Richard Kirschman, Changing the World – One Idea at a Time: Part V

Part of the fun of writing about Richard Kirschman lies in discovering an entrepreneur of a half a century ago who might be unrecognizable today.

The young Richard Kirschman was a clean-shaven, sharp-dressin’, up-and-coming entrerpreneur, considered so cool in the 1960s he might have walked out of the pages of Gentlemen’s Quarterly magazine. As the society writer for the San Francisco Examiner realized in 1967, he was quite a catch with the ladies:

Richard in the ’60s (standing, second from right) with local movers and shakers, including restaurateur Enrico Banducci (in beret, right) and visitor Woody Allen (left)

“At 34, real estate developer Kirschman is hardly up to his ankles in the San Francisco financial waters, and he finds them very inviting. Socially a debonair, sought-after bachelor, he’s a fast-thinking, clear-eyed entrepreneur … the young executive who sails, skis, flies, glides, sculpts, bags and cooks his own ducks.”

Yes, a man who couldn’t have been more romantic for his time, was Richard K. Did he know the 180-degree turn his life would take soon afterward? As it happened, he was right on the edge of “the good life” all along.

The Question Always Out There

Richard grew up on Long Island in the post-World War II era, when it was possible to have liberal Republicans for parents. In 1946, his mother noticed a fledgling organization called the United Nations moving into a former weapons factory near their home. Peace was in the air, so she walked over to the nearly securityless building and offered to help as a volunteer. Soon the UN depended on her to run tours as one of its first official docents.

Gromyko’s desk plaque from early United Nations

The arrangement worked out so well that 13-year-old Richard got to visit the historic premises, too. He would drop by after school and find his mother having tea with Eleanor Roosevelt. He would walk by the desk of Soviet ambassador Andrei Gromyko and stare at the official USSR plaque. It looked so unofficial and homemade that Richard was tantalized. He couldn’t resist nabbing it as a souvenir and has kept it for 70+ years.

On a break from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, Richard followed his mother’s bent for volunteerism and worked in the pediatrics unit at Bellevue Hospital in New York. His job was simple — to sit and “kibbitz” with patients — while all around him raged the horrors that Bellevue is still famous for: people having breakdowns, drug-addicted children, babies who had been stuffed into drawers or forgotten in closets now convulsed by screaming breakdowns he would never forget.

“What can you do for a baby who’s in withdrawal and has never been held in anyone’s arms?” he remembers asking, and still asks. That wasn’t his job, of course — “I was there to bring a little warmth and humanity to the children” — but the question stayed permanently in his mind.

In fact it was the first of several that would become a driving force in Richard’s life. Was it possible to contribute to society in a meaningful way while succeeding on your own terms? Could you keep bureaucracy from clogging up the works when you’re trying to treat people humanely? Whether it was a wheel gear for Indian rickshaws, a tube of first-aid cream for dogs, a device that turned fog into water or the easiest possible language guide ever, these were the kind of big questions behind every invention Richard created.

The Greatest Bureaucracy

Briefly a Marine. The one thing he agreed with: no standing up at rifle practice

But then, what could be more bureaucratic in terms of Doing It Our Way than the United States military, which required Richard to join after college since the draft was still on.

It’s telling that this high achiever signed up for the Marines but couldn’t wait to transfer out after boot camp. His body could take the harsh physical training, but the idea of breaking recruits down and building them back up as a “few good men”? Not something he wanted.

A better choice for Richard Kirschman was the Navy’s Officer Candidate School and assignment to the South Pacific, where postwar regulations weren’t so rigidly enforced. There a little authority-spoofing could be enjoyed up and down the ranks.

Navy Lieutenant Kirschman (at right) in the South Pacific, 1950s

Once on the Navy base, for example, he noticed that vehicles of high-ranking officers were outfitted with a plaque displaying the number of stars the admiral or general possessed. This gave personnel lower on the hierarchy enough warning to come to attention and salute.

Richard fixed up his car with a similar plaque, but as he drove toward a guard station and MPs drew to attention, what came into view for them was not three or four stars but a single silver bar, designating the lowly Lieutenant Junior Grade within. It was the kind of military joke that cracked ’em up in the military.

Whimsical pranks made life easier for Richard at a time when his job was pretty bleak. Night after night he flew out with a Navy crew to secretly patrol the coastlines of Taiwan and China — “endlessly practicing for World War III,” he would later say with a grimace. Anticipating war, spending money for war, deploying troops and officers to “practice” war: that would also be a something he’d question for the rest of his life.

Turning Radical

Back in New York, Richard worked in real estate with some success but found the business world stifling. Then an offer came asking him to manage construction of the all new, controversial Fox Plaza building in San Francisco (controversial because it meant tearing down the revered Fox Theater.) Richard took the job, grateful for a chance to travel West.

