Richard Runyon is one of the most interesting people you could ever ask to meet. Although he doesn’t get around as much these days as he used to, don’t be fooled; Richard is always on the move. Even if his days of hopping planes and solving global problems are over, his mind never rests. For years, Richard has sought to tell his amazing life story and do so in a way that is immediate, engaging and down to earth. Yet, a logical solution to this problem hasn’t presented itself…
Starting in late summer 2022, Richard Runyon will be taking part in a long-form interview series not only to get his story story told, but to get it heard as well. Rolling out in six parts, each installment will be rigorously promoted in the online media and on Richard’s official website (where you are right now). The story will unfold in ways both unpredictable and exciting. Neither Mr. Runyon nor the interviewers themselves know exactly what direction this will take, but that's going to be half the fun, because they are relying on each other to steer the form and content, and create the most thorough, captivating end product possible.
The interview series is called A Story to Tell: Conversations with Richard Runyon and it promises to be one more landmark event in an already accomplished life. Bookmark this page and check back weekly for updates. In the meantime, feel free to head over to our Stories section, where you can hear early versions of many of the events that will be discussed in A Story to Tell.
Richard Runyon, a retired FDA senior analyst, is rolling out the first in his six-part interview series, in addition to continuing work on his official website and making plans for an audiovisual web series all before the end of the year.
Not too long ago, Richard Runyon debuted his brand new websitewith plenty of well-deserved fanfare—and it was many, many years in the making. Richard's stories, accomplishments and accolades have needed an official home for quite some time now. For, you see, Richard Runyon's lifetime is virtually adorned with unique accomplishments, significant honors and fascinating tales.
Richard is a storyteller, plain and simple—and not in the fictional sense either. The events of his lifetime are often as unbelievable as they are interesting. Who else can say that they were stranded in Scotland when they were barely out of high school, in a lost-passport odyssey that sounds more like a strange dream than real life? And who can say that they've been involved in not one, but several bizarre and dangerous airplane crises? And how many of us have encountered first-hand the horrors of child abuse and done something about it?
In addition to being a storyteller, Richard Runyon is also a fighter—and in more ways than one. In his younger years, he was not afraid to get into a scrap or two in order to stand up for himself and those closest to him. His imposing physical stature and tough-as-nails mentality made it a given that he was respected in a world of fellow children, where brawn, not always brains, is the chief currency, if not the only currency. But, as it happens, Richard was not just brawn, but also brains; not just street smart, but book smart, too. And that is where his most important fight lives—inside of him.
Without his characteristic wit, grit and determination, Mr. Runyon could never have scaled the heights of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, where he excelled for decades. And without the appropriate mental acumen, Richard couldn't possibly have navigated the mind-boggling array of challenges he encountered in all corners of the globe, whether it was the petrochemical industry of Saudi Arabia, the refineries of Mexico, or nuclear emergencies in Yugoslavia and Japan.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg, as the saying goes.
Richard Runyon's entire life has been about keeping other people safe; on the playground, in his home, and on his FDA assignments. So, it was with great frustration and even confusion when Mr. Runyon was met with an unexpected accident that left him a quadriplegic. Now, in this current chapter of Richard's story still being written, he faces the greatest challenge of all; a challenge that requires both mental and physical stamina at maximum levels at all times.
"I am wheelchair-bound now and it has made me work harder than I've ever worked in my life," confesses Richard Runyon. "Of course, I cannot move around anymore like I used to, which was certainly not my plan, but it has afforded me an equally rare opportunity to work on my legacy, on my storytelling, and I truly believe that I have one heck of a story to tell."
We caught up with Richard Runyon recently for the interview that you are about to read. It was a meeting brimming with positivity, and not the inauthentic, forced kind. This was a genuinely optimistic exchange with an eye on the future as much as the past, even if that wasn't the initial purpose of our conversation. Either way, that's how it came across. Looking back to see ahead, one might say. And what exactly lies ahead for Richard Runyon? Well, for starters, a king's ransom in interesting stories waiting to be told in all sorts of interesting ways. Sometimes it'll be in the written word, like 'A Story to Tell', the much-anticipated interview series you're reading right now. Other times, it'll be through exclusive online content delivered directly to you through Mr. Runyon's beautiful, new website. And for those instances when nothing else will do, there's Richard Runyon's Storybook, an audiovisual web series unlike anything you've ever seen or heard before, as groundbreaking as it is entertaining—and that's set to be announced later this month.
But first, we are honored to present to you the first of six parts in the life-spanning epic account that is 'A Story to Tell: Conversations with Richard Runyon':
TSR News Group: I'm happy to have Richard Runyon with me on the phone today. Hello, Richard, how are you?
Richard Runyon: I'm good. How are you, sir?
TSR: Oh, I'm very well, thank you so much for asking. I'm excited to get into the program. And I know we have an awful lot of ground to cover today. So, I want to begin at the very beginning with you, Richard. You have an unusually interesting life story, and I think putting it all in context would be wise. So, take us back in time, where were you born and what was your childhood like? Who've been the most important people in your life? Tell me the early story.
Richard: Well, I was born in Germany. My parents were part of the occupation troops after World War II. And so, we lived there for three years. And then my father, who was an Air Force captain at the time, was relocated, or transferred, to Southern California and we lived in Colton for about six months, and then we moved to Whittier for another 18 months. My brother, Don, was born in that time. The only thing I remember from all that time living in Whittier was, I got in a fight with one of the local kids over a two-by-four. You know, kids will fight over anything. And either he won or I quit, but anyway, he ended up with the two-by-four. And just to finish things off he decided to hit me on the head. Head wounds are, of course, pretty bloody. And I stood there for a while with the blood slipping all over and crying. The paperboy came by and asked if he could help or whatever, and that motivated me to run home, where my mom took one look at me and screamed. My dad was off working somewhere and he had the car. So, mom went to one of the neighbors and he took us to the hospital. It wasn't anything serious. They put a couple of stitches in it. I still have a big bump on my head though, even today.
TSR: Wow, really?
