An Upper Arlington man who dedicated much of his teaching life to recognizing U.S. military personnel and who later took over managing Honor Flight Columbus will preside over this year's July Fourth parade.
During his 27 years as a teacher in the Upper Arlington school district, Bill Richards ensured his students understood American history and the sacrifices made by the men and women who served their country in the four branches of the U.S. military.
He would invite veterans to speak at Hastings Middle School each Veterans Day. Later, he and his wife, Bobbi, became involved in Honor Flight Columbus, which annually flies veterans to Washington, D.C., at no cost so they can visit war memorials and share their stories with younger generations.
"We've managed to bridge the gap," Richards said. "(Local students) have an understanding of what it's all about. They hear the stories."
As directors emeritus of Honor Flight Columbus, the Richardses have been instrumental in inspiring students at Hastings to raise more than $75,000 since 2006 to help finance some 200 trips to the nation's capital for veterans.
Those are among the reasons the Upper Arlington Civic Association selected Mr. Richards as grand marshal of the UACA's 2014 July 4 parade, which will follow the theme, "YoU Are A Grand Old Flag."
UACA Fourth of July chairmen Kris and Mike Ferraro said they first encountered Richards when their daughter, Anna, was in his eighth-grade class.
The couple attended a Veterans Day celebration at Hastings and was moved by the ceremony, which included a packed school auditorium and handmade signs throughout the school hailing the veterans' service.
"It was very emotional," Mrs. Ferraro said. "Through that year, we also learned of Bill's involvement in Honor Flight.
"We then felt like it was a perfect fit, to honor this UA resident and veteran himself, who has spent and continues to spend so much of his time teaching about and honoring those who serve our great country and the flag that is the symbol of our freedom."
Richards, who will celebrate his 41st wedding anniversary with Bobbi later this year, called his eight-year tenure with Honor Flight the "journey of a lifetime."
It all started with his own service in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy in 1968-69.
He spent two tours on the U.S.S. Chicago just off the coast of Vietnam. Those assigned to the ship served as air controllers for U.S. military planes, while also keeping the coast safe for those planes to enter and exit the country.
After his service, Richards finished his undergraduate studies at the University of Kentucky, where he met Bobbi, and went on to complete his master's degree in education. That's when he came to Upper Arlington to begin his teaching career.
"I remember my interview with Craig King, the personnel director who asked me where did I see myself in five years," Richards said. "I said, 'The same place I'm going to be in 25 years, in front of a classroom.'
"This is a great community to teach in. We were able to do a lot of things that were worthwhile, and it made teaching fun."
Among the most rewarding projects Richards initiated was the Veterans Day celebration at Hastings, which he said was meant to allow U.S. military veterans to share their stories with students, who could thank them for their service.
"I knew how Vietnam veterans came home and it wasn't a pretty sight," he said. "I didn't know World War II and Korean War veterans also didn't get parades.
"It started with 30 to 40 veterans coming to Hastings on Veterans Day and we did a program in the auditorium that was very somber. Then we broke into smaller groups where they talked one-on-one with students."
That citizenship work earned Richards a nomination for a statewide award given by the Veterans of Foreign War in Dayton in 2006, where he listened to a speech by Earl Morse, the founder of Honor Flight.
"(Bobbi and I) looked at each other and said, 'This is what God's calling us to do'," Richards said. "We came home the next day and set to getting involved."
Three months later, the Richardses were directors emeritus of Honor Flight Columbus, and they regularly recruited Upper Arlington High School students to serve as volunteer travel companions for the veterans who took the trips.
Eight years later, the two still organize seven Honor Flights each year. While they don't join in the trips themselves any more, Richards said they've grown more dedicated to honoring veterans and sharing their stories.
"I see those faces of the people we take and give them their 'thank you'," he said. "Then I see the people we were unable to take. My dad didn't get there.
"We always get tears because they got no 'thank you' before. We let them know what they did."
A regular part of the UACA's July 4 parade, Richards said he revels in the opportunity to see former students and other friendly faces during the community's annual homecoming.
This year, he said, he will be riding in honor of those who have served, particularly former students who quietly put their lives on the line to protect freedom and democracy.
"I worry about those kids coming home," Richards said, choked by emotion. "I think of Mitch Stafford. We've got a young man in our community who has been deployed at least three times, who earned a Bronze Star and nobody knows it because he won't talk about it.
"There are kids on people's blocks who serve that we don't know about. These young kids serve and they don't get the recognition.
"They ought to be the parade grand marshals," Richards added. "Mitch ought to ride with me. He's a local hero; luckily in Arlington, we haven't had to have one of those parades when we say 'thank you' too late."
The UACA Fourth of July parade will begin at 9 a.m. at the intersection of Northwest Boulevard and Zollinger Road.