HEY, HEY, HEY, HERE COMES RICHARD:
A FEW THOUGHTS TO CONSIDER
By Ralph Heibutzki, and Lisa D. Quinlan-Heibutzki
We start these recollections with these lyrics ringing in my head, from “Seasons Of Love,” in the musical, Rent: “Five hundred, twenty five thousand, six hundred minutes/Five hundred, twenty five thousand moments so dear/Five hundred, twenty five thousand, six hundred minutes/How do you measure, measure a year?”
Just how do you measure a year, anyway, as the song says? How do you measure a life? Let's just start from the beginning, and take it from there.
We first met Richard Wunsch in February of 1999, shortly after we moved from Chicago, to Hillsdale. As longtime book lovers, and collectors of all sorts of quirky subjects, you can imagine our delight that a store like Volume One Books existed.
Of course, it goes without saying that Richard, and his late partner and manager, Aimee England, were as distinctive as the store that they ran. However, they were among the first to make us feel welcome, and also, like kindred spirits, as the saying goes: the extensive collection of labor history-related books told you right away where Richard's sympathies lay. But our appreciation of him went beyond his political leanings.
The range of his life experience impressed both of us. From working on the factory floor, to driving a cab, and then, getting involved with the various radical happenings of the '60s and '70s – he'd done all that, as I'd learned, before opening his first used bookstore, The Wooden Spoon, in Ann Arbor. He definitely gave you the air of someone who'd seen things, and done things. But Richard didn't just talk the talk, he also walked the walk, which all his projects had in common – as Gandhi so eloquently stated, “Be the change you want to see.” A few examples will make the point.
Like any independent enterprise of its kind, Volume One also served as a focal point for all types of alternative thought, and activity. One of them, the Hillsdale County Coalition for Peace & Justice, soon became a focal point of Lisa's life and mine in 2004-06.
Our regular activities included weekly protests against the second Iraq War, at the Hillsdale County Courthouse, no small gesture in a town that largely supported it – with all the usual superpatriotic fervor that accompanies such events. I often took heat for my involvement in such matters, to which I invariably responded, “These people are my friends, and nobody gets to choose them for me. End of discussion.”
One of my own fondest memories of that period came when Richard presented a resolution to the Hillsdale County Commissioner against the Iraq War. I wasn't a Coalition member yet, and I'd be writing a story that night, so I couldn't say anything publicly.
But I relished how he put the commissioners on the spot, when he asked them to take action on it. The excuses flew thick and first through the air: “We can't change what's happened.” “We can't offend our local veterans. We need to support them.” “Our constituents will wonder how we can go against a war that most of them support.” In the end, they settled for the last one, without bothering to take a vote: “It's the wrong forum. You need to take it to Congress.”
But Richard had made his point. He felt the effort had been worthwhile, if nothing else, to get people talking and thinking differently. That type of reasoning ran through all of Richard's projects – including his various runs for local and state office, typically, on the Green Party ticket. However those campaigns turned out, he felt that you had to start somewhere, and make some type of an effort. What they did with the ideas he presented was up to them.
Without a doubt, the Coalition's biggest public successes came with its Peace Festival, which it organized and put on from 2004-2010 in downtown Jonesville – a multimedia event that featured an impressive array of local music talent, and tables for various area political groups, with ample time set aside for protest and commentary. I myself played at the post-Festival party, the Afterglow, in 2004, and four subsequent festivals – from 2005-08.
My presence wound up being a total accident – I merely asked to play, and Richard let me do it, simple as that. I hadn't performed publicly in over a decade, weary of all the usual shenanigans and cooler-than-thou mind games that dog so much of the so-called music industry.
Without Richard's encouragement to drive me along, and fire me up, I'd probably still be confining my musical activities behind my proverbial “four walls,” at home. Getting to play guitar for causes that I supported made the opportunity to perform publicly again feel even better than it actually did.
I'll always remember the 2006 Festival most vividly, when Richard hit on the idea of filling Carl Fast Park with white crosses, to symbolize the deaths of America's military in the Afghan and Iraq wars. The memory of playing guitar next to that representation of our collective outrage and disgust will stay with me, as long as I live.
Around the same time frame, Richard took the next logical step, of expanding into an empty space next to Volume One, and opening the Hillsdale Annex, an alternative coffee house, hangout, and live music venue. Before long, Lisa and I were involved in every aspect of the operation, from making flyers, to writing press releases, and booking shows – some of which I played, and some I didn't, depending on whatever package I was putting together at the time.
The Annex didn't succeed, though not for lack of trying on anybody's part. Our inability to stick with the same schedule for more than two or three weeks had something to do with it. As I joked, at the time, “We're doing our best step to stay one step of the public, and succeeding a little bit too well.”
We also couldn't overcome the usual cultural conditioning of people seeing live music as little more than some kind of soundtrack to drink, and drink, and drink some more, while paying double digit ticket prices for the privilege.
