It’s been about two decades now that Wally Richardson, 95, has been standing in front of Marina Village Middle School early each morning bellowing wisdom to students with well-worn proverbs and witticisms — some corny, some a little trite — but all of them astute.
The kids love him.
Richardson’s jubilant exultations start at 7:15 a.m., when the World War II Navy veteran stands with his dog, Dexter, near the entrance of the school in El Dorado Hills, Calif., offering fist bumps. Kids being kids, they’ve given his sayings a nickname: “Wallyisms.”
"Good morning! Great to see you!” he'll joyfully call to students as they head inside.
Then comes his Wallyism: “To the world, you may be one person, but to one person?.”
"You may be the world!” shout back a few smiling students.
Then Richardson will follow with another: “Judging others doesn’t define who they are — it defines who YOU are. Never look down on anyone unless?.”
"You're helping them up!” several middle schoolers respond.
On it goes with various precepts for 30 minutes, until the final bell rings at 7:50 a.m. and all 794 students are inside for the day.
"They make my morning,” said Richardson, who has performed his daily ritual since 1998. “The future of our country depends on our youth, and this is my way of showing that they're loved and accepted."
Richardson, whose energy and quick wit belies his birth date, came up with the idea for greeting the kids in his neighborhood after several sixth- and seventh-graders wanted to pet his dogs when he walked past the middle school one morning.
“Before I knew it, I was giving them ‘k-nuckles’ [fist bumps] and positive advice,” he said. “I can’t imagine another way to start my day.”
Neither can the students at Marina Village.
"Students flock to him daily to receive messages of kindness, compassion and empathy,” said principal Levi Cambridge. “Wally is unassuming and genuine, with the goal of having a rippling effect on the students he meets. His positive nature is infectious."
Richardson, a retired airline pilot, has a collection of more than 300 “Wallyisms,” going back to his sophomore year at San Bernardino High School, when he started writing down positive expressions he'd found while daydreaming in study hall.
From “kindness is a virtue, but also a necessity,” to “doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will,” he found comfort in practiced positivity while serving for 10 years with the Navy, enlisting during World War II.
He enlisted after graduating from high school in 1941 and was sent in the first convoy to Honolulu after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. He served in the Navy’s Honolulu command center for nearly a year, then became a Navy pilot. From there, he served as a military flight instructor and flew on bombing runs during the Korean War, he said.
After the military, Richardson flew for United Airlines for 30 years, retiring in 1983. He and his wife, Jenny — married for 60 years, with four children and five grandchildren — moved to El Dorado Hills 21 years ago. Along with his books and military honors, Richardson brought along the Wallyisms he’d collected for decades, never imagining he’d soon start reciting them daily on the sidewalk in front of a middle school.
“What you do is what you are,” he told the students who wanted to pet his two schnauzers that first day, passing along some of his wisdom in a quick sound bite.
To his surprise, the students seemed to listen. So he tried another one: “You can’t start the next chapter in your life if you keep reading the last one.”
And then another: “The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday."
He realized he was connecting with the young people.
“The more I stood out there to greet the kids, the more they responded,” said Richardson. “And when they started memorizing my Wallyisms, I knew that it was worth it. They were taking it to heart.”
Because middle school is a notoriously difficult time for young people, he said, he believes the students have genuinely come to appreciate his short morning pep rallies. His wife often goes with him to set up a table and hand out bookmarks that he’s had printed with some of his favorite expressions, as well as pens embossed with the saying, “Think love and kindness always.”
Former students often return, bookmarks in hand, to thank him for his kindness and provide updates on their lives.
“Wally has contributed so much love and kindness to our community — seeing him today still warms my heart and restores my faith in humanity,” said Kathleen Horita, 16, now a high school junior. Horita was 12 when she first encountered Richardson, ready with a quote and a fist bump, on her first day “as the new kid” in the sixth grade.
"He held a conversation with me about what to expect from middle school, as well as advice for having a good school year,” said Horita. “He completely soothed my nerves on my first day."
Before she graduated from middle school, Horita helped organize the painting of “Wally's Wall” — a mural that pays tribute to the spry nonagenarian who taught her that “running away from problems is a race you'll never win” and “if Plan A doesn't work, there are 25 other letters in the alphabet."
Richardson was flattered by the honor, and told her that “without hard work, nothing grows but weeds.”
"They're great kids,” he said, “and I'm proud of them. When you're my age and they look at you with bright and shining eyes and want to hear what you have to say, it's an amazing feeling."
Although he is well aware that in his 90s his years of reciting Wallyisms could be numbered, Richardson seldom worries about that.
He does, of course, have an expression for it.
“A ship in a harbor is safe,” he said. “But that’s not what ships are built for.”