“I’m grateful for you.”
That was one of the last text messages Wilson "Will" Richey sent to his friend Simon Davidson the day before he died. It’s how Davidson said he will always remember the man he once proclaimed "the most prolific Charlottesville restaurateur of our era" on his food blog Charlottesville 29.
“He was grateful of what he had and he was grateful of other people, so that made him unusually good at understanding what issues mattered and what did not,” Davidson told The Daily Progress. “I think people that lack that gratitude get hung up on things that don’t really matter, but he had a really keen way of focusing on the things that truly did matter.”
Those people that Richey’s gratitude touched during his lifetime had a chance to express their own gratitude this past weekend. Family and friends, colleagues and customers, admirers and acquaintances packed into the Code Building’s Irving Theater Sunday morning to remember Richey, to celebrate his life and honor his work.
Richey died in a car accident on Owensville Road outside Charlottesville in the early morning hours of Dec. 12. He was on his way home after closing up at one of his more popular eateries, Duner’s on Ivy Road. Albemarle County police said officers were dispatched to the scene around 1:21 a.m. Richey, who was not wearing a seat belt, was pronounced dead at the scene. He was 47 years old.
Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Rockville, Maryland, Richey lived most of his adult life in Charlottesville, and friends and family said he considered himself a Virginian at heart.
Over the decades, he developed a reputation as a visionary, or a “young wizard” as one mourner on Sunday put it. Through his company Ten Course Hospitality, he was the owner of five restaurants at the time of his death. And through his consulting work in the industry, he guided the direction of countless more.
Whether it was Duner’s or the Whiskey Jar or Revolutionary Soup or the Bebedero or his most recent enterprise Hogwaller Brewing, Richey always knew how to conjure a crowd. And the same was true at his memorial Sunday.
It was standing-room only inside the Irving Theater, an auditorium that typically seats 200. People lined the aisles, standing shoulder to shoulder.
Richey’s brother Brett likened the crowd before him to the people of Bedford Falls in the Christmastime classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“Will was a light in this world,” he said. “He was a bonfire, and we all relished getting as close to that bonfire as we could to share his glow and share his warmth. The pilot light in that fire was his faith in God.”
Bretty Richey invited those in attendance to share their “Will stories,” even the off-color ones. Several accepted that invitation: longtime business partners, cousins, college and childhood friends, and Lisa Richey, Will Richey’s ex-wife with whom he had two children, Alston and Marie.
Standing before the crowd, Will Curley, Will Richey’s partner at the Wine Guild of Charlottesville, recalled that when he was asked to speak at the service, he briefly considered "how Wilson would do it."
“But I didn’t think it was appropriate to show up 10 minutes late with a drink in my hand,” Curley to laughs.
Like Davidson, Curley remembered his friend’s gratitude.
“Will bailed you out of jail,” he said. “Will testified on your behalf. Will advanced you on your next paycheck when you were in a bind. He called your immigration lawyer. He always gave you a fair shake whether you were fresh out of culinary school or the correctional institute. That was Will.”
In lieu of a eulogy, one speaker pulled out a guitar and asked those gathered to join him in a singing of one of Will Richey’s favorite tunes: Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.”
“There’s a saying that goes, ‘There’s three people that know you best: your priest, your shrink and your bartender,’” said River Hawkins, a longtime bartender himself and co-owner of the Bebedero. “I have served millions of people, so you can trust me when I say without hyperbole that most people are assholes, myself included. But Wilson wasn’t an asshole, he was an exceptional man. And in a world where many would stand on your neck just to see a little farther than you, Wilson was there raising people up.”
Will Richey’s sister Elizabeth Gawler tearfully reminisced on a night out in Charlottesville with her husband, brother and Emily, Will Richey’s girlfriend.
After a few drinks at the Whiskey Jar, she found herself on top of a table proudly declaring, “I’m Will’s sister.”
“Our mom used to say, ‘If somebody doesn’t like Will, there’s something wrong with them,’” said Gawler. “And she’s right.”
Richey’s 15-year-old son Alston said he is holding on to a specific memory of his father, a recent one at the Whiskey Jar-Revolutionary Soup Christmas party. He recalled his father passing out drinks and arm-wrestling with friends.
“I remember the hug I got from him at the Jar before I left,” the boy said. “He hugged me and then my two best friends, but then he said, ‘Alston, one more for the road.’ That was a special hug; it felt special even in that moment.”
The restaurant world is not known for its slow pace or easy profits. It’s grueling work with razor-thin margins. But Will Richey never seemed to see it that way, said Milo Farineau, the former owner of the Virginian, Charlottesville’s oldest restaurant.
“He viewed the restaurant scene in Charlottesville as a family,” Farineau told The Daily Progress. “Other restaurants weren’t competition, they were brothers and sisters of the whole restaurant family. In addition to the restaurants he owned, he consulted and helped so many establishments in town. I never heard anyone say a bad word about him.”
Farineau, who is also a professional photographer, was once assigned to take a portrait of Will Richey for Delta Sky Magazine.
“The magazine paid me, but Will insisted on having me over for dinner as a thank-you,” Farineau recounted. “He was always generous that way. He laughed like a little kid when he laughed. When I came over for dinner to the Whiskey Jar, there was that smile and laugh. Then the laugh turned into a cackle. I asked him what was so funny, and he finally was able to blurt out that the only picture Delta Sky Magazine had chosen to feature was a cropped section of a shot I took of his black-eyed peas. They used none of the portraits or photos of the restaurant I took." Every time Farineau sees that portrait of Will Richey, he said he can hear that laugh again, clear as day.
While Will Richey was remembered for exuding joy year-round, there was one particular time of year when he radiated the stuff: Christmas.
“It’s Wilson’s favorite time of year,” Davidson said.
“The tradition of The Wilson Richey Christmas Party was the spirit of Christmas personified,” said Lisa Richey in a Facebook post. “Every surface of the house was decorated, including Wilson, who wore his grandfather’s red and cream plaid blazer – that is so tacky it becomes absolutely perfect.”
It was in that spirit that the Richeys and their friends invited Charlottesville to the Downtown Mall on the Saturday before his memorial to “Deck the Mall.”
It was an idea Will Richey had toyed with while he was alive but never had the chance to see through.
It’s not as though downtown Charlottesville at Christmastime is a barren landscape, but Will Richey dreamed of more. And the crowds that came out in droves brought that dream to life, decorating the Mall with trees and baubles and garlands and bows.
Hung from the columns outside the Bradbury Cafe was a banner emblazoned with the final lines of Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol”: “And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”
“I’ve been writing about food for 12 years,” said Davidson. “There’s no one that comes close during that time frame in the impact that someone’s had on the Charlottesville food community. He’s by far the most influential figure in the Charlottesville restaurant community for the last decade and more.”