Sunday Conversation: Bob Richards

Sunday Conversation: Bob Richards

He’s got one of the best nicknames of all time: “The Vaulting Vicar.” At the Helsinki and Melbourne Olympics in 1952 and ‘56, former Illini Bob Richards won consecutive gold medals. At age 88, the one-time Wheaties box coverboy is still going strong. Staff writer Bob Asmussen caught up to Richards earlier in the week at his ranch in Texas:

So, do you still eat your Wheaties?
Oh, sure. I’ve eaten Wheaties my whole life. Even as a little kid at Beardsley Park, I was eating Wheaties.

It’s part of a balanced breakfast.
You add milk and fruit, and it’s a great breakfast. It’s good for you.

How did it feel to see your face on the cover as the first official spokesman for the cereal, and how did you get involved?
I had a sports show out in California. I left that to do Wheaties because they convinced me that they would help me to start a program called Junior Champ. I’d go all around the country trying to get kids involved in sports. When I signed, I didn’t even think about being on the cover.

Did you get paid for that work?
A bunch of us got together who made the cover of Wheaties. Of course, Michael Jordan has been on there. And Tiger Woods and Bruce Jenner and Mary Lou Retton. I asked Michael, “How much money did they give you to get on the cover?” He said, “(Heck), I made $28 million with Nike, and I made $28 million with Hanes. (Wheaties) offered me $250,000, and I said keep it, I just want to be on the box.”

How much did you make?
I signed with Wheaties for $30,000 a year. It involved 200 public appearances, television appearances and commercials. A lot of people think I made a fortune off Wheaties. But I made much more on speaking than I ever did on Wheaties. But I’m very proud of being on that box. It’s a Hall of Fame on its own.

Who is your all-time favorite Olympian?
There are so many of them. Bruce Jenner is one. I recommended him for Wheaties. And Rafer Johnson, I got him in.

You support the Olympic movement.
It’s the greatest program for peace that I know of. That’s my perception of what the Olympics is; it’s peace through sports. The glory of the Olympics is not in winning, but it’s in striving. It’s been a motivational tool for me for 70 years. Sports has been a terrific avenue for me to get across my love of America, my love of God, my love for people. That’s what the Olympics means to me.

Illinois track has been heavily involved in the Olympics over the years. Why?
In 1947, I got a scholarship to Illinois. We had a whole bunch of great people, and we won the NCAA. Illinois has been a great supporter of the Olympics. When I look back on it, we had great facilities. Even in high school and junior high. I jumped 12 feet in high school.

When was the last time you pole-vaulted?
I was 65 years old, and I jumped in New Orleans and set a Masters record of 12 feet.

You used an aluminum pole. What would you have done with today’s fiberglass version?
They can go 4 feet higher than we did because the pole bends. I’ve got a grandson who is jumping nearly 16 feet as a freshman in high school. He’s jumping higher than I did. Fiberglass is a spring. When they abolished the aluminum pole, it became a different event.
You were also a decathlete. Other than the pole vault, what was your favorite event?
I loved to throw the hammer. I loved them all, and I had my kids do them all.

Should Olympic athletes be paid?
I don’t think you want my opinion. I don’t think it should be in the Olympics. I know I sound arcane. You shouldn’t get paid to do the Olympics. If you want to get paid, do professional sports. I think we overpay athletes. Fifty million dollars, $250 million, to me it’s absurd to pay that kind of money. I don’t understand it.

How do you feel about Champaign-Urbana?
I just thank God I was born in Champaign-Urbana. You had the greatest facilities, the greatest emphasis, the greatest education. It’s amazing how lucky Champaign is to have a university there. The heritage of sports with Bob Zuppke and Red Grange and the Fighting Illini, it was really great for me to be a part of that. It was great for all sports.

Do you ever get back to town?
Every now and then. I don’t travel much.

What are you doing these days?
I’m working on a whole bunch of Olympic stories. I’ve got about 200 more of them to go. I’ve got 40 of them done. I’m having a ball going back through all of the Olympics, picking out the stars and telling their stories. The stories haven’t been told on a whole bunch of them. They are four minutes long, and we’ve had a huge reception here in Waco. I’ve done a story on Bonnie Blair and the Champaign thing and how they all got behind Bonnie. I refer a great deal to Champaign and the University of Illinois. They are motivational stories about how they overcame illness and car crashes to win the Olympics. How they dreamed the dream and how they made it. It’s motivational stuff.

Why did you start the project?
A committee is trying to get the Olympics in Dallas. They wanted me to do some stories that could be used on the networks.

Tell me about your family.
I’ve got six kids, four boys and two girls. My wife (Joan) and I have been married 54 years.

How else do you keep busy?
I just sold a 5,000-acre ranch I bought 40 years ago. We bought a ranch in Waco. And I bought two golf courses just a year ago. I’m playing golf every day. In our backyard, we’ve got a pole-vaulting barn. The greatest vaulters in Texas right now are coming out of that barn.

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