Richard: Yeah, after we left Whittier my dad was retransferred back to Germany. So, we'd actually lived across the street from our previous house. We were there for another three years. Well, now I was old enough to attend school, so I remember a lot more about that, those three years. We travelled around a bit. It was fun. I do remember that when we were in Venice, when dad got a call and he got recalled back to the airbase because the war had started in Korea, and so, everybody got recalled back from vacations. I also remember an incident where my parents were going on a skiing vacation in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. My parents had instructed our maid, a live-in maid, to put a compress on the infected zit on my leg to try and keep it from getting worse. Just to all the people who are listening who think we were rich by having a maid, I think it was our first trip to Germany, the cost for the maid was a carton of American cigarettes a week. And they would prefer that over German money, because they could take it to a black market and make more money off of that than they could if we paid them the going wage. So, they weren't particularly expensive, I guess is my point.
TSR: Well, I'm glad you mentioned that because I was wondering the same thing when you said that. I was wondering if yours was an affluent family.
Richard: So anyway, the maid was pretty worthless. And I told her I didn't want to put the compress on. So she said, "Okay, boy." I was a six-year-old kid and she had no business listening to me. Luckily though, I was supposed to go camping with some friends and their dad came over to pick me up, and he noticed I was limping around. He took one look at the infection and it had gone—well, I had gotten blood poisoning. You could see the red line moving pretty good up my leg, so he took to the hospital right away, and they put me through a number of antibiotics. And I stayed in the hospital for a while and I actually missed a couple of days of school.
So anyway, after that was done, we were then transferred to Illinois. But it's interesting that when we were first sent back to Germany on the second trip, we were ordered to travel by boat. So, we went from New York City to Bremerhaven on what was basically a military cruise ship. They only had that because they were transporting servicemen back from the war and now it was being used to transport military dependents back to Europe. There was no entertainment so they didn't have anything going on, but it was a cruise ship and it was lousy weather so half the people were sick. Not much fun. The other thing is that we left New York City at that time, and then the next time I visited the city was to visit my son who was working there, that was probably about five years ago. I was asked a couple of times if it was my first visit to New York City and I told them, "No, I was here once before, but Eisenhower was president and the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn." So I would laugh with them about it.
Coming home from Germany, we flew into Gander, Newfoundland, because you couldn't fly directly across. We were heading to New York City, but you couldn't fly directly across because the planes didn't have the ability to fly those distances.And so you had to stop, and our stop was in Gander, Newfoundland. In those days, that was pretty routine. We landed again, and apparently there was some sick, young kid on board so they quarantined the plane. There was also a family that took up the whole row all the way across the plane. I was in a window seat and the kid in front of me got sick and then the kid next him got sick and threw up. Well, that caused everybody else in that family to get sick!
TSR: Oh no!
Richard: So, it was pretty disgusting. But that wasn't the reason for the quarantine. As it turned out, we weren't quarantined very long, just a few hours, and they let us go and flew into Idlewild Airport, which is now JFK.
Richard: We were staying with some friends. I remember on the trip from the airport to a friend's house, Elvis Presley came on the radio singing "Hound Dog". It was the first rock and roll song I ever heard.
TSR: Oh, it's a classic.
Richard: Yeah, they weren't playing it yet in Germany. Actually, one of the things in Germany that was fun as a kid was on Sundays—there was a Sunday paper in the comics when you turned on Armed Forces Radio and they would read the comics and would put it in sound effects and other things, so it was pretty fun to do that. I remember that well. Anyway, we ended up in a small town in the middle of Illinois. It was called Rantoul, and it was Chanute Air Force base, which has been closed for quite a while. It was surrounded by corn fields which we used to play in all the time. So, we were there for five years. A couple of the things that occurred—one was that we had three tornadoes hit the town in one day! I was with my brother and we had gone home for lunch and we were making our way back to the school. The tornados had not hit yet, but the weather was really bad and, particularly, we had lots of hail. We'd found this big old piece of cardboard and we were holding it up. We tried to run from building-to-building and the hail was going through the cardboard. At one point a bunch of airmen found us and pulled us in the building. They thought we were crazy! But eventually the weather let up for a while and then we took off. We finally made it to school and I remember turning around and looking out the window on the door, and at that point the tornado hit. You could see all these trees bent over. The alarm in the school went off, and all the kids were in the hallway in order to protect them from the tornado.
When we got home, my dad took me out to survey the damage, and one of the things I remember was seeing a motorhome up in a tree. Well, the other thing that I couldn't see, but had heard about, was that the Air Force had some prior warning of this and had gone out and secured all the airplanes to the runway—there wasn't enough hangar space, so they tied down all the wings to the runway. Well, the hurricane simply ripped the fuselage off of the wings! The fuselages were all piled up on one end of the runway and the wings were still there, attached to bolts wherever they were.
So, at that point, I remember my dad—he was a major at that point and I remember the call, because I actually took the call. We were at my grandmother's house in St. Louis, and my father was advised that he'd been promoted to lieutenant colonel and that he was to be assigned to his first command, in Korea. So, he took off to Korea and then we decided to spend the time in California.
But one other thing happened which should be of interest. On lots of Air Force spaces as well as other military installations, there would be equipment for airplanes and tanks and that kind of stuff. One of the airplanes that was there was a B-36. Now, most people have never heard the B-36. It was built right at the end of World War II and was designed to carry nuclear weapons if needed. But it didn't last very long. The plane was huge. It had six propellers on the back side of the wings. And then on the tips of the wings, it had a pair of small jet engines. So, it was a massive airplane.
TSR: That's impressive.
Richard: So my brother and I went over, and I told our dad where we were going one Sunday. We rode our bike over, we were hanging out, and we realized we could probably fit in by crawling up the landing gear. So we did just that and I got into the main body of the airplane. We were inside this airplane! In order to get from the cockpit to the rear tail guns, you get on these sleds and you pull yourself from end to the other on these tubes that they had built. They had sleeping quarters, and it was just a fun time for a bunch of kids.
