We at QWF wanted to pay a fitting tribute to Richard King, who died on Sunday, January 2. QWF honoured Richard in a public way last November when he was a co-winner of the 2021 Judy Mappin Community Award. For a more personal tribute, we turned to his old friend John Aylen, who wrote this lovely appreciation of a man whose life meant so much to so many in our community.
It is a shame to have to wait for someone to die before we understand how special they were and how much we cared for them. That is certainly the case in the flood of tributes that have poured out after Richard died, this appreciation included. I should have told him sooner when he could appreciate the appreciation.
Can a man be both a “mensch” in the Yiddish vernacular and “a man for others” in the Jesuit expression of that cluster of similar personal traits? Richard King embodied what it is to be a good and kind man. It simply came naturally to him, and kindness informed everything he did as an historian, bookseller, shopping-centre landlord, real-estate developer, book reviewer, hospital volunteer, YMCA volunteer, runner, bookkeeper, writer, oncology patient, and more. He showed great interest in all these things and others, and that was what made him so interesting and such great company.
Richard understood that a bookstore was not just for readers; it was for writers. And so with Jonathan Penny he created Paragraph Books as a place where writers could feel at home and which became and continues to be the hub of the English-speaking writers’ community. Opening a coffee shop in a bookstore makes perfect sense, but nobody had thought of it before, I think people often overlook how creating a business is among the most creative of acts.
He started Books and Breakfast, now on COVID hiatus, which provided opportunities to local writers to read from and promote their books along with known national and international authors who could draw large audiences.
As a broadcaster on both TV and radio, he bristled when he was called a book reviewer. “I don’t do book reviews,” he told me. “I do book reports. I tell people about books so they can decide whether they want to read them or not. I don’t criticize them.” He could find something good to say about every book he discussed.
As a volunteer at the Jewish General Hospital, he was appreciated both by the staff and by patients in the ER. A friend of mine who knew Richard as a book seller, book reviewer, and book writer wrote to me the day of his funeral: “I ran into him at the Jewish General Hospital where he was acting as a volunteer greeter. He gave me and my mother a very warm welcome and useful advice on finding our way through the hospital labyrinth. My mother said how nice it had been to be greeted that way.” Hospitals are stressful places, and Richard knew how to make an anxious experience a little less anxious.
Many people dream of writing books. It is hard to write a book, and it is very hard to write a good one. Richard’s books got better as each was published, and he found his voice when he developed the Gilles Bellechasse/Annie Linton duo of his later work. Annie was closely modeled on Maggie Quinsey, an ER nurse at the Jewish Richard admired greatly. In typical fashion, his books were about the readers, and his goal was to give them a good read.
One of Richard’s lasting legacies, I think, is the help and coaching he gave to people who had stories that needed telling but who needed help telling them. Two Holocaust memoirs were the result, both unique and both important stories to tell: George Reinitz’s Wrestling with Life and Aviva Ptack’s The Making of a Family.
Richard was interested and interesting to the end, talking to me in our weekly phone conversations about his experience as a patient, the chemo treatments he was receiving, and the high quality of care and caring he was getting from the hospital staff and the people he was close to. While he remained very realistic about his disease and where it was taking him, he never gave in to despair or to self-pity.
In his last days, Richard looked forward to being reunited with his mother, who died when he was seven. He carried that scar in his heart all his life. I am hoping he is with her now. I know she would be very proud of him.