unprincipled Morality' (a pun), and 'With God All is Permitted' (indicating that Ivan Karamazov got it backwards).

Bob's modesty and self-effacement kept his work from getting the recognition that it deserved. It wasn't that Bob was unsure of himself; he was aware of his philosophical talent and ability. He just couldn't bear self-advertisement.

Here is a selection from among the many remembrances that were sent in.

From Philip Koch (Ph.D. 1970):

"I remember well my first meeting with Bob. I was a fresh, new grad student and his friendly welcome took place in his office so filled with the secretary's second-hand smoke that the low oxygen count may have intensified the experience. Bob was a wise philosopher, wise in the material of professional philosophy and wise in his application of that material to everyday life. His concern with human issues and his dry humor and original perspective helped awaken me from my grad-student slumbers.

"We moved on through the years to a mature friendship, developed during the course of our talks on many long hikes together. Although I benefited enormously from Bob's kindly guidance with my Ph.D. thesis, it was his always-warm reception on my later visits to Seattle that stay with me now. In later years he sometimes telephoned me here on the east coast of Canada [Prince Edward Island] and that gravelly voice always brought a smile of joy to my face.

"This past year, I completed a book of essays in which I finally included a long overdue dedication to Bob [Essays from Autumn:Meditations on Later Philosophy] and I cannot say how deeply I regret that he did not live to see my tribute.

From Bruce Bubacz (Ph.D. 1973):

"I remember Robert Richman with affection and a smile. As engaging as his classes were, nothing compared with strolling across campus with Bob just chatting and laughing. He had a keen eye for the absurdities of life and could be rather pointed in his observations. When someone at UW decided that the Philosophy Department library was to be swallowed by Suzzallo, Bob, then chairing the Department, said, 'This looks like a plan devised by someone who had taken an Accounting for Administrators course, and there is no accounting for some administrators.' He was delighted by a shopping bag that his brother had sent him from Hong Kong. Printed on the bag was 'A Richman is seldom happy.'

"Bob could be tenacious in argument. During my dissertation defense (which happened to be on Bob's 50th birthday) he and Sol Saporta [the outside examiner from the Linguistic Department] got involved in a discussion about the use of interior dialogue as a representation of introspection. They went at each other for nearly half an hour. John Boler looked at me at one point and raised his eyebrows, but I wasn't going to interrupt them. Finally, Bob said something like, 'I think we had better get back to asking this guy about his dissertation.'

"Bob Richman also had a tender side that was quite touching. One day he was describing his experiences during WWII. Bob was involved in liberating French internees from some of the camps at the close of the war. One fellow was a barber who insisted on giving Bob a shave in gratitude. 'The best shave I ever had in my life,' he said. He was then quiet and a bit misty eyed. When last I visited Bob and Carol, in 2007, I reminded him of that story. He was astonished that I remembered it. I said, 'Bob, you have a good heart. I will always remember you.' And I always will. RIP Bob Richman, a dear man."

From Paul Herrick (Ph.D. 1986):

"In his retirement years, one of Bob's favorite activities was the daily walks he would take in the woods of Seward Park, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of former grad students who had come to visit him. As many former students who walked with Bob know, a walk with him was not your usual walk in the woods. Into his late 80s, Bob would lead friends on two hour treks around the perimeter of the huge park and through the rugged woods of the interior"”at a very brisk pace. Along the way, he would frequently stop to talk with the 'regulars' he met on his daily walks. Like Kant's famous walks, Bob's would always start at the same time each day, and it would end at the same. His wife Carol would always join him on the first leg of the journey, turning back home only when he headed uphill into the depths of the forest. Lunch would always be waiting when he returned."

From Philip Webb, (Ph.D. 1969):

"Bob Richman was decent, thoughtful man who never raised his voice, who treated everyone fairly and honestly, who stepped in quitely when action was needed, and who cared little for rewards. He was the best kind of American..."

From Steve Duncan (Ph.D. 1987):

"I particularly remember a favorite joke that he used to tell, which we all called 'his pig joke'. (The punchline was 'What's time to a pig?') He liked the kinds of jokes that philosophers tend to like"”ones involving plays on words, amphiboly, and other forms of ambiguity that often illustrate a philosophical idea or distinction. He had a wry sense of humor that is similar to mine"”although he never thought any of my jokes were very funny. I remember him once saying to me, 'Mr. Duncan, we must continue to believe in the triumph of reason"”even though the chances of it actually happening are about .002.' The last words I ever heard him utter were an instance of gallows humor. I went to visit him shortly before his death along with several other members of POH [Philosophers on Holiday]. As I was getting ready to leave, he smiled, looked me in the eye and said, 'Well... take a good look!' I never saw him again."

Bob Richman

1923 - 2011

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