Fox Movie Palace, opened 1929, demolished 1963

Fox Plaza building, 29 stories, built 1966

That he found himself plunged into a vortex of business, art and city politics made life by committee all the more complicated and exhausting. Fox Plaza was both an acclaimed and maligned building after completion in 1966. Perhaps because of it, Richard began to strike out on his own.

He used press credentials from counterculture publications in the ’60s (Ramparts, Urban News West), and traveled widely, sometimes into the thick of revolutionary hot spots. At the very beginning of the “Troubles” in Ireland, he photographed Catholic residents tossing Molotov cocktails at Protestant police, who retaliated with tear gas.

Police at the barricades, Ireland 1969

Richard with his cameras and notepad looked every bit like an untested American reporter and could have been ordered out at any time. But his likeability and genuine curiosity held sway. “Wouldn’t you want your side of the story told?” he asked combatants on either side, and the barriers came down. “Hold it, boys!” they would shout in the middle of a barrage, “Let him cross!”

He sent dispatches home, traveled through France, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and took a high-pressured job on Spain’s famous Costa del Sol. There a Swiss conglomerate struggled to finish construction on a vast thousand-unit apartment complex. It was work he knew how to do — taking diverse interests through a tangle of red tape and conflicting opinions to get the job done — but endless placating over deadlines and bureaucracies was not his cup of tea.

By the time he resettled in the Bay Area, Richard had become more than a questioner and a doubter; he had turned radical. Gone were the three-piece suits, the power luncheons and the Pacific Union (wealthy white men’s club) future.

Richard in France, c. 1970

In their place came that sense of outrage that overtook many during the Vietnam war, and a compulsion to do something to change a violent world.

For some years he had been a director at Delancey Street, the now-famous residential program for ex-inmates and drug addicts in San Francisco. Many programs with similar promise emerged in that era (Synanon, est, Rajneeshpuram), but Delancey Street was the only one that would last through the decades — and is still going strong.

He also joined the Bay Area movement to humanize conditions in California’s prison system, and somewhere along the line, Richard Kirschman went solo. While helping Delancey Street develop legitimate business and real estate holdings, he launched his own brand of prison activism in a big way.

A Two-Man Prison Cell on Wheels

Today we know that the prison system in America has become overcrowded and brutal, especially for African Americans and other people of color. But in the 1960s, as members of Delancey Street confided to Richard, conditions were worse. The Black Panther Party, the Marin Courthouse Shootout and the killing of Soledad inmate George Jackson all pointed to cruel and inhumane treatment throughout the California penal system. But nobody at any level was doing anything about it.

Richard had an idea. He built an exact replica of the claustrophobic two-man cell in Folsom and San Quentin prisons, loaded it onto a flatbed and towed it around the streets to courthouses, shopping malls and police stations.

The postcard’s sketch of a two-man prison cell; beginning of letter to the governor

With each stop, as people crowded around, he invited them to walk into the cell and sit down on its hard bunk beds. That way they could experience for a few minutes that horrible feeling of the bars closing in, of hopelessness spreading out for years and years to come. And then they would understand, and were more open to learn, Richard thought, about the atrocities inmates had to endure.

As visitors departed, Richard handed out postcards they could mail to then-Governor Ronald Reagan to protest the bizarre storage and torture system that state prisons had become.

In an era of “indeterminate sentencing” that effectively buried politically active inmates, Richard’s exhibit proved stirring, tough-minded and urgent. As he had hoped, it inspired people to get off the fence and do something, even if it meant just putting a stamp on a postcard, scribbling a few thoughts, and dropping it in the mail.

I still find it touching that Richard, in a gesture people viewed as endearingly Californian, asked passers-by to write down their feelings when they experienced the prison cell. That way the Governor would know, and be guided by, how deeply emotions ran with voters.

You never know if a demonstration like that will make a difference. Maybe Reagan never saw the postcards, or if he did — well, emotions of the masses never carried much significance to his celebrity mind. I think the prison movement was strengthened by it, because more humane practices were instituted. But for Richard, putting the truth so dramatically in front of people and letting them decide what to do about it was his version of democracy in action.

Life in Dogtown, Pop. 30

Richard would later be characterized as a guy who must have made a bundle in real estate because he retired from business while still in his 30s. The truth is, he had a modest income when he left San Francisco and wanted that nest egg to be enough, if he used it wisely, to pursue his own adventures off the grid for the rest of his life.

