Joseph Coleman Richards, 98, a third-generation minister who performed 517 baptisms, 511 weddings and 507 funerals in his nearly 80 years in religious life, died of respiratory arrest May 23 at his home in Washington.
The last 50 years he was a preacher without a pulpit -- or, more accurately, a preacher who found pulpits everywhere. His friends included Vice President Cheney and a Washington mail carrier, entertainer Phyllis Diller and security guards, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao and gardeners on the Mall. He had two address books filled with 1,200 names of people to whom he regularly wrote letters. Many of them were between the ages of 4 and 14, the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of his early parishioners.
"He loved children, the racetrack, gin rummy, Ohio and most of all, his family," his granddaughter, Miranda Townes Hope of Rappahannock County, Va., said in a note to friends. "He gave candy to the people at the airport security check-ins, two-dollar bills to the mail lady, Rhonda; and gold dollars to hospital orderlies. He called all women 'Miss America,' from [Supreme Court Justice] Sandra Day O'Connor to the waitress in a New York deli."
Dr. Richards was born in Mount Victory, Ohio, in the front parlor of the Methodist parsonage, was ordained at age 19 and studied theology and ministry for the next nine years. His father and his maternal and paternal grandfathers were fiery Welsh preachers. His mother, a schoolteacher and the first female Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Michigan, told her music-loving son that he could become a physician, a minister or a teacher, but not a singer, because that was not an honorable profession.
He earned five advanced degrees: bachelor's and master's of arts, and a bachelor's degree in sacred theology from Boston University, a master's degree in sacred theology from Harvard Divinity School and a doctor of divinity degree from Kansas Wesleyan University in 1935. While he studied in Boston from 1924 to 1933, he commuted to the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where, despite his mother's admonition, he took voice lessons.
After he retired from his Defiance, Ohio, parish ministry in 1954, he formed what he called his Church Without Walls, traveling the country to preach, officiate at religious ceremonies and counsel the progeny of his previous congregations. He maintained a home in Washington, where his only child, Judith Richards Hope, lives.
He believed, she said, "in the ultimate goodness of the world and of God. Ultimately, he felt there was a power for good that was much stronger than the power for evil." At parties, the minister would play the piano and sing show tunes, hymns and patriotic songs, she said, and with his sense of humor, he was known as the life of the party.
His skill at figuring the odds at the racetrack, and the tips he got from his friends in the stables, enabled him to pay for his daughter's graduate and law school education, she said. Dr. Richards passed on that knowledge to his grandchildren: His grandson, Zachary Richards Hope, turned his skill at statistics and betting odds into his life's work in Santa Monica, Calif., managing a hedge fund.
The last marriage Dr. Richards performed was for his granddaughter, on a hilltop near Linden in rural Virginia, which he reached in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. He was two months short of his 99th birthday when he died.
His wife of 50 years, Eve Gertrude Kemp Richards, died in 1983.
Survivors include his daughter, granddaughter and grandson.