TSR: Absolutely. I can only imagine!
Richard: We were enjoying ourselves and walking around the cockpit area and my brother had walked across this bottom hatch that had a window in it. He looked down and there were military police looking up. We got busted and climbed out. They had no idea how we got in there. We got down and were sent home. My father always had a little ding on his service record. My dad just took it in stride. That's just the way he did things.
Richard: But it was a fun experience. It was really good.
TSR: That sounds good.
Richard: Yeah. So now we're in Riverside, California and my dad is in Korea. I was a boy scout at that time, and we had a scout leader who was really active and we went on lots of camping trips year-round, including snow camping. Well, he was a lot of fun, a great guy… until he got arrested for being a pedophile. Apparently, he had been taking pictures of boy scouts when they were changing clothes.
TSR: Oh no…
Richard: So he had lots of pictures. I don’t think that I was one of them, because I was kind of too old for his style.
Richard: But yeah, anyway, that was, we were kind of bugged out because he was such a good scoutmaster in terms of the amount of time he spent with us. But we were also kind of weirded out.
TSR: Yeah, of course.
Richard: That was odd. The other thing was, I was into boxing at that time. I had a speed bag, some punching bags in my garage. I spent a lot of time on those. My neighbor, Robbie, had built a ring and we spent a lot of time boxing in there. He invited one of the guys from school who was a real big guy, kind of one of ones of toughies, and he and I got into it in the ring. Well, he didn't know how to box and it didn't take very long for him to realize that street fighting and boxing are not the same thing, so I ended up chasing him around the ring a bit. So that was all right, we had a lot of fun. By that time, I had earned the reputation in school to keep boys staying away from me because I could take care of myself. It was just nice because at that age kids seem to want to fight a lot.
TSR: Of course.
Richard: I got into a bunch of fights.
TSR: Yeah, that's the age.
Richard: Yeah, that was the age. And then other thing was kind of sad. My buddy came over after school and we were playing a game. I remember I was outside and I looked at my sister’s window. Now, my sister had been born in Germany on the second trip, so she wasn’t all that old. Maybe five or six. Anyway, I looked in the window and this guy that I brought home was in the room with her and she had her pants down. Well, I yelled and he took off running. I couldn’t catch him. But the next day at school, I caught him. After the school was out, I proceeded to pound some sense into him. But my mother showed up. She never came to school, I guess she had an idea something was going to happen, and so she broke it up pretty quickly. My mom decided not to pursue it. She didn't want my sister to have to go through the explanations at her age. I don't even think she remembers it, which is really good.
Anyway, so then dad got back from Korea and he had one more assignment and that was in Ohio. My parents were there for one year. And so that's where I started high school. My freshman year in high school I was there in Ohio. And then he retired and we moved to Southern California where I basically grew up. The first house was in Redondo Beach and then we moved to a community called Rancho Palos Verdes. But I spent my summers on the beach. I'd get up and have some breakfast and then I'd take off when my parents were going to work. And I would hitchhike to the beach. Of course, I was in Redondo Beach, but you know how kids are, you got to go to the cool beach and for my buddies it had to be in Manhattan. And so, I'd hitchhike up to Manhattan Beach and we'd spend the day there playing volleyball and bodysurfing, checking out the babes, and then I'd go home and then repeat it the next day. Those summers were just fabulous.
TSR: I bet.
Richard: The other thing I did in Ohio was get certified in SCUBA. So, when I came back to California, even though I had scuba certification I'd never been in the ocean, which is really different, as we were trained in a swimming pool. So, I actually went back and got re-certified so that I could spend more time in the water. So, a lot of my free time was spent scuba diving. And so, we would dive quite a bit and in the area we found some really good diving spots.
One was one of my buddies who had a boat. It was a racing catamaran, it had two hulls with a completely open cabin and we wanted to go Catalina for the weekend to go diving. So, we took off after school on a Friday. We weren't very bright, we hadn't checked the weather. We were out there quite a ways and there were small craft warnings going on. So the weather was pretty nasty. And the other thing is, we didn't have a radio on the boat so we couldn't call anybody.
We started to notice that one of the hulls seemed to be lower than the other one, and sure enough one of the hatches had come loose and it was very much away from the cabin. It was too far out to attempt to repair it. So, we had to make a decision as to whether to continue going or turn around. It was pretty clear that we had to continue in this direction, because we were closer to Catalina at that point.
So, we continued to sail and got lower and lower. But we were still doing fine. Then we got to the island, and as we got into the lee of the island we lost our wind and had to put our catamaran under power using Steve's outboard motor. When we dropped the sails, the stern dropped down a bit and we slowed up, and our wake caught up with us and came into the boat and we went over.
The other hull was still water tight so we didn't sink, but we were no longer upright in water. One hull was still sticking out of the water. And we were beginning to lose a lot of our equipment. So, Steve decided he would stay with the boat and try to recover as much as he could, and I found a fin. But luckily, we had our wet suits on right now. We had put those on when it started to rain a lot. So with my wetsuit on and a single fin, I went ahead and started to swim to the island to see if I could get help. I was far away from the boat and I got myself caught up in the bull kelp and I really wasn't in any danger as much as it was just holding me back. I was struggling through it when I spotted a big cabin cruiser coming out of one of the bays in front of me. I could whistle pretty loud in those days so I gave it a good try and I could see that somebody on the boat walked to the stern and looked around to see if somebody was there, but I saw he was turning around to go back inside the cabin. I whistled again and waved my arm, and he finally spotted me! He told me later that he thought he saw a diver caught in the kelp. So anyway, he turned and started to come over and help me out. And at that point, he spotted the catamaran and called for another boat's assistance to help Steve. It turns out that the guys who helped were working on a submarine. I forget which company it was, a big company. And so, when the guy in the big boat stopped to pick me up, it turned out we knew each other!
Richard: Yeah, he'd been my dive instructor, so…
TSR: Okay! What are the odds?!
