Although I’ve known a lot of authors and am fortunate enough to count many of them as friends, only one of my friends was famous for being in a huge best-seller: Richard Vogt, better known to fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love as Richard from Texas.
Alas, much too soon, the time has come to say adios to Richard. He passed away on March 4 unexpectedly and much too soon for his vast circle of friends and fans.
I first met Richard in November 2006, when a mutual friend introduced us, thinking I could help Richard position himself to take advantage of the EPL effect. At the time, Richard was in between appearances on Oprah –– well, actually, he’d already taped them but only one of the two shows had aired at that point. And you bet I remembered Richard from Texas, and it made perfect sense that he would live in Austin! When my pal Jill handed me EPL, she read me a couple of the choice gems from Richard –– I think it might have been the “Groceries, your problem is you’ve got a wishbone where your backbone should be” bit. And yes, Richard was one of my favorite parts of the book.
Richard had a life that was stranger than fiction. Richard survived a tough childhood and went on to be a juvenile delinquent, a Vietnam vet, an oil-field worker; a truck driver; the first dealer of Birkenstocks in the Dakotas; a construction worker; hippie farmer on a commune; radio voice-over announcer, etc. But for many years, he was a junkie and an alchoholic.
One night in a small Texas town, as he was casing a pharmacy to break into for drugs, something stopped him; he realized that he was on track to end up in prison or he could just stop and change his life. Richard said, “I ventured into the depths of hell. The hand of what I choose to call God pulled me from this ravage. It was not my own doing. Without a doubt, Divine Intervention interceded.”
With that, he sobered up and started a on the spiritual quest that eventually placed him at an ashram at the same time a wild-haired writer recovering from a divorce showed up. Richard took one look at her shoveling down her food and nicknamed her “Groceries.
And that’s how Richard entered Eat, Pray, Love and ended up on Oprah.
Most of my work with Richard consisted of trying to help him launch his career as a speaker. I immediately loved both his easygoing nature and his spiritual centeredness, not to mention his genuine interest in other people.
Our first event at Unity Center in Austin, drew around 200 people. Richard’s friends from Alcoholics Anonymous. A and other parts of his life grumbled at the $10 admission fee. More than one groused, “After all of these years of putting up with Richard, he should be paying us!” In the middle of Richard’s talk –– I don’t think his chats were ever organized enough to be called a “presentation” or “lecture” –– the fire alarm started going off for no reason, and everyone staff member in the church was hustling around, trying to figure out what the problem was. A fire truck showed up, naturally, so we joked that Richard set the place on fire.
That was also my first encounter with the RFT groupie phenomenon. A couple of days before the event, I received a call from a woman who was beside herself about seeing Richard. She told me she’d just read EPL while on vacation and promised herself she’d track down Richard from Texas when she returned to Austin. Lo and behold, when she returned, an e-mail about “An Evening with Richard from Texas” awaited her, and she just knew it was fate. I actually met her at the event, and she was quite lovely.
The RFT groupies hung on Richard’s every word. You could almost see them taking little Richard nuggets and stashing them away for future reference, like busy little squirrels. At one appearance, more than one woman showed up with a dog-eared, tabbed copy of EPL. A few even posed questions like “On page 147, you said such and such to Liz. What did you mean by that?”
At times, Richard was almost too loose. At the Kansas City Book Festival, it took him about 15 minutes to really get in full RFT mode. As his speaking agent, I was sitting in the audience wanting to signal him to get cracking before he lost his listeners. But then he switched on RFT and completely charmed the crowd.
One of my biggest regrets is that his book is still nowhere near complete. I’d tried to help advise him on writing and finding an agent, but when I took on a full-time job, I didn’t have the time to work on it. By then, he’d decide to bring on a close friend as his co-writers, and they seemed well on their way. But like all organic projects, it never quite got going, and when he and I last talked about it a couple of months ago, he was looking at changing the way he was working on the book.
The last time I saw Richard will stay with me. He and his fellow Isha Yoga practitioners had produced the first Austin “Inner Engineering” intensive, and he was in his element, so pleased to be bringing the practice founded by his guru, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, to his hometown. It was also something of a family affair for Richard; he was joined by his sweetheart, Nila, and son Rafferty. After all those months of hearing Richard talk about Jaggi and Isha, I attended the introductory night to learn more about it. Because it was a hectic work week and I was about to head to Minnesota for a family member’s surgery, I almost nodded off a couple of times. As is the case with most spiritual practices, I suspect got whatever it was I was meant to get out of the session. But I’ll never forget Richard’s humongous smile that night.
I missed calls from Richard and Nila a couple of weeks ago about another Isha event, and dang it, I’m sorry I didn’t get one last chat in with Richard.
Richard’s memorial celebration on March 8 went sort of like Richard’s life –– a lot of rambling winging it, but also fond recollections from the many, many people who were touched by Richard. Family and friends paid tribute — including poignant yet hilarious comments from his two sons, Royce and Rafferty and even his ex-wife. And of course, leave it to Elizabeth Gilbert to deliver a fitting eulogy.
After calling Richard most aptly an “unrepentant juvenile delinquent,” she said, “Whenever you were with Richard, you always had the feeling that anything could happen –– and it wasn’t always legal. He lived on the other side of the street from rational and logical.” So true. But here was her true gift to those of us who had the good fortune to know Richard.
She recounted an adventure with Richard in New Jersey in which they drove by a spectacular multimillion farm she’d lusted after. “Let’s go look around,” Richard told her. So they drove in to the property and rambling around the place, visiting all six barns. When Liz expressed regret about not being able to go in to look at the house, Richard started checking doors and windows, which were all locked. But that didn’t stop the unrepentant JD. He decided the windows on the second story may not be locked and hadn’t they seen a ladder in one of the barns? So they fetched the ladder, and Richard climbed up and found an unlocked window –– of course. He let himself in and started wandering around. Every now and then he’d pop his head out of window and rave, “You should see this, Groceries! It’s so beautiful up here. All the space! All the light!” Liz confessed to being too “New England” to follow him up the ladder.
To this day, she regrets not going up after him. But now, whenever she finds herself missing him, she says, she has that memory of Richard going up the ladder and then drifting in and out of sight exclaiming, “You should see this, Groceries! It’s so beautiful up here. All the space! All the light!”
I can just picture that, and I hope she doesn’t mind if I borrow that sweet image whenever I start missing my friend Richard.