Carl Richie and the Garden Bed

In the end, the good Carl did in the world is something you can’t size up with one of his tape measures.

What’s the measure of a man’s life?

Might it be a four-inch steel bracket? Or perhaps two of them, a pair holding together a raised garden bed on a busy sidewalk in San Francisco?

Odd as that answer seems, it struck me that this bit of hardware helps size up the impact that Carl Richie had on earth.

Carl Richie

Carl, who died June 13 from complications related to prostate cancer, was my father in law. He was many things. A church leader. A lover of happy hours. An athlete and a world traveler. But chief among his vocations was being an engineer. A tinkerer. Fixing everything from a giant wastewater plant at Dow Chemical to a modest home misting system to a child’s toy boat.

His obituary notes that Carl was “ready and willing to share his talents as a handyman whenever asked.”

How true that was.

His handyman services often went to those in great need. He helped build an orphanage in Romania. He was a coordinator for Habitat for Humanity. He built homes in Haiti and rebuilt houses in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina.

He also helped me. He helped my little family of four in San Francisco. I got the friends and family rate, thanks to marrying his daughter Rowena. Over 20 years Carl graciously, patiently worked with me and my clumsy carpentry skills on several home improvements. One of the first was a fence he helped build on our back porch to keep his little grandchildren Julius and Skyla safe. He also helped install the bike hooks that now allow Julius, 17, to hang a beloved mountain bike next to his bed.

Carl Richie and granddaughter Skyla, in October, 2015

Then there was the garden plot just outside our door on 18th street.

About 15 years ago, Carl and I built that garden bed. A three-foot by three-foot square enclosure of redwood planks. The main occupant of that garden bed for two decades has been a Victorian box tree. It’s a tree that does good things in the spirit of Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree. It has been the main climbing tree for Julius and Skyla. Skyla to this day climbs up and spies on pedestrians walking underneath.

The garden bed Carl and I built, with the Victorian box tree inside it
The Victorian box tree

It serves more than just our family. The birds that Carl so loved flit around in its branches. They benefit from its shade during hot summer days. As do the many pedestrians passing down our street. And each spring this tree bursts into little white blossoms that give off a delicious fragrance — especially at night. Its scent is better than the fanciest French perfume. And this is offered not only to the wealthy techies of our neighborhood but also the many homeless people who live on our streets.

Carl’s labor those many years ago has helped keep this tree healthy. His work has helped bring happiness to our family and to our neighbors — including the “least among us.”

And yet earlier this year, the tree’s garden bed was in trouble. Carl and I had fastened each corner with two metal brackets. But they had come loose on one side. Dirt began spilling out.

Now, if I were a handyman with anything close to Carl’s skills or care, I would have fixed it. I didn’t. But about the time that Carl got really sick, sometime in the past few weeks, I noticed that someone else did.

Someone installed a pair of four-inch steel brackets to shore up the side that had sagged. The repaired bed had been tagged with graffiti, but it was intact again. The tree’s home was back in order.

And just as I was headed out the door to drive to Scottsdale to prepare for Carl’s death, those brackets and that repaired garden plot seemed to contain a message about Carl’s life.

He has left us. But his work and his spirit live on.

On Carl’s last day, he said he wanted to be remembered as a “nice guy” and “a friend.” In other words, he wanted to be remembered as a man not much different from the one he revered and worshipped — Jesus. Another handyman, a carpenter, who showed the world how to be a kind and gentle man, and a friend to all.

Over the past year, I’ve been writing a book about a better kind of masculinity. My co-author and I think we’re witnessing the emergence of men who are more collaborative, warmer, and more connected.

We’re seeing a shift, we believe, in which nice guys don’t finish last. And such guys increasingly challenge the idea of being in a race in the first place.

Carl was on the cutting edge of this trend, in my book. By following the Good Book, he showed us how to be men who can heal the world and make it a better a place.

I trust Carl now is with Lord he served. But it’s also true that Carl’s good works live on. Some of this is noticeable. As a for instance — that was one of his pet phrases I loved — As a for instance, look at his children. Look at the remarkable careers of service, healing and creativity chosen by Carty (a doctor helping on the front lines of the Covid pandemic), Rowena (an artist and teacher currently combatting the isolation of elders) and Steve (a case manager & rehabilitation specialist working with adults with serious mental illness and developmental delays).

Or look at Carl’s grandchildren. The six stand out as compassionate, curious, clever kids.

Or consider the inspiration and warmth Carl has passed on to all of his family and friends. We’ll remember him during happy hour manhattans, during holiday toasts, during après ski gatherings.

Carl also lives on in ways harder to detect.

In how he helped make safer chemicals at Dow, and therefore contributed to a better quality of life for countless people.

In the families and the special moments he cultivated by sweating over homes he built through Habitat for Humanity.

In how he prompted someone he doesn’t even know to fix a broken garden box on 18th street in San Francisco.

So in one sense, the 4-inch brackets used to make that repair offer a measure of Carl’s life. But they also speak to how Carl’s impact is rippling out in wider and wider circles. In the end, the good Carl did in the world is something you can’t size up with one of his tape measures.

It is continuing.

It is immeasurable.

I write about work, culture and masculinity. Concerned about the present but hopeful about the future.

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