But make no mistake: on those nights, when the Annex worked, it worked wonderfully, and made us want to keep fighting the good fight just a little bit longer. Thanks to Richard's Ann Arbor connections, we hosted shows by certified legends like the MC5's initial guiding light, John Sinclair, SRC guitarist Gary Quackenbush, and Ann Arbor's smart roots rock combo, the Cowcatchers.
We also developed a roster of local talent that, in my humble opinion, was as good as anybody – or anything – else out there, including the Meandering Minstrels, Dan Brown and Peter Cromwell, who stood out as gifted improvisers and commentators (via songs like, “I'm the government, and that's what I do”); Mark Budd, The One-Man Band; The Lone Rider, whose creative spin on '70s and '80s covers never ceased to inspire; Jim Dokurno; and Jesse Tanner, are just some of the names to spring to mind.
I should also mention the array of Branch County acts that I brought in, through my work at the Coldwater Daily Reporter – including Christian folk singer-songwriter, Ron Landers; local punk and metal favorites, Jackin' The Pulpit, and Kennedy Brain Matter; and roots-rock folk artists, like Jim Knisely, and Del Walling.
All of these acts, and many, many more, came through the doors of the Hillsdale Annex. From a pure box office standpoint, some of these nights went more better than others, but none of them would ever have happened, without Richard's energy, and conviction, that Hillsdale County could support something more than the usual standard issue profit mongering watering hole.
Otherwise, I doubt any of us – Lisa, myself, and everyone else, who worked so hard on the Annex's behalf – would have gotten involved with the whole business. The artists always appreciated that quality about the Annex, too, even if they didn't always get the crowds they wanted. That quality remains the benchmark by which I measure similar endeavors, in choosing to get involved in them.
I should also mention the two multimedia art shows that bookended our final six months in Hillsdale – “Budgie's Nest: Unraveled,” which ran on September 2 and October 20, 2006. Lisa's artwork– ranging from Impressionist-style paintings, to cartoons, drawings, and doodles – served as the focal point for both events, which also featured an impressive array of free (mostly) vegetarian food, and live music by the usual suspects, myself included.
We made both events free, with a suggested donation, so that my former local employer, the Hillsdale Daily News, would actually have to run our press releases. They looked askance at anything with a price tag on it, claiming that publishing such ventures smacked of profiteering. though, funnily enough, it didn't stop them from running press releases for certain big name, big ticket acts, especially if they were conservative leaning country, and/or Christian, two genres that my former editor happily endorsed. Connect the dots, right? No matter; we got them in.
I'll never forget the fallout from the first night, where Lisa sold $200 worth of art, which also helped to drive the sale of books, and various items of merchandise. Richard was ecstatic, as we all were – it felt good to vindicate the belief he instilled in all of us, that if you do something unlikely, and just give it the breathing that it needs to run, something great is bound to happen.
We all agreed, virtually on the spot, to repeat the experience, which seemed like a fitting exclamation point to our seven-year stay in Hillsdale County, and went off, with similar results. Naturally, we didn't see as much of Richard, once we'd moved, though I kept editing his music column for the Hillsdale Daily News through 2008, and made the most of my chance to get caught up, when I returned for the 2007-08 Peace Festivals – and when Richard came to Berrien County, where we live now, in 2010-11, for a couple of politically oriented road trips.
We always appreciated the chance to rekindle those old conections, because we never know how much time we have, though it's not always on our mind, of course. Recounting all of these memories? That's the easy part.
Now comes the hard part, where we have to say goodbye to one of the most inspirational and influential people we've had the pleasure of knowing – without whom we wouldn't have gotten to experience so many of the things that we did, all of which helped us to grow personally, as well as artistically.
This sounds like a cliché, but it's true – they really don't make people like Richard. You don't find them in the Yellow Pages, and they don't grow on trues. He was smart, funny, and principled, and we won't see his like so easily again.
But if, and when we do, we can safely say this – some residual aspect of his energy had something to do with it. That's all you can ask, these days, and it's the big bang we've never stopped looking for. Hail, and farewell.
RICHARD ELLIS WUNSCH, JR. (1940-2022)
WUNSCH, RICHARD ELLIS JR. Richard Ellis Wunsch Jr. age 81, of Brooklyn, formerly of Hillsdale, passed away on Friday, April 22, 2022, at his home. He was born on July 14, 1940, in Detroit to Richard and Jane (Stevenson) Wunsch. He married Donna Olejarczyk on September 3, 1966, and previously married Nada McClanahan, and they both survive. A celebration of life will be held on Sunday, May 22 with a location yet to be determined. Arrangements are entrusted to the VanHorn-Eagle Funeral Home in Hillsdale. Memorial contributions are suggested to environmental groups addressing climate change, or social and racial justice organizations.