Dogtown during growth spurt

Upon finding a deliciously reclusive spot on the coast of West Marin that appealed to his love of wildlife and personal independence, he researched its history, including the long-lost name of Dogtown. Later on, his partner Doris would explain it this way:

Richard liked to point out that there had been five owners of the Dogtown property between himself and the king of Spain. When he decided to build his house in the country in 1974, he sat down with county maps to identify lands that abutted the newly formed national park. He wrote or called 15 owners of such parcels, inquiring if they would be interested in selling. The owner of Richard’s then-undeveloped acres lived in Tacoma, Washington, had inherited the land, had never seen it, didn’t really want it, and was receptive to the idea of selling it.

Richard in Dogtown

In fact, the property was so remote and seemingly forgotten that he had to petition the local Board of Supervisors to resurrect its name and make sure an official road sign (Dogtown, Pop 30, Elev. 180) would appear on Pacific Highway 1.

In that thick, lush pocket of 10 acres in West Marin, Richard settled in to build what would become his eccentric and somewhat stupefying home. Colleagues at Delancey Street tipped him off to the sale of first-growth redwood lumber that had been stripped off the recently demolished Pier 41 in San Francisco. He jumped at the chance to haul it across the Bay to Dogtown.

Mr. Kirschman Builds His Dream House

This is the romantic side of Richard that has touched many a heart in West Marin. “He thought the wood might have been milled in Dogtown when it was a lumber town after the Gold Rush” a century before, Doris wrote. To Richard, there was a certain rightness in bringing that redwood home.

He designed the house himself with “unexpected angles and slanted roofs,” Doris recalled, and using a small local crew to assist, he built it by himself, too. It resided on a footprint of only 700 square feet but shot up five stories on nine separate levels. Inside, the staircases intersected like a painting by Escher. It was easy to get lost or turn the wrong way, but that was part of its charm. High ceilings and an abundance of windows and nooks made the place feel like every kid’s dream of living in a tree house.

The finished dream home, covered in passion flowers

Richard joined the Bolinas Fire Department, an all-volunteer brigade that seemed to be everywhere at once — on the beach with heart victims, at a burning farmhouse, with a fallen hiker in the woods. Living in Dogtown, about three miles north of Bolinas FD, Richard was often the first to arrive at grisly car accidents on Highway 1.

He learned CPR from the Bolinas Fire Chief who ironically became his first patient. After collapsing from a heart attack while the two were talking in the station house, the veteran EMT didn’t make it, and that was Lesson #1 during Richard’s 20 years of service. Life would not be easy that far out in the boondocks, as people used to say.

Many residents treasured their privacy so much that they removed every road sign directing travelers to Bolinas. Richard decided they had a point. Tourists were so hungry for authentic keepsakes that for years they tore down and kept every Dogtown sign Richard put up.

Prototype Man II: Romania

Perhaps it was his experience with addicted babies at Bellevue Hospital that compelled Richard to undertake a trip to Romania in 1990 at the request of Starcross, a monastic community in nearby Sonoma County.

Brother Toby of Starcross Monastic Community

Brother Toby, a former labor lawyer, and two Catholic nuns, Sister Marti and Sister Julie, had been caring for abandoned and abused children at Starcross for years when they learned of nightmarish conditions in Romania. After the fall of Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, an unbelievable number (130,000) of orphaned children had been locked away in dilapidated state-run institutions. Separated and neglected even further, nearly 2,000 children and babies with AIDS were considered too expensive to treat. Since they’d soon be dead anyway, they were “stored away in Auschwitz-like conditions,” Richard noted.

Richard in Romania: front page news

Brother Toby visited one of those hospitals in Constanta, Romania, and at one point an ABC-TV crew asked to go with him. He suggested that children locked in cots and cribs needed to be taken out of the hospital and treated as family members — loved and held and played with — rather than as dying patients.

As was true at Starcross, Brother Toby did not think special medicines or medical care were as important as a family setting, so he sought a space unlike a hospital that could be transformed into small apartments of five children each, where women trained as “mamas” would provide parenting and caregiving skills.

Starcross architect’s model

When Brother Toby asked Richard, his longtime friend in Dogtown, to develop the possibility of such a project, Richard contacted an architect friend in San Francisco who drew up the plans for a prototype.

Richard took the plans with him for his own three-month stay. It was perfect, all agreed, and it was doomed. Working with a nearly worthless Romanian currency, a government in chaos and a dearth of doctors (who were paid the equivalent of $28 a month) became so difficult that many humanitarian agencies, like Doctors without Borders, had to leave.

Starcross might have foundered, too, if Richard hadn’t spent much of his time there simply “developing a path for money” from U.S. donors, and finding workers in a private sector that hadn’t existed before Ceausescu. Eventually the prototype led to Casa Speranta (House of Hope) in Constanta, Romania, where children routinely lived long past “the predictions of everyone,” according to one doctor, Rodica Matusa, “including all the specialists.”