Richard: So, he picked me up and then we found Steve, who had gone into shock and blew out his sinuses and was not in good shape. So, when we met up again on the island it was clear that he wasn't going to be able to do more diving. But we still needed to fix the boat, and so the three of us—my dive instructor, Steve and I—gathered up pieces of Styrofoam. Styrofoam on the island was there because this was a couple of years after the Santa Barbara oil spill and they had this there to try and protect one of the areas on that island which was called the isthmus. But they didn't need it anymore, so we took the Styrofoam and broke it up a little bit, so it was easier to handle. We were also using a donated Boston whaler, which was a big help due to its size.
Steve was sitting in the Boston whaler breaking up the large pieces of styrofoam. He would hand it to Dick. Now, Dick was running a bad cold, so he couldn't dive, but he was in the water and I was able to recover a SCUBA tank by free diving down about 40 feet, so we were able to put together at least one full and functioning SCUBA unit. I tied myself to the catamaran hull that was underwater and they would get me into Styrofoam and I pulled myself down and stuffed that hole full of Styrofoam as much as I could. Then I took a bunch of five-gallon cans that were empty and I took them down and tied them to the hull and filled them full of air. The hull was mostly out of the water, but the catamaran was all stuck and we couldn't get it all the way up.
By now, we'd been there a while. Other folks had showed up to the island. One of the big boats that was there was a large sailboat, a really big sailboat. They gave me the line from the top of their main mast and I tied it to the top of our mast. And they used a power winch they had on board to raise and lower their main sail and then used it to pull our boat, the Square Root, completely upright. And once they got it upright, the big power boat grabbed our boat and they pulled it out of the kelp. So now we were free of the kelp and mostly afloat. And we towed the boat into the isthmus there and spent the rest of the day and most of Sunday fixing it as best as we could. So, it was in pretty good shape. The thing we didn't have was electricity, so we didn't have running lights. We figured we could just shine a flashlight on the sail to let other boats see us.
Our sail home was wonderful. One of those sails that you just dream about. The weather was very pleasant. We had nice wind and I was laying on the netting that ran between the two hulls on the bow of the boat. And as I laid there, there was nothing but water underneath me. Three dolphins showed up and I saw more, but the three of them got in between the two hulls and guided us for quite a while. So they were right underneath and the water had a fair amount of algae that was fluorescent, and as the dolphins would break the water surface it would fluoresce. That was really nice.
And so, we got home without any trouble. I had asked a guy on the island if he would give me his phone number, so I could call him in the morning. I told him, "If I don't call, please call the Coast Guard." But we made it, and I gave the guy a call on Monday morning and told him we were safe. It was a pretty good adventure.
TSR: Sounds like it! That is absolutely amazing.
Richard: The other thing I did that was also kind of a stupid kid thing, I was diving with another buddy of mine, Dennis, and we spotted a shark that was resting on the bottom. Now, most sharks swim all the time, they can't stop. They have to swim, because that's how they get oxygen through their gills. But some of them can rest. This particular shark we saw was a sand shark and they're not very big, maybe three-foot. I thought it might be kind of fun for a photo. So, I took a picture of it laying there at the bottom. I handed my camera to Dennis, I wanted him to take the picture, and I grabbed this shark by the tail. Well, the shark wasn't crazy about it. He didn't want to stand still for his picture to be taken. And it was just going crazy trying to get loose! And Dennis waved that there was no way he could get a picture. It was just all over the place.
So, I finally gave up, but the shark turned around and came after me! He bumped me pretty hard and I got bruised for a little while. And I say he was big enough to do much more, he probably could have taken a hand off. Anyway, that wasn't very smart, and we were almost out of air, so we decided to get out of the water at that point and we were sitting there talking and when we looked up three more divers had come up out of the water. It was pretty unusual to see other divers in the area. They said they got out because all of a sudden, they saw all these sharks and they all looked kind of anxious. And I'm sure they were reacting to a stupid stunt of grabbing a shark by the tail, but we didn't tell them that. So that was the last time I did something like that.
TSR News Group: You retired, Richard, in 2014 as a senior analyst with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This was a position you'd held for the four years prior to retirement. You were an investigator and supervisor for a decade before that. How did you get involved with the FDA in the first place, and was it rewarding?
Richard Runyon: Oh, it was very rewarding. Yeah, it's very rewarding. By that time, I was working for a company in the U.S., which I think was split up and bought out. I'd been working for them for 15 years or something like that, the group that I had originally started with really wasn't there anymore. But we were doing chemical facilities and evaluating risks, and the firm that bought us out wasn't interested in that. They were really interested in the risk of nuclear power plants. The new companies just didn't care, so as people left they didn't backfill the positions. So we got smaller and smaller, and then it really came down to one other guy and myself. I was actually in Saudi Arabia working on a job when I got a call about a friend of ours who'd had a heart attack and passed away. So, that left me as the only consultant. Although I can remember landing a pretty good-sized job, I had to hire everybody to do the job on the outside, but the company made much more money if we used our own engineers. So, I knew that my position was on the chopping block and so I started looking for other jobs. I found that the FDA was hiring and I was fully qualified for the position, so I went ahead and applied and got hired. I went to work for them as an investigator, and then as a supervisor.
One of the things that the agency was trying to do at that time was to be a little smarter in how they performed inspections and they wanted to use a risk-based approach so they were doing the more critical facilities, more frequently. And so, I helped put together an idea for this group and sure enough, they decided to take it and fund it. The gal they got to run it was really smart, so she was looking for folks who could support her. I provided a resume that showed that I had all this risk assessment work, which really surprised her, and so she immediately wanted to hire me, which was fine, because I wanted the job. But she was in Washington D.C. and I was in Seattle, and I really wasn't interested in moving to D.C. So I gave her a couple of options, or a couple of requests: to stay where I was and to get a promotion to the next step, the next level up. And I got both, which was great!
