By Holly Kozelsky
Warren “Sonny” Richardson laughs and grins when he talks about the reactions he expects to see from the kids of Bus 70, when they see him lead the Martinsville-Henry County Christmas Parade on Nov. 23.
Richardson, a Henry County bus driver, commander of American Legion Homer Dillard Post 78 and DuPont retiree, is this year’s parade grand marshal.
Richardson said he figured it was the way he helps veterans that had organizers choose him to represent the parade, but organizers say it was more basic than that: It was his all-around good cheer.
“He’s a great grand marshal, because people are telling me from all sides of town that he’s the happiest person they know,” parade coordinator Charles Roark said.
Richardson’s positive demeanor “is contagious, and that’s kind of what we’re trying to do with this whole parade. It’s a happy day – let’s enjoy it,” Roark said.
Richardson’s good cheer seems magical, Roark said, perfect to match the parade’s theme of “Magic of Christmas.”
Richardson worked at DuPont for 30 years, and he has been a bus driver for 20. His route goes to and from Meadowview Elementary, Fieldale-Collinsville Middle and Bassett High School.
He also is a Vietnam veteran, and for the past several years, the commander of Homer Dillard Post 78 American Legion.
Through the years, Richardson said, he has heard from veterans who have had trouble getting attention and responses from the Veterans Administration.
He decided to do something about it, so 20 years ago he joined the American Legion. He began taking advantage of all the informational programs the American Legion provides, which includes his going to statewide conferences twice a year and the convention each July.
“Every day you find out something new,” such as now veterans can see doctors on Saturdays and Sundays at the VA in Salem, he said.
“One word to help these vets get what they want is being patient,” he said. “Being denied a couple of times works on your patience, but that’s what the military is all about – getting on their nerves. They’re going to give it to you, but that’s how it works.”
However, the VA has improved significantly during the past three years, he said. Before an overhaul by President Barack Obama, it could take a year or two to get action; now, answers are required within 120 days.
Because many veterans don’t realize how the VA has improved, Richardson said he is looking for veterans who have given up, to try for their rights again.
He recalled the story of one Korean veteran who had tried for 11 years to be placed on disability. One Friday, the VA called to tell him “they were going to cut his check, 21 years in that one check.” The veteran died that Sunday.
The American Legion receives federal funding for a program to renovate veterans’ bathrooms for easier accessibility. Richardson gets funds for local veterans for that, and Robert Hazlett arranges the contractors, he said.
The American Legion’s bylaws and monthly meetings include keeping tabs on sick or home-bound members, and Richardson has taken it further. About three years ago he started the “Buddy Plan,” by which each Legion chapter member keeps regular contact with three veterans “who can’t get out like they used to,” he said.
As well as helping veterans individually, he also is active in the community. He has been the guest speaker at Memorial Day services at Carver Memorial Gardens and given flag presentations at all the schools.
When he participated in a presentation Monday (Veterans Day) at Meadowview Elementary School, the students “were tickled when I went in with my uniform – ‘That’s my bus driver!’” he said, laughing. That’s why he expects to hear the same during the parade, he added.
He helps students with the American Legion’s oratorical contests; he accepts old American flags for proper disposal (there are 1,000 currently in storage, waiting for a ceremony) ; and he collects can tabs for a Ronald McDonald House fundraiser.
A unique childhood
Richardson had an unusual upbringing: at the sides of Gov. Thomas B. and First Lady Anne Bassett Stanley.
His father, Henry Jack Richardson (his mother was Leana Richardson), drove for the governor, who was in office 1954-1958 and lived in Stoneleigh in Henry County as well as in Richmond.
The Stanleys “took me by the hand. I was like their little son. I went with them everywhere,” he said, including hunting at the Susan B. Walker Farm in Preston.
“It was a good life. They taught me a lot of things.”
Richardson’s parents went with the Stanleys to Florida from January through April each year for more than 20 years, he said. During those months, his older sister took care of him and his four other sisters.
He said it was growing up surrounded by girls that got him interested in the manly world of the military.
“My parents died and never knew I volunteered to go to Vietnam. I just wanted to go,” he said.
He wanted to fight for his country, which at the time “was big,” he said. “Everybody was trying to dodge the draft.”
Communicating is best medicine
At war, he had some experiences that left their marks on him, although he said he didn’t really get that sorted out until just this past year. That was done through the help of the Vietnam therapy group session he attends every Tuesday morning in Danville.
“I’ve got a story just like they have. Some of theirs are worse than mine. They won’t talk about it with ordinary people – they won’t understand what we’re talking about,” he said.
The group members “can’t wait for every Tuesday, to go down there and talk,” he said.
Richardson said he is a big proponent of therapy: “It really helps a lot. No medicine, period – just communicating. Plain communicating” is what helps.
He sees plenty of other folks who “can’t take it” and turn to drugs or drinking, but Richardson always has found that finding things to talk and laugh about help him through times that otherwise might be tough.
‘A high honor’
Richardson is on the usher board of Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church. He and his wife of 47 years, the former Juanita Reid of Spencer, have two children: Pamela Greenfield, an assistant professor of marketing and business at Radford University, and Donald Richardson of Midlothian. They have five grandchildren ranging in age from 4 months to a college senior.
“And my little dog, Copper,” a Shih Tzu, he said with a grin.
This is not Richardson’s first time leading a parade. Ten years ago, he was the grand marshal of the Warren Street Society Parade in Rocky Mount, where he has given talks to veterans.
“The Christmas parade means a lot to me,” Richardson said.
He started the Homer Dillard post’s participation in the Martinsville-Henry County Christmas Parade about eight years ago, he said.
That first year, “we were number 62.” However, since they had the flags of each of the five branches of service, they’ve been positioned at the front of the parade since then.
Being the grand marshal “is a high honor. That’s a high-ranking person, but I’m not. It just feels you’ve done something in the community, and they’re giving it back to you in some kind of way.”
Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.