Published in Pawtucket Times, June 7, 2013
Richard Walton, who died on Dec. 27, would have loved it. Five months after his death one late Sunday afternoon, over 40 people including the musicians who had just played at The Red Bandana Fund Inaugural Concert (that was attended by hundreds), family members along with the organizers and volunteers of this fundraiser, gathered to drink beer and reminisce about Walton’s extraordinary life at his favorite Pawtucket hangout, Doherty’s East Avenue Irish Pub.
People swapped favorite stories for hours, detailing how the late Walton “touched their lives,” noted one attendee, Richard Wahlberg, one of the organizers. “Every one had such an interesting story to tell about Richard,” he stated, noting that the Warwick resident, known as a social activist, educator, humanitarian, very prolific writer, and a co-founder of Pawtucket’s Stone Soup Coffee House “had made everyone feel that they themselves had a very special, close relationship with him.”
Seeing so many of Walton’s friends at June 2nd concert, Wahlberg and other attending viewed the event as a “gathering of the clan” since the audience was really Walton’s extended Rhode Island family.
Walton’s Legacy of Supporting the Needy
The idea to organize last weekend’s fundraiser concert to raise money to support the causes of the late Richard Walton and others like him who work to improve the human condition was literally kicked around a few days after Walton’s death by his daughter, Cathy Barnard, his son Richard and a few close friends, noted nationally-acclaimed children’s entertainer and storyteller, Bill Harley.
According to Harley, an annual fundraiser, supporting the newly formed Red Bandana Fund, would replace Walton’s annual birthday bash – usually held the first Sunday in June – to raise money for Amos House & the Providence-Niquinohomo Sister City Project and other progressive causes. Over 24 years, Walton had raised large sums of money for these favorite charities, attracting hundreds of people each year including the state’s powerful political and media elite to celebrate his progressive causes at his family compound located at Pawtuxet Cove in Warwick.
Coming up with a name for Walton’s fundraiser that would ultimately be tied to his unique fashion sense and was the idea of her brother, Richard, states Barnard. Her brother, like most people, had a vivid, visual image of his father, who had long white hair and beard, being known for wearing his trademark worn blue jean overalls, a red bandana and Stone Soup baseball cap.
“When Dad’s closest friends came over to the house after his death they wanted one of his red bandanas to remember him,” Barnard remembered.
“It was like a talisman to them,” stated Barnard, that became a great way to create the perfect moniker and recognition for an upcoming fundraiser.
Barnard says that her father didn’t opt for a traditional burial, so there would be no monument of stone over his grave to remember him or a place for family and friends to visit. His cremated remains were scattered the day before the Sunday fundraiser by his family and very close friends in his beloved garden and sent by paper boat from the inlet where his compound was located into Narragansett Bay.
But, there is The Red Bandana Fund now, says Barnard, noting that “we cannot think of a more appropriate memorial.” Over 300 people attended the inaugural Walton fundraiser, bringing in more than $12,000 from ticket sales, silent action and raffle.
At this event, the first recipient of The Red Bandana Fund Award, Amos House, was chosen because of Walton’s very long relationship with the Providence-based nonprofit. He was a founding board member, serving for over 30 years, being board chair for a number of years. For almost three decades, the homeless advocate spent an overnight shift with the men who lived in the 90-Day Shelter Program each Thursday bringing them milk and cookies. Each Friday morning he would make pancakes and eggs in the soup kitchen for hundreds of men and women who came to eat a hot meal.
Putting the Pieces Together
The organizers were gathered by Bill Harley on the advice of Richard’s family and those closest to him from the progressive community and organizations Richard was affiliated with. In true Richard Walton fashion this was a largely self organizing group built on the complementary strengths of the members, noted Wahlberg. Over five months, this group had planned all the organizational facets, from marketing, pre-selling tickets, booking Shea High School, recruiting volunteers for the day of the event, along with getting items donated to be sold at a silent auction and raffle.
With the decision to host a fundraising concert, “it became incredibly painful to have to limit the list of who we would invite to play,” said Harley, noting that every one who knew Walton wanted to perform to pay tribute to him.
As Rudy Cheeks, of Phillipe + Jorge’s Cool, Cool, World, would remark in his May 31st column, the two hour concert would be an amazing blend of folk and traditional music, a little bit of classical, along with singer-songwriting greats, all sharing the same stage for the evening. They included: widely recognized singers and song writers, Bill Harley, Kate Katzberg, Atwater-Donnelly, Sally Rogers and Howie Bursen, Christina Tompson, accompanied by Cathy Clasper-Torch on fiddle and Marty Ballou on stand up bass. Consuelo Sherba opened the concert by playing a short classical set.
According to Harley, who served as the event’s musical director, internet files of the selected music (three songs for each performer) went back and forth between those chosen to play, to help them to quickly learn the music to be played at the upcoming concert. He noted that each song had to have simple chord arrangements with words that the audience could easily remember. Most important, “these songs were chosen to reflect who Richard, the person was,” he said. Amazingly, the musicians would gather just two hours before the performance to practice with each other.
Those Who Knew Him
At intermission, I caught up with Andy Smith, former music critic at the Providence Journal who now covers hard news for that daily paper. He knew Walton for years covering Stone Soup Coffee House and sporadically attending his legendary birthday party over the years. “No one could hang out in Rhode Island without knowing about Richard Walton,” he says. That’s true.
The Red Bandana Fund Inaugural Concert was a “very sweet, very nice chance for people who know Richard to come together and celebrate his life,” observed Smith, noting that “the best way to do this was through music.” He would have had a good time if he were here today, says Smith, adding that “May be he is here [in spirit].”
Like many attendees, Jane Falvey, treasurer of Stone Soup Coffee House noted, that Walton touched many lives. “Like stones cast into a pond, the ripples form ever-widening circles that overlap, and so it was at the inaugural Red Bandana Concert – Richard’s many circles embracing each other in remembering and celebrating his wonderful life and the purpose he created in all of us,” she said.
Also in attendance, Dr. Michael Fine, Director of Rhode Island’s Department of Health, who came with his wife, Carol, called Walton his “old friend,” giving him a unique descriptive nickname, the “Prince of Pay it Forward.”
Dr. Fine believes that Walton understood the value of living in a democracy. “He taught us about this value and gave us examples of what we would have to do each and every day to keep it alive,” he said. Walton also taught us how to take care of each other,” stated Dr. Fine.
Linde Rachel, a resident of Maureillas, France, and companion of Walton’s for 9 years who traveled with him throughout Europe, Africa and the Baltic States, sees an important message in the songs sung at last Sunday’s The Red Bandana Fundraiser. “The songs were all about being part of a community, the one that he helped to create and was part of,” stated Rachel.
Days later, Barnard tells me that she is thrilled with the success of The Red Bandana Fund Inaugural Concert. “We were amazed at the large turnout,” she says, noting that she even met people in person she had heard her father talk about over his long years.
“We’re hoping that this will be just the beginning and not the end of it,” says Barnard, the beginning legacy of her father’s long-tradition of giving back to those in need.
Her father would surely nod his head in agreement.
For more information about donating to The Red Bandana Fund, go to http://www.soup.org/page1/RedBandana.html.
Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a writer who covers health care, aging, and medical issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.