We started to put together this program which was pretty good. We were doing all kinds of interesting things. But then she left and while her replacement was also very good, they had a change in administration at the same time, and the new associate commissioner we were working with decided she wanted to schedule inspections differently and was not interested in using the risk approach we were trying to develop. So she asked everyone to find a new position in the FDA, and I was the last one left again. But in this case, they let me finish some projects because they knew I was going to retire, and that's exactly what I did.
TSR: One of the things that you dealt with when you were with the FDA was a plague tracking program. Now, I think those words alone would certainly raise an eyebrow or two. It sounds self-explanatory enough, but what in the world was the plague tracking program all about? And how did you find yourself involved in it?
Richard: Well, first it wasn't with FDA, it was with Santa Barbara County when I worked for them. And they have what's called vector control program. This program would try to identify the locations of vectors, which are, in this case, animals that transmit diseases to humans. So, for instance, we had our flock of chickens that we would test periodically for certain flus.
TSR: Sure, yeah.
Richard: We were also in an area where the plague was endemic, or existed all the time. And we aren't the only place in the United States like that. In fact, the four corners area of the Southwest of the U.S. is very active with plague. Anyway, we wanted to make sure that in our county we weren't going to have problems with people coming down with the plague.
Richard: We would go out in the areas where we suspected there might be a problem. Our suspicions were based upon areas where a large number of ground squirrels had died. Now, the plague in that area is maintained by the mice, and these mice are not susceptible to the plague. The fleas will jump from the mice to ground squirrels, for instance, and the ground squirrels will die from it. And so, what'll happen is the ground squirrels will transmit this to their buddies and end up with a whole bunch of dead ground squirrels. Well, now you've got dead ground squirrels and fleas are on them. They were looking for a food source, and the last thing you need to do is have a bunch of kids walking through there, and get bit.
So anyway, we would have suspicions like that. Or even if we didn't, we just had areas where we suspected there might be an issue. We'd go in the evening and set live traps, and then come in the next morning and collect them. And those traps had ground squirrels in them. We would take the ground squirrels, and we would anesthetize them, and then we would comb them to get as many of the fleas out as we could. We would then take those fleas and send them off to a lab where they could then look for what's called the titer level in the insects' blood. This would tell us if they were exposed. We also took blood samples from the ground squirrels by extracting blood directly from the heart and pulling it out. There's much more blood by doing it that way. We then set it up to the lab doing the same thing, checking the titer level to see if they were exposed to the bacteria that causes the Black Death.
And then one other source that we would use was the federal trappers in that area. Most state and federal trappers are looking after things like coyotes that might pass away or whatever. But since they had coyotes—considered a pest—they were killed. They would pull blood samples from those coyotes and send it to the lab as well, so that we could take all this data and then figure out where we were finding problems, and if it was a big concern we'd go back out until everything was safe again.
TSR: I see.
Richard: Luckily, we were aware of the possibility of plague and dressed appropriately, so I didn't end up with it. One of the problems of the plague is that there are three forms of the it. There's the bubonic plaque, which is most likely, and it's called that because the bacteria would migrate to your lymph glands, primarily in your groin and arm pits, causing them to swell. This is called a bubo. So, that was one way that you can identify the plague. The other thing that could happen is it could get in the bloodstream, spread throughout your body and become systemic. That's called a systemic plague.
TSR: Makes sense.
Richard: And occasionally, it would get into your lungs and that was the worst part. That was called the pneumonic plague. Because it's in the lungs, you can transmit it directly to another person by coughing. That's when it becomes really dangerous. You don't want pneumonic plague at all because it can spread and the initial symptoms are not that distinct from a lot of other things, like a bad viral infection. Even if the doctor suspects it might be plague, it usually takes a couple of days to get results from the lab. Well, the life expectancy of someone with the bubonic plague is such that they could be dead in a day and a half. So treatment needs to start when there's any suspicion at all. Luckily, it is easily treated with antibiotics and that sort of thing.
TSR: That's pretty terrifying, but interesting all the same. I know you've had a lot of highlights throughout your career, but what would you say was the ultimate highlight of your career and why?
Richard: That's kind of hard. I think I had highlights all along, like when I had my research published; the work on, let's say, the toxicity of fresh poinsettia. That was a highlight at that time. When I was working for Santa Barbara County as a hazardous materials manager, I put together a huge sting operation against a chemical manufacturer. We managed to get him on criminal and civil cases and he pled guilty to the criminal cases, went to the jail, and we were still working on the civil stuff. Ultimately, it shut the facility down permanently.
But it's interesting that the guy who pled guilty to the criminal cases had received the longest jail time of anybody in California at that time for that specific violation. He didn't think you should serve that amount of time, so he petitioned to court for a reduction in sentence time. And that was the only time we went to court on this thing. It was a fairly long court time, too. I remember being on the stand for a couple of days to testify and we were going to go through the whole thing, we weren't done yet, but I picked up the paper and the headline was that our judge and the bailiff in the courtroom were both being indicted by the district attorney… for cocaine! So, the bottom line was that the defendant was freed, and the judge and bailiff went to jail. So that was a twist. It was a big deal at the time.
TSR: What a twist, indeed!
Richard: But probably the most interesting highlight was when I was working as a supervisor for the FDA and the agency was trying to find out what was killing all those dogs and cats. A number of pet food manufacturers had changed their formula a bit, and when they do that they always do what's called a palatable test where they see if the animals like it. Well, a number of the animals died after eating the new food, so the pet food manufacturer brought this to our attention and they started to look into it. Furthermore, the number of calls that the FDA agents received because of the animals dying was, at that time, I believe, the largest number of calls they'd ever had. All the FDA districts had to put on extra help to handle the calls. Eventually, they figured out what was in the dog food that was fatal, and it turned out that it was the only material found in the byproducts and that material turned out to be melamine, a substance used to make Melmac.
