The civic curmudgeon

Some find him stubborn, but John Richter has volunteered and raised thousands of dollars to make many city projects happen, from lake trails to church bells to reducing airport noise

Retired businessperson John Richter has left his mark on any number of civic projects, from fighting airplane noise and helping create the Cedar Lake Bike Trail to fundraising for new bells in Loring Park's Cathedral Church of St. Mark's.

His latest venture has been raising money for a statue garden honoring Theodore Wirth, the man who played a major role in developing the Minneapolis park system. Those working on the project -- which includes statues of Wirth and four children -- said he has raised $140,000, including a chunk out of his own pocket.

To understand what motivated Richter to focus his philanthropic efforts on Wirth, one need only track his move to the suburbs.

Richter and his wife Martha lived on Russell Avenue just south of Lake Harriet for 25 years, raising daughters Ruth, Joan and Elizabeth. Angered by the plane noise, Richter said he moved next to Cedar Lake and then, three years ago, moved to Golden Valley.

"We now live on a lake -- almost a private lake, five miles from downtown, Sweeney Lake," Richter said.

Most people don't know about Sweeney Lake because it has little public access, he said. People can't walk around it or bike around it like they can walk and bike around Harriet and other Minneapolis lakes.

"Why didn't they copy Theodore Wirth" -- preserving lakeshore for the general public, Richter asked rhetorically in his Golden Valley office. "It was done in Minneapolis, which made this city a pretty valuable community. I want to give credit to that."

"My theory is, if he had not done that, and if people like myself lived right on the lake so the public couldn't use it, we'd be like Cleveland. Cleveland doesn't have any lakes."

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has approved the statue site, just outside the chalet at Theodore Wirth Golf Course.

Airports and bells Richter formerly owned Brechet Richter, a bakery and food ingredients company.

Those who have worked with him over the years say he is a self-starter and well connected in the business community -- a man who can get things done.

They also say his take-charge approach can at times seem "off-putting" or perhaps "curmudgeonly" to those he works with, a fact Richter readily acknowledges.

"I am somebody who wants things to be accomplished, and sometimes people don't like what you say or do," Richter said. "If you are just a nice guy, nothing happens."

Richter counts among his accomplishments helping to start the first Rotary Club in Haiti in the late 1950s. But much of his civic work has been local.

Starting in the late 1960s, Richter was one of the original people willing to fight airport noise, said Jan Del Calzo, former Metropolitan Airports Commissioner. She and Richter served together on the now-defunct Metropolitan Airports Sound Abatement Council (MASAC), a group he helped start.

He lobbied the Minneapolis School Board to put the swimming pool at Southwest High School (built in 1967-68), he said: "I was the first one to swim in it."

Following the 1972 death of a neighbor, Betty Malkerson, in a pedestrian-bike accident on the single path around Lake Harriet, he chaired the committee to create a separate bike and walking paths.

While his style can be "off-putting," Del Calzo said, "John is just always there, always willing to say something. He did a lot of research on his own dime, on his own time."

She recalled one trip he took to Germany, visiting an airport outside of Berlin. It had a "hush house," a maintenance building that reduced outside noise during revving, she said. He shared what he learned with MASAC.

Airline industry representatives thought, "Who is this guy who comes and tells us about his vacation?'" Del Calzo said. "But it happens that his vacation took him to places that were relevant to things we were doing. He would come back and tell people about that -- and of course the airlines would all go: 'Pooh-pooh. Who cares?'" she said.

Keith Pruessing, president of the Cedar Lake Park Association, said Richter helped raise $200,000 privately -- the needed match for federal money that paid for the first phase of the Cedar Lake Bike Trail. He raised an added $75,000 to complete the trail to the river.

"One of John's gifts is being able to match a person with a project," Pruessing said.

Richter also had key contacts with Burlington Northern, Pruessing said. The company had never allowed a bike trail so close to a working railroad line, and it took some work to get their approval.

"They were pretty safety-concerned," Pruessing said. "John took it to the boardroom."

Richter still serves on the Cedar Lake Park Association, and said he has raised $350,000 in all.

John Retger, Cannon Pastor of St. Mark's, recalled Richter's fundraising for the new bells, installed in 1998. People had talked about the bells for a long time, he said. The church would receive small memorials for them, but no one did anything about it.

"It was a sleepy thing. People would look up and say, wouldn't it be nice if …" Retger said.

Given other competing demands on church money, like roof repairs, Retger said it was amazing Richter raised enough for the bell-tower repairs and bells.

"He is a self-starter, some would say he is a curmudgeon," Retger said. But "his work has been a very bright light as far as the cathedral is concerned. His heart is in the right place."

His initial goal was raising $350,000 for 15 bells, Richter said. "I met with some people and we eventually got over that," he said. "So I thought, 'Well, let's see what it would cost to have a complete carillon.' With a carillon, you can have hymns."

He eventually raised the vast majority of the $550,000 needed for the carillon bells, he said.

He doesn't ask for contributions in $10 or $20 chunks. Richter knows some civic-minded and well-to-do community members who make substantial donations.

"You have to say, what will it do for them, not what will it do for me," Richter said. "They want to have a project that is worthwhile and a project that will last -- something permanent."

Richter won't identify his go-to people.

"They don't want publicity," he said. "Then others will go after them."

At times, his wife has some qualms with his fundraising, Richter said.

"She says people walk on the other side of the street so they don't see me," he said.

Next up Richter is interested in working with the Park Board on another project -- upgrading the Wirth Park chalet "now that we will have a beautiful statue there," he said.

The chalet's first floor houses the Wirth golf course clubhouse; the second floor has a large event room. Richter's efforts could fit into the chalet's September 2000 master plan, which has a goal of increasing banquet revenue.

Richter has had initial talks with Park Board President Bob Fine, who said he is supportive.

The Park Board faces budget cuts, however, and money for new projects could be scarce. Still, Richter said he wanted to challenge the Park Board to work on the project.

"I went up there and took pictures of the second floor -- all the things that should be fixed," Richter said. "There is a lot of potential there. But it is kind of antiquated."