Matusa later wrote in a book about what happened when the space away from the hospital began to look like a place for families inside: “… Even if the children were still using a bottle, they were put at the table to eat. They were not left to eat in their beds as we at the hospital had done. Their beds were cribs, but made of wood, not the old iron beds from the hospital … Even if their food was prepared in a central kitchen, when they sat at their table, every family appeared different. The apartments had been arranged according to the needs of the individual family and the taste of the mamas. It was like looking at real families. And the children, regardless of how small they were, began to feel that they had come home.”

In 1996 this same prototype led to a separate nonprofit group in Uganda called Starcross Kin Worldwide, where the House of Hope has cared for over 100 children.

Richard after return from Romania

Richard did not know how much of this was possible back in 1990. He sensed that other hospitals might one day adopt similar family units, and he donated the prototype plans to the Romanian government.

“It was “a good start,” he told the Pt. Reyes Light after his time in Romania had run out. “It was a model we hope will be replicated.” What an understatement, but that’s the good part of Richard being a stubborn SOB. Seeing a Great Idea through is always worth it, to his mind. The spirit of the thing does the rest.

Life in a ‘Salad Bowl’

As we follow Richard’s story, it becomes apparent that the more his life took root in West Marin, the more his creative side began to — oh, might as well say it — blossom.

Which brings us to that fateful day his lush and splendiferous 10 acres in Dogtown gave him a Great Idea: Why allow all this natural opulence — grasslands, berry bushes, fruit trees, giant oaks, towering eucalyptus, passionflower vines and giant redwoods — to be enjoyed only by humans?

Why not help the world by adopting rare species of farm animals in danger of extinction? Richard had been reading about the plight of Aracuana chickens, Scottish highland steers, San Clemente goats and Jacob sheep. Think of it, he said to Doris: these threatened creatures could launch new generations in safety and munch their way to old age in this magnificent “salad bowl” they could provide in West Marin.

Lloyd, the first llama

Of course, predators of those very species — raccoons, foxes, coyotes and mountain lions — also lived on the property and were ready to welcome farm animals in their own way.

So the next Great Idea was to acquire a perfect combination of sweetie pie and murderous bodyguard called a llama.

Lloyd with the two ll’s, as they naturally called this first herd-protecting llama, looked to humans like a small unhumped camel with doll-face eyelashes and cuddly soft fur. To predators, however, he was an advancing monster with a ferocious glare, slasher teeth and a unique ability to spit.

That’s what they discovered after months of planning and trips to small farms to acquire tiny herds of goats and sheep and chickens (the giant Scottish Highland steers didn’t work out): Doris and Richard realized that gates and cages and fences and barn doors would never be enough.

Lloyd, then, proved an excellent shepherd and “a very funny guy,” Doris wrote later. With his camel-like body and brown-and-white coat, “he looked sometimes like a dancing mop … sweet and goofy and always smiling” — thanks ironically to those killer teeth.

Juanita and Zipper on a tree limb. Zipper was killed by a mountain lion a week later.

Llamas are known for their distinct personalities. Quentin, one of Lloyd’s (there would be two) successors, was not only tolerant of Juanita, one of the goats, playfully hopping onto his gentle-giant’s back, he would carry her under oak trees so that she could better reach and nibble the leaves.

Doris’s book, The Dogtown Chronicles, recalls the couple’s 20 years raising these animals, so I’ll direct readers to that eye-opener of a story to meet the family and see what really happened. Doris is an astute chronicler of the way Richard’s “salad bowl” turned out to be both heavenly and savage.

Richard speaking to Sheba on shearing day

For along with this bucolic scene, another, darker truth emerged: When you dig that deep into nature, unseen threats are everywhere, not only from animal diseases and complicated births, or poisonous plants and unexpected injuries; but also from the smart raccoon who hides for a whole day in the hen house and kills the girls in their sleep at night; or the puma who tears into a goat the one moment Quentin isn’t looking; or the unknown decapitator of geese who leaves half a ravaged head for the couple to find on their way to the mailbox.

Balancing the realities of nature with the idealism of good intentions had now become a way of life for Richard and Doris. After leaving San Francisco in the 1960s as that “debonair entrepreneur” climbing the ladder of acceptance and power, Richard learned how to carve out a vision of life entirely his own for the next 50 years.

And so it was in Dogtown and later in Point Reyes Station, where they moved up the coast about 10 miles, in 2010, that Richard became that walking contradiction of idealist, realist and passionate dissenter. And this, when you see him act it out in pranks, stunts, alerts and pop quizzes, you gotta believe.