At that point, we needed to see if we could find out where it was coming from. We started checking all the imports, because it's one of the things the FDA does very effectively. Sure enough, after testing for quite a while, they found that there were two companies in China, and one was shipping in rice protein supplement and the other one was shipping a wheat protein supplement. Now, the intent was to provide extra protein in the animal foods, so this would boost the protein. Well, the way they test for the protein molecule is a fairly simple test which looks for nitrogen, but doesn't do anything else other than establish whether it's nitrogen or not. Well, normally that's just fine. But in this case, it was melamine and their byproducts, and it had lots of nitrogen in it, but it was not edible. You can eat it but it wasn't digestible by the body. It was toxic. The melamine not so much, but the other byproducts were.
We needed to find out more about the status of what was going on, so they asked our senior investigator to accompany them. And so, I noticed that they'd gone out to everybody, but they were initially looking for people who spoke Chinese. Although I didn't speak Chinese, I had taken a few classes to learn the language. So I told them that, and explained that I'd worked in Taiwan for two years. My boss gave a very good recommendation. And so, they decided to have me go. So, I went over with this other investigator, and then we teamed up with one from the headquarters who was from our international office. Then, when we got there we teamed up with a couple of folks from the embassy and ended up going to these sites.
Now, in both cases, the sites were not working and the local police had detained the owners/managers from both sites. In China, you can hold somebody for up to a year without formally arresting them. That's where they were being held and eventually they were arrested. But also, at the facilities there had been some destruction of some of the buildings, but we were able to look in the buildings that still stood, and validate that equipment had been removed. So there was really no way for them to start up and do this again.
We were able to get indictments against these two companies and the intermediate in the States with the one that was purchasing it from China and that had distributed it to pet food manufacturers, and they apparently knew what was going on. So we got indictments there. But as you would expect, the companies in China, where they are manufacturing this ingredient, are out of our jurisdiction and haven't been arrested. But the one in America was indicted, and they were taken to court and convicted. So that was nice.
TSR: Let's pivot a little bit to something a more personal. Something that not everybody knows, Richard, is that you are a quadriplegic and wheelchair bound. I want to take the occasion to have you tell the story behind that.
Richard: Well, it was 2012. I was all by myself, my wife was in Washington D.C. at the time and I was headed upstairs to watch TV. I had just made a new recipe of key lime pie, which I had in one hand, with a drink in the other hand. I proceeded up the stairs. Well, eight or nine months prior to that I had a total knee replacement and it hadn't quite healed, only about 90%. But as I was walking upstairs, apparently, I didn't bend that leg far enough and caught my toe and fell forward. Well, I couldn't grab the rail with just my arms because my hands were full. So, I fell forward onto my forearms on the landing in front of me, and the shock of falling gave me pretty good whiplash.
TSR: Wait, let's back up for a moment. So, you didn't lift the leg far enough and you fell forward and then what happened?
Richard: Well, I fell forward and I landed up on my forearms, and essentially, I had a whiplash and I fell forward and my neck just snapped.
TSR: Oh, I see.
Richard: But that in itself wouldn't have bothered many people except that in my case the holes in my backbone where the spinal cord goes through, they are abnormally small and there wasn't sufficient room for the spinal cord to be cushioned when I had this problem. They were bruised so significantly that when I fell, it was with such force that I was basically paralyzed. I had some movement in my shoulders and my neck, but below that it just wasn't working. I wasn't too worried, I figured I'll just shake it off. So I tried to roll over on my back, because I figured if I did that I could get up the stairs and grab a railing. Well, it took me about 45 minutes or so to turn over because I had to rock and use my hips. I finally rolled over, but there was no way that I could grab the railing or sit on a step, I just slipped all the way down the stairway onto the floor! And other than the fact that my head was kind of in a bad position because it was stuck in a weird way, I wasn't able to get ahold of anybody. I couldn't reach for the phone. I'm not even sure I could have dialed if I had. And my wife wasn't expected back for a week, so I thought I was probably going to die.
I did hear the clock keep chiming as I laid there, and I decided at 7:30 that I would try to see if anybody was outside. I began to holler for help and within 15 minutes someone had heard me and came to the door, and got the paramedics there. I was sent to the hospital. So, one of the first things they did was, they wanted to fix the neck so I couldn't have a repeat of this, so they removed bone tissue to allow more space for the spinal cord. They reached into my neck and inserted rods and screws, which did reduce my neck movement, but at least I can get around in a wheelchair, where for a while I was able to walk around with a walker, but I lost that ability. I'm still working to try and recover that, but it's a long road and I don't know if I'll reach it again, but I'm still working at it.
TSR: Of course.
TSR: Richard, your credentials speak for themselves, as does your life experience. Has the accident limited your nonphysical pursuits in retirement very much? How different is your life now compared to what you imagine that it could have been in retirement without the accident?
Richard: Well, my wife and I had decided that we really wanted to travel a bit more. I had travelled quite a bit, but she hadn't, and there were areas that we kind of both wanted to go to. So, the accident basically stopped that. We were not able to travel, except locally in the Southwest, but even that now is so hard for a variety of reasons, so I'm not able to travel. My life is pretty sedentary, unfortunately.
TSR: Has the accident been a blessing in any way?
Richard: Perhaps in that it's allowed me time to put together some autobiographical information, mostly because I just think some of the things I've done are interesting and I would like to save those for my grandkids. So, when they're older, they get a chance to really know who their grandfather was.
TSR: Of course. That's really nice, and you certainly have quite the legacy. One of the things that you've done at the behest of your good friends was put some of your amazing stories on record at last. It's quite an impressive archive with many fascinating revelations about your life and your experiences, and I expect that we'll get to a good few of those stories in this interview series. People can also hear the original recordings on your new website, www.RichardRunyon.com.
But there's one particular story that I want you to share today. And I'm referring to the Scotland story, which you've summarized for me in the past, the very first time we ever spoke, in fact. For me, Richard, it was a fascinating and thought-provoking account of something that could happen to anyone, even today. Like all of your stories, people might find it hard to believe this is actually true, and it's hard to imagine that the experience didn't significantly shape the man you became after the event. So, please, Richard, tell us the Scotland story.
