Jeff Jardine: Turlock WWII vet never knows what to expect when his phone rings

10/26/2013 7:48 PM

10/27/2013 4:10 AM

This one is about family – and then some.

Harry Richmond spent 58 years wondering whatever happened to his 6-month-old son, Ron. Why did Betty, Harry’s wife of only two years, take the baby and leave so abruptly in 1947? They hadn’t argued. She’d never told him she was unhappy. She just left. No letter, no contact, no messages, no explanation.

“Her parents said they didn’t even know (her location),” Richmond said.

He searched for them with no success, hoping she would someday call or even return. She divorced him in 1949, and he received the papers after the fact. “I never signed anything or went to court,” said Richmond, who said he sifted through the faded ink of the paperwork last week for the first time in six decades. “It was done by proxy, I think.”

Betty remarried, to a man named Smith who raised young Ron as his own. Harry eventually remarried, as well, moving with wife Joan to Turlock 35 years ago.

Then, one day in 2005, Richmond’s phone rang. It was Betty. The conversation was brief. She never told him why she left. But she did utter the words he’d always longed to hear.

“I hadn’t heard from her in nearly 60 years,” Richmond said. “She asked me if I would like to get a call from my son. I said, ‘Sure. Certainly.’”

Soon after, Ron called. They reconnected both in person and by phone over the next couple of years. Yet when Ron mentioned his dad to his three daughters, they didn’t know he was talking about Richmond.

“He’d say, ‘I need to get a few things for your grandfather,’” said eldest daughter Tracy Alvarado.

“I thought he was talking about his stepdad, who was having dementia problems,” Alvarado said. “What was he going to need that stuff for? I always thought that’s who he was talking about. It didn’t make much sense.”

Indeed, Ron’s stepdad was the only grandfather they’d known, and they thought he was their biological grandfather. Ron’s last name was Smith. He’d gone through school as Smith, served in Vietnam as Smith and lived nearly his entire life as Smith. His daughters? All born as Smiths.

Among the items Ron sought were Navy war medals Richmond asked him to pick up for him at a store on the Monterey Peninsula, where Ron lived. Navy personnel had to buy their own medals and ribbons, and Richmond had never gotten around to buying his.

The father-and-son reunion didn’t last very long. Ron – Smith is the name on his grave marker – died from a liver ailment on Aug. 8, 2007. When Alvarado went through his belongings, she found a Christmas card signed “Love, Dad and Joan.” The return address on the envelope was to a Richmond in Turlock. That made no sense, either, until she also found Ron’s birth certificate. It listed Harry Richmond as his father. She went onto the Internet, searched for Harry Richmond and found an address.

“Same as on the Christmas card,” Alvarado said. “Amazing.”

So once again, the phone rang and Harry Richmond answered it. Alvarado asked if he’d had a son named Ron.

“The minute I heard him speak, I knew,” Alvarado said. “He sounds exactly like my dad.”

“He had told me he had children, but that was the extent of it,” Richmond said. “When she called, I figured that must be one of them.”

But wait, there’s more. Tracy has two sisters, Amber and Lindsay, three children and three grandchildren – family that, until 2007, Harry didn’t know existed.

Alvarado was thrilled. She’s been to Turlock many times to visit, learning a bit more about her grandfather each time, and telling Richmond more about his son. Betty Smith and her husband have since died. The Richmonds are her grandparents now.

Richmond, who will turn 90 one week from today, joined the Navy in 1942. He served as a tail gunner in a Dauntless dive bomber in virtually every major campaign in the Pacific, including the battles of Midway, Leyte Gulf, the Gilbert and Marshall islands and Saipan. After the war and still in the Navy, he served in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands before mustering out in 1946.

Ron was born in 1947. Richmond returned to the Navy, stationed at Sand Point Naval Air Station near Seattle. They lived in a home near the base until....

“I came home from work one evening and she was gone with the baby,” he said.

He moved to California, started another family and eventually moved to Turlock, where he owned a concrete business.

Ron Smith served in Vietnam as a sniper and lived an incredible life. After Vietnam, he went to China to master the martial art of tai chi, and once sparred with Chuck Norris stateside. He became an accomplished scuba diver. He worked as a bartender in Carmel and knew the town’s former mayor, actor Clint Eastwood. He was a chef, and he enjoyed the Greek “zorba” dancing even though he had no Greek heritage.

“He showed me a picture once of him dancing,” Alvarado said of her father. “In his teeth he held the leg of a table, with a woman sitting in a chair on the tabletop.”

“He was a handsome fellow,” said Judi Dalton, Joan Richmond’s daughter and Harry’s stepdaughter. “We got to spend some time with him. He came to my daughter’s wedding. He really led a colorful life.”

And he left his father a tremendous gift: family.

“I’m building up quite a clan,” Harry joked. “That’s why I don’t answer the phone anymore.”

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