When Jimmie Richards retired from the Army in 1989 he wasn’t ready to pack his uniform in mothballs.
So he didn’t.
Four days a week, ten months out of the year, retired Sgt. Maj. Richards still laces up his boots and reports to duty as a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instructor at Kendrick High School. His mission: Mold his students into fit, disciplined, productive adults.
In July, the 68-year-old veteran celebrated a milestone. Richards has spent a total of 50 years of his life in uniform.
“The whole family could not be prouder,” said Rosie Richards, Jimmy Richards’ wife.
“It’s amazing the uniform still fits,” Jimmie Richards said.
Richards’ reason for joining the Army in 1958 was simple. “I joined because my brother was in.”
The young private immediately liked the military lifestyle. Cocky and capable, Richards jumped from an E-1 recruit to an E-5 sergeant in just two years. After completing the Noncommissioned Officer Academy with top marks, Richards was assigned greater leadership responsibilities. In his 31-year career, Richards has held every position from a squad leader to a sergeant major of a brigade. He once told a newspaper reporter at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Ca., “I think I’m the best sergeant major in the Army.” He still believes it.
What makes him the best?
“He’s one of the most disciplined people that I know and not only that, but his love for the Army,” Rosie Richards said. “I’ve always said the Army was his first love. And I came in way below that. He has to be the best. Got to be the best.”
Fair but tough, Richards said he always led by example on and off the battlefield, never expecting his men to do anything he couldn’t or wouldn’t do himself.
“You had to show me that you could outdo me on anything,” Richards said. “Running, PT, drills and ceremony. I would stay up late at night to make sure I was number one at whatever it was.”
He always wanted to be the best and made a career out of coaxing it from others, even if it required tough love.
As a commander at Fort Stewart, Ga., for example, Richards sent misbehaving soldiers to “Warrior College,” a made-up, boot-camp style work duty. A soldier who committed a minor infraction received a full scholarship to “Warrior College,” Richards chuckled.
Mischievous soldiers marched 12.5 miles into the wildness on Friday, set up camp, worked through the night and through the next day before marching back on Sunday. A certificate of completion was given to every exhausted graduate, more as a reminder of the penalty they paid for stepping out of line than as a mark of a job well done.
“That kept those kids from getting an Article 15 and messing up their records,” Richards said. In the classroom, Richards expects a lot from his pupils.
“They know in my classroom there are certain things they are allowed to do and certain things that they are not allowed to do,” he said. “Number one, they can’t wear earrings in there. Number two, they come in and they stand in the position of attention until I give them at ease. When I talk, they don’t talk. That’s my territory. That’s my house. And they understand that. They understand that they don’t wear their pants down on their legs below their buttocks when they’re coming in. The girls understand that they’re going to dress appropriate.”
Many of his students deal with personal and academic disadvantages that more privileged children in the community don’t encounter, Richards said. Those who don’t know Richards try to use their hard luck situations as an excuse to act out. He understands the kids’ frustration, but will not accept their self-pity.
“I tell them they don’t have to have that defeated attitude,” Richards said. “They can excel like anyone else. You don’t have to be what people tell you you are. You don’t have to do what people say you will do.”
Working off a personal motto that education is the key, Richards always encouraged all enlisted soldiers and NCOs to go to school. He brought that same belief into the classroom at Kendrick when he started teaching there in 1990. Richards expects all of his students to finish high school and encourages everyone to go to college. He has an associate degree in computer science and a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in personnel management from the University of Maryland.
Those students who want to go into military service will get Richards’ support, but also this warning: “Be prepared for the lifestyle. Learn the basics. Don’t complain because it’s hot. Don’t refuse to work because it’s raining. That’s not going to work.”
From the moment he accepted his first leadership position in the Army, Richards has had two goals: To help others and take care of his family. When the time comes to put the uniform away he’ll know he accomplished both on his terms doing what he loves most, being a soldier.
Richards won’t say when he’ll retire, but he admits his career is winding down. One thing’s for sure, he won’t be sitting around in a rocking chair. When the time comes Richards said he looks forward to spending more time with his wife, Rosie, their three children, Richard, Donna and Darlene, and grandchildren.