Richard: Well, I was 18 years old and I'd just graduated from high school. Two buddies of mine decided that we would go to Europe for the summer, which we did, and I had a great time. But on our way back to the airport—you see, we had purchased inexpensive airline tickets, and in those days, you could get a charter airline and they were relatively inexpensive, but they were nonrefundable. And we had flown into, and we were going to fly out of Prestwick, Scotland, which is on the west coast of Scotland.
So, we were sitting on a night train from London to Glasgow, and I remember waking up and there was a guy in our room, our cabin there, who appeared to be drunk, and he was browsing around our luggage. So I kicked him out and didn't think anything more about it until I got to the airport. I was going through all my papers and realized that my passport was missing! At that time, being so young, I really didn't know how big a deal that was.
So, I went to the airline personnel to ask them if this was going to be a problem, and he said, "Yeah. We can't let you on the plane without a passport." And I said, "Well, I've got all this other stuff." The closest place to get a passport was in Edinburgh, which is on the east coast of Scotland. I didn't have a lot of money, so I borrowed money from my two buddies who also didn't have money, but it was a little bit more than I had before, and every bit helped.
I took a cab to Glasgow, a train into Edinburgh, and then a cab took me to the embassy, or rather, the consulate. It was a Sunday and the consulate was closed, but they had a plaque for emergency contact. So I went to his house and he was out, but his neighbor said he should be back soon. I waited for him and he finally showed up. He was a great guy, so he had no problem issuing me a new passport with my credentials, as I had a California driver's license and my military dependents card. He said that he could issue me a passport, except I needed a picture to apply for the passport. And these weren't the days of instant photographs, so there was no way to just go into a local store and take that picture.
The only picture that you could have would be from a regular photographer. I couldn't get a passport, but they also checked and said I had plenty of documentation issue behind this, so they should allow me to fly. I got back to Prestwick and again talked to them, the airline people, and again, they were adamant! "If you don't have a passport you're not going to get on board," they told me plainly. But they did say that they expected a plane to come back in the next day, and they would try to get me on board if I had a passport. Well, on that same night I watched my two buddies, the only two people I knew in all of Europe, get on this airplane. And I remember standing outside in the drizzle as I watched the plane take off. It was a pretty lonely experience.
TSR: It sounds like a bad dream, and a very sad one, too.
Richard: So, to save money, I generally slept in the airports. But that night I needed to get to Glasgow. I slept in the train station so I could catch the first train out. I got questioned a few times by the local police, but they didn't arrest me, they just asked me to get up. I stood for awhile and then went back to sleep. I needed to head to Edinburgh and I eventually settled on the steps of a photographer, till the office opened and I explained who I was, and in fact it was urgent and I needed the picture right away. He said okay and took my picture. I went to the consulate to get the passport ready and once I got the photograph I also got my passport.
I went back down to catch the train, but it was leaving the station as I got there and I missed it altogether! I grabbed a cab and it took me all the way across Scotland to catch my plane , even then I was delayed. But when I finally got to the airport—I think this was an hour away or later—the plane was supposed to leave, but it was still there! I ran into the airport and talked to the guy. He said, "No, I talked to my management and they said that you would not be allowed on the plane. I'm sorry."
So they took off without me. The airline personnel were only there for the two flights and then they left. Their office was in the Gatwick airport in London. Well, I figured I'd better just hang out there and see what could happen. I didn't make a nuisance of myself as much as I would have liked to, I just hung out in the airport. I was visible the whole time to the other airline that had sponsored my airline, TIA (Trans International Airline), particularly because they knew the situation. So I sat there playing solitaire. I think it was a day or two later that I received a telegram from the airline saying that there had been arrangements for me to travel on an empty Trans Global Airline flight that was coming in from Canada and was going to drop all its passengers first and then fly empty to London. So, I was able to get on that flight and it really was empty.
And so, the flight took me to Gatwick airport in London and then I rode along and found my way to the office for my airline, where I ran into one of the airline reps. Now, they only had three people—they had a British guy who was responsible for the airline catering; they had a German guy, Fredric Fieldkerker, who was a passenger rep; and they had an American, Dan Dent, who was a mechanic, a mechanical guy, and that's who I ran into. He was a good guy and able to assist. He offered his place for as long as I needed it. So that was wonderful.
I stayed with him a couple of days again. Eventually, he had to entertain some business in Manchester and said he would leave the key for the house at the airport, which was okay, because I needed to stop at the American Express office. In those days, American Express had offices all over the world and you could use them to… Well, it was kind of a third-world post office, people could send mail via the American Express office and obviously through my travelers checks and all that, but they were really a nice spot. And so, I had a letter coming in—actually, I had two letters waiting for me, but I had called my parents when I was in Preswick to tell them I was traveling to London.
Now, this was the first call that I had made, and not because I didn't want to talk to them, but because the cost was very expensive in those days to make a phone call, or a transatlantic call. And in those days, cell phones had not yet been invented, so nobody had one. I made a call, got over to my folks, and told them what was going on. My mom said she tried to send something, and so I was checking to see what she sent me. It was actually a check plus a check from one of the hotels that I was staying in Berlin where I had apparently overpaid, I think. So, I was able to cash that check and get a little bit more money and then I was headed for the airport to find the house key, but they didn't have anything for me. So this was a wild goose chase. I checked with both airports (Gatwick and Heathrow), but I couldn't remember exactly where my new friend, Dan Dent, lived. Lucky for me, the village where he lived was pretty small, so I had a feeling that I was going to be able to figure it out.
I knew what street Dan's house was on, so I went to the village police station. I had no idea what I was going to say, but as I was waiting to talk to them I noticed that a map of the village was posted on their wall, showing the street I was looking for! With that, I was able to easily locate his house again, but of course there was no hidden key, and I knew Dan was not there and his wife was on vacation in Europe. So I figured out a way to break into the house without actually breaking anything. Fortunately, nobody saw me do this!
TSR: Thank goodness.
