Timber titan John Richards dies at 81

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John Richards, left, a timber industry leader who died Wednesday, holds a copy of the Kootenai Health Visionary Leadership Award bestowed posthumously in 2015 upon his father, John Smith Richards, a former Kootenai Hospital District board member who made significant contributions to the development of Kootenai Health. Pictured also are, from left: Liese Razzeto, Kootenai Health Board Trustee; Tom Richards, John's twin and also a leader in the timber industry; and Mike Chapman, Kootenai Health Foundation board member.

COEUR d’ALENE — John Richards influenced many lives in a profound, positive way.

Not because he was a CEO.

Not because he earned his bachelor’s degree at Stanford.

Not because he held an MBA from Harvard.

“He treated everyone like they were equal or better. I think that’s why he was so loved,” said Joy Richards, John’s wife of 34 years.

John, a former chairman of the Potlatch Corp., died Wednesday at Hospice of North Idaho. He was 81.

He grew up in Hayden Lake, attended Hayden Lake Elementary and graduated from Coeur d’Alene High School.

John came from a family of pioneers in the lumber industry, a family with deep roots in Kootenai County.

For decades, Idaho Forest Industries was the Richards family business, until 2000 when IFI’s three North Idaho sawmills and 89,000 acres of timberland were sold to Stimson Lumber Co.

Tom, John’s twin brother, who also went to Stanford and Harvard, was chairman of IFI at the time of the sale. John had retired a year earlier as chairman of Potlatch Corp.

“Tom and John were best friends,” said Katie Brodie, a longtime family friend and employee of John and Tom’s.

Brodie said John’s path at Potlatch was forged shortly after the brothers graduated from Harvard. John was sent to be in charge of the IFI mill in Fernwood, near St. Maries.

“He loved it. He embraced St. Maries,” Brodie said.

John later began working at St. Maries Plywood, which was then purchased by Potlatch, where John stayed for 29 years, eventually working his way up to CEO.

One of John’s sons, John Smith Richards, who works in the forest industry, but never for his father, came to understand while touring the St. Joe River region with a forester, how sizable his father’s impact was. Along the way, they met a road grader operator.

“John Richards gave me my very first job at Potlatch and I am forever grateful,” the man said.

John Smith and the forester continued on and John Smith had a similar experience with a logger they came across.

“It didn’t matter who I met that day. They all knew who my father was,” John Smith said.

Over and over again he heard men say his father gave them jobs. For some, it was their first job, but many said John Richards gave them jobs when no one else was hiring.

“They said how important my father was to them, not because he was a powerful man, but because he cared for them,” John Smith said.

Shawn Keough, a state senator from Sandpoint and executive director of Associated Logging Contractors in North Idaho, said John and Tom Richards were known for their respect for their logging contractors and logging families.

“The Richards family really invested in their communities and helped the timber industry as a whole, especially during the downturns,” Keough said. “They’ve done so much, and a lot of it was behind the scenes. They created a strong foundation for the industry and never sought the spotlight.”

Joy Richards said when her husband was put in charge of the IFI mill at 26, he was told he had to be there for every shift. He had to work as hard as the people who worked for him. For two weeks, there was a man standing at the gate at the start of each shift. He was looking for work, and John gave it to him.

“He said, ‘Anyone who wants a job that badly deserves to work,’” Joy said.

When the Potlatch Corp. moved its headquarters from San Francisco to Spokane, John learned that an employee’s wife, who was black, was treated poorly at a local grocery store.

John met with the head of the grocery chain and told the grocer he was bringing people of diversity with him into the community, and he expected them to be treated appropriately.

“The grocer asked, ‘Why?’” Joy said, “And my husband said, “Because they’re my people. I brought them here, and I want them to be welcomed into this community.”

Joy said her husband didn’t want to be treated as the CEO. He was a humble man, she said, who believed actions spoke louder than words.

And the thing John Richards was the most proud of, Joy said, was his children.

“He always supported whatever I was doing,” said Dave Richards, another son, whose career is not in the forest products industry. “Regardless of what anyone else thought, he would stand up for us kids, no matter what happened.”

Dave said his father always carried a few things in his briefcase: a U.S. Constitution, little pamphlets about character and pictures of his kids.

“There’s just never been a bigger heart,” said Brodie. “He was a very selfless, giving person. It’s really difficult to even enunciate all the good things he’s done as a human being. He will be so missed.”

•••

A full obituary appears on page A6.

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