Editor’s note: Most residents of Delavan and many who have driven through the city in the last few years, knew Clarence “Badger” W. Richey even if they didn’t know his name. He was a man in a white beard who walked everywhere about town, often towing a sack of cans. I got to know him when he delivered papers for The Week. He was always telling stories and we couldn’t help but wonder if they were true. In the following column, written by Delavan freelancer Lisa Maria Schmelz, we find out that most of those stories were true. Her exhaustively-researched, wonderfully-written, “obituary” reveals a man even more amazing than the stories he told.
— John Halverson, editor
If you were lucky enough to spend time with Badger, it’s possible you heard him say, “You can’t get mad at a cat for being a cat.”
He would frequently insert other animals in this oft-repeated phrase, but I remember him saying it to me mostly with cats as his creature of choice. While trying to piece together the story of his life, I am coming to regard Badger as a bit feline himself. Confidently perched higher than most of us and prone to near-clinical meandering. Trying to write an obituary for Badger is like trying to herd cats — or in this case, one wonderful but earnestly elusive cat.
I met Badger nine years ago, when I was so spiritually lost I didn’t know which way was up much less forward. Badger’s experience, strength and hope helped me find my way home. I am not alone, and there are many others like me who found the compass they needed in this gentle wanderer. When he crossed my path, I am grateful I was willing to look past his unkempt appearance, the tobacco in his beard, the Hefty sack of aluminum cans he was dragging, and do what he did so well: Take the human being in front of me not just as a gift from God but as a guide to God.
So this won’t be a typical obituary, which is fitting given that Badger was as far from typical as a soul can get. Blessedly absent the filter that prevents so many of us from connecting instantly with whomever or whatever is placed before us, Badger was the most nonjudgmental person I’ve ever met. His capacity for knowledge knew no bounds, and in that knowledge, he lived a life of duality. He proclaimed himself a Buddhist, yet attended The River Church. The great works of literature were as familiar to him as the antics of Calvin and Hobbs. He had significant financial resources but got by on very little.
For those who want a traditional obituary for this nontraditional man, I feel your pain. The reality of Badger’s duality, though, means there will be holes. Huge holes. Time isn’t returning our calls, the Internet isn’t as helpful as we would like, and before we bid him a collective so long, the man legally known as Clarence Westley Richey deserves something in print that records he was here, he was special, and he mattered.
The best information available, and with Badger you need to take that with several grains of Kosher salt, indicates he was born on April 7, 1932. Where? We don’t know. To whom? No clue.
What many of us do know comes from Badger himself. He said he spent his childhood in Texas. Recently, some of us who loved him have spent hours scouring online birth records in every county in Texas. Dang, if we could score a definitive hit leading us to Badger’s beginning. It’s possible Badger’s tribe wasn’t big into record keeping or that he was born elsewhere. It’s also possible he was born under a different name since the legal database Lexis Nexis reports that he didn’t obtain a Social Security number until sometime between 1965 and 1967 in New York. Deepening the mystery is a Lexis Nexis’ report that indicates multiple people have the same SSN.
The Great Depression and World War II, Badger said, were difficult years for his family, which seems to have included siblings. His clan, he said, were migrant farm workers, laboring in cotton fields. The only other information Badger shared about his early life was that it was so hard that one day when he was about 13 and fearing his father’s wrath, he left home and never looked back. Riding the rails “with hobos” to “destinations elsewhere,” the libraries of America became his home.
Wall Street, report a number of people who knew Badger well, became an eventual destination sometime in the 1950s. One source indicates that Badger worked in the margins department of a financial firm, tallying stock purchases made on credit. Apparently, Wall Street earnings allowed him to pursue his ultimate dream: higher education.
A Harvard sheepskin is impressive for anyone but especially for someone who likely didn’t have schooling as a child and who left home around puberty. I doubted Badger’s claim to an Ivy League diploma. After he died, I dug around a bit and found he did indeed hold degrees from Harvard: A master’s in English and literature, which he received in 1969 and a Ph.D. in English in 1970.
In the fall of 1970, Badger joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, teaching in the English and literature department.
He officially left UW-Green Bay in 1974, after what appears to be a falling out over his unconventional teaching methods.
Badger’s nickname was a self-assigned Native American totem in honor of the animal known for its mental alertness and as a guardian of the South. Badger claimed he had no little badgers running around and said he never married. A vegetarian vagabond, he didn’t stay in one place long.
No one is sure when — or why — he made his way to Walworth County. Once here, he rented from a number of landlords, including Doris Wild, the beloved Delavan Walmart greeter. From 1998 to 2003, he worked as a custodian at Cherry-Burrell in Delavan. He also washed dishes at Millie’s, delivered newspapers, collected cans, and became known by passing motorists as the skinny old guy who walked everywhere. As brilliant as he was, the library’s best patron never got a driver’s license.
When he wasn’t walking, and before congestive heart failure set in, he was running. In 1989, at 57, he set the record for his age group in Boston’s Weston race, covering 438 miles in six days. In 1992, he returned to Weston, running 250 miles in 102 hours, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. There is so much about Badger that remains a mystery.
Many people tried “casually” to get facts and time lines from him. But ever the alert badger and guardian of his Southern past, he deflected questions in a way that ended all further inquiry. Now that he’s gone, some of us who loved him are looking for the answers we couldn’t get while he was here. In some ways, it feels wrong. If he didn’t want to share them when he could, what right do we have to them today? On the other hand, I think if he were here right now, we could possibly persuade him that a human being who so greatly touched the lives of others would naturally illicit this kind of quest.
Badger himself knew the “who, what, when, where and why” of so many figures in history — particularly those he admired. Surely, he would have to allow us the same journey. But sometimes we just have to accept that the best stories never get fully told. They reveal themselves instead in holy vignettes — some little snippet here, a tattered remnant there. They arrive on terms we cannot control, in ways we will never be able to entirely explain, and always leave us wanting to know more. Badger was one of the best stories I’ve ever met.
Lisa Schmelz is a freelance writer from Delavan. She and others who loved Badger are documenting his life and writings and will share what they find with the local libraries that were Badger’s sanctuaries. To share what you know about Badger, contact Schmelz at firstname.lastname@example.org or (262) 607-1929.