Richard: Yeah. So, I got in the house, I think it was 5:00. I fixed my dinner, washed the dishes, watched some TV and went to bed. When I got up in the morning a stack of luggage was there and I realized that his wife had come home from a vacation she'd had in Scandinavia. So here I am, sitting in her house, she doesn't know me from Adam… and I wasn't really sure what was going to happen! So, I was downstairs waiting for her and it turned out that when she saw me, she didn'timmediately freak out. She knew there was somebody sleeping in the house, but she wasn't too worried because the British representative from TIA frequently spent the night. She was trying to figure out who I was.
TSR: Of course she was!
Richard: So I followed her in and started talking real quick, trying to keep her from freaking out. And I think the fact that I was an American and she was American, that was unusual, so I think that calmed her down until I could explain why I was there. In the end, I didn't get arrested for sleeping in their house.
TSR: That's good.
Richard: Yeah, it worked out, but truly the most disturbing thing is that I wasn't really sure what could have happened. Anyway, so then Dan comes home and says, "We've got a ticket for you." The British guy talked to one of the other airlines and told them that he needed a ticket to go to one of their people, to fly back to the States and his flight was to Detroit. So I sent a telegram to my parents telling them that I was headed to Detroit. As I was waiting to board the aircraft, a couple of airline representatives came over to talk to me, and I didn't know that I was supposed to pretend to be on the staff of TIA. They quickly decided that I was most definitely not working for the airline and they pulled the ticket.
TSR: Oh no…
Richard: The next day, another guy visited and this time my TIA flight buddies and the British airline buddies weren't even around. So I didn't even go through the customs or immigration, I just went right up to the plane, I got on, and then I waited to see if the away ticket, the flight tickets, worked. After I got on and they took my ticket they told me to take any available seat, so I found an aisle seat. Two of the flight attendants were talking next to me and one said to the other, "We have one too many passengers on board." And the other one responded, "Well, maybe somebody got on a little early." So I kept my head down and tried to listen to more of their conversation. I overheard them say "calm down" at one point, so that was okay. Then, the pilot came on and said, "We've got a mechanical problem, you'll have to get off the plane."
TSR: You just can't catch a break.
Richard: Yeah. So, we all left the plane and I figured I was screwed, but in the end I was allowed to get back on, no questions asked! Everybody was in a hurry at that point. So, the flight attendants didn't bother to check anything, we took off, and then we landed in Preswick, Scotland. The flight attendants said we all had to leave the airplane again, and then it was the same ground crew that I had worked with previously, with TIA, and they all knew my situation and congratulated me for getting a ride home. At that point, I was trying to keep it quiet because I didn't want the airline to figure out that I was a bogus passenger!
Richard: But we got off the plane and then everybody reported and I was fine, no more questions were asked, and we left. We flew to Toronto. One of the guys sitting in my row offered me a place to stay for the night. So I crashed at his place and then the next morning he took me to a bus station and I bought a ticket to St. Louis, where my grandmother lives. And when the bus stopped at Chicago, it was so I could get the next connector. I finally told my folks and said that I was on the way and that I would appreciate it if they would send me a standby ticket to Los Angeles. I wanted to go via Oakland in California, because Oakland is where the airline's headquarter is, so I could argue about getting a refund of my money.
I got to St. Louis and spent a couple days with my grandmother and then took a standby flight to Oakland, but it went via Los Angeles. So, I got off and got a transfer ticket. Somebody pointed out that they had forgotten to date it, so it was good until I used it. I didn't realize it that way, so I decided to go home. There was nobody expecting me and nobody answered the phone, but I took a bus as far as I could—end of the line—which happened to be two blocks from the house where one of the guys I traveled to Europe with, Steve Cass, was staying. So I got to Steve's house and he met me at the door… and he just started laughing.
Finally, after he quit laughing he drove me the rest of the way home and I visited with my folks for two weeks. But my adventure still wasn't over. After that, I went back to the airport and told the airline reps that I'd just gotten off this flight and they looked at my transfer ticket said it was okay, but I would have to fly to San Francisco first and I said, "I'm okay with that."
So, I flew into San Francisco, and then they put me on helicopter. The helicopter took me over to Oakland. It was my first time in a helicopter and it was a lot of fun up there! So I made it to the headquarters and argued my case. The man in charge turned me down and said, "You got home, didn't you?"
As I was leaving, I decided that I had some information they might be interested in, so I told them that because of Frederick Fieldkerker, the guy who wouldn't let me on the plane, BOAC weren't going to renew their permit with TIA to land in Gatwick. That meant TIA was going to lose their spot in the airport, which was obviously a big deal. And it was all because of Fredrick Fieldkerker.
Some time later, when I was working at a gas station and all that stuff wasn't as much on my mind, a car drove up and I noticed that it had a TIA sticker on the back. So I said to them, "Hey, you guys know Frederick Fieldkerker?" And they said, "Yeah, but he got fired." So at that point I felt good. Even though I didn't get my money back, I did get some satisfaction with the whole thing, and I learned some lessons too, and that was good.
TSR: Wow, what a story! That is absolutely amazing. Now, let me ask you a question to round out today's interview, Richard. What are some words of wisdom that you can impart to the younger generation today?
Richard Runyon: Well, first, I'm not sure that the younger generation will really give much of a hoot about what I want to tell. But, if they listen, I would say that first, as you see opportunities open up, don't be afraid to jump in there, because it might be the best choice you ever make. Look at it closely, but don't be afraid of it. Also, be persistent about the things that you want. Don't be afraid because you don't think you have what it takes. A lot of people feel that way and they turn out to be leaders, because they pushed and pushed, even though they didn't think they initially had it in them. And then they find that they did have it all along, and that's the best thing for them.
TSR News Group: Well, I believe that's very true and you've articulated it perfectly as well. And who knows, you might be surprised, there may be more receptive young people out there than you realize! Well, that about wraps up the first installment of this six-part interview, and what an interview it was! I must say, Richard, I knew that our conversation was going to be eye-opening, but this was something else altogether. It fills me with such excitement to know that this is only the beginning of your incredible story to tell.
For additional information please visit Richard Runyon's official website where you can keep track of special announcements, including the second part of A Story to Tell interview series, coming soon!