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Ralph Richardson, 83; Professor, School Trustee


Ralph Richardson, a former UCLA professor who influenced local education policy during 25 years as a trustee of the Los Angeles city schools and community colleges, died of emphysema Friday in Seattle. He was 83.

The veteran of education wars began his political career in 1957 when he won a seat on the Los Angeles city school board as a liberal champion. He served for the next 12 years, a period marked by battles over the landmark Crawford school desegregation case.

During his final year on the board he was the only member who favored splitting the city's public elementary and secondary schools from the community colleges.

In 1973, a few years after the separation was accomplished, he won the first of two terms as a trustee of the Los Angeles Community College District.

Richardson taught speech and communications at UCLA for 33 years. He was an expert on Abraham Lincoln and taught a popular seminar on Lincoln's addresses for about 15 years, continuing even after his retirement in 1981.

"Listening to Ralph teach Lincoln, you felt you were actually listening to Lincoln," recalled Jeffrey Cole, a former student who is now director of UCLA's Center for Communication Policy. "At 6 feet 4 inches, he also had the physical persona. If you were going to Central Casting to put someone in a stovepipe hat, it would have been Ralph."

Richardson was known for his eloquence. But he blamed his failure to communicate for one of the most stinging losses of his political career: his 1962 defeat for state superintendent of public instruction by conservative Max Rafferty. He agreed to a record 32 debates with his articulate opponent, but was beaten, he said, because "[Rafferty] was a better debater."

Born on the family farm near Morehead, Kan., Richardson majored in English and math at the University of Kansas. He taught high school and college, then was drafted into the Navy in 1944 and spent the war years teaching math and radar theory. He earned a master's from Penn State and a doctorate from Northwestern.

In 1948 he joined the UCLA faculty and settled in Culver City with his wife, Mary Lou. She entered politics first, being elected to a term on the Culver City Council in 1956. She died in 1989.

Richardson's first campaign came in 1957 when a group of civic activists persuaded him that he could win a seat on the school board. He had little money but strong support from teachers. His tenure endured through the 1960s, a decade of walkouts, hunger strikers camped outside his office and demands to improve classroom conditions for black and Latino students.

He was school board president when he decided to run for statewide office against Rafferty. Their many debates were leavened with humor, sometimes at Richardson's expense. Richardson mentioned Rafferty's book "Suffer, Little Children"--a denunciation of progressive education--so many times that Rafferty at one point thanked his opponent for helping him sell about 10,000 copies.

He remained on the school board until 1969, when he lost his seat to another conservative, Richard Ferraro. The defeat soured him on politics until 1973, when he decided to run for the Los Angeles Community College District board.

Richardson, who had helped govern the colleges when they were part of the city schools, had argued for their separation because he believed that the colleges were being neglected. "At best, they were being viewed as high schools with ashtrays," he recalled in 1981.

Touting his experience overseeing the colleges, he earned the support of several conservative trustees and won the election. He then played a role in building the country's largest community college system.

He was an early champion of West Los Angeles College, which opened in the late 1960s when he was still on the city schools board. "He was the father of West Los Angeles College," said former trustee Rick Tuttle. Southwest College also opened during Richardson's tenure as chairman of the board's building committee.

"He brought a tremendous sense of ethics and fair play" to education politics, said Lindsay Conner, who succeeded Richardson on the college board. But, weary of budget battles and Sacramento's increasing control, he decided not to stand for a third term in 1981. His fellow trustees named him the board's first president-emeritus when he retired.

He spent his retirement indulging his passion for travel, flying--he was part owner of three small planes--and bridge. A longtime resident of the San Fernando Valley, he moved with his wife to Laguna Hills after leaving politics. He relocated to Seattle in 1998 to be near family members.

Richardson will be buried Saturday in Council Grove, Kan. He is survived by four children: Riley and Roxanne, both of Seattle; Randall, of Tucson; and Eric, of Aptos, Calif. He also leaves a sister, Lucile Tyree, of Topeka, Kan., and seven grandchildren.

The family requests that any donations be made to the Los Angeles Community College District/Ralph Richardson Foundation, c/o Jeannette Gordon, 770 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90017.

A memorial program will be held Feb. 5 at 6:30 p.m. at UCLA. For more information, call (310) 825-3711.

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