The Greatest Love of All

Well after rattling out 36 posts in 5 weeks, I hit a brick wall and stepped away for a while. Now I shall try and ease myself back into the blog with occasional postings. Today, for no reason in particular, I want to focus on one of the mentors in my life. The man who changed my life and the lives of so many others for the good. Richard Gentle.

He has featured in these blogs before though he has never been the central character. And though he hated being in the spotlight when he could push someone else – normally a young person – into the illumination of success, he is going to be the nub of these few paragraphs.

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I first met him in January 1987 when I started working at Cuffley Motors. I was doing a shift on the pumps and Richard was my opposite number. I’m slightly surprised that I had never come across him before as I was born and bred Goffs Oak but had a lot of connections in Cuffley where Richard had grown up. Then again, up to this point my life mostly centred around hedonism and alcoholic depravity.

Now Richard didn’t hang around long once his shift finished and nor did I so we didn’t get to know each other at handover very much. However he used to come back – he was living in Wormley at the time – and just hang around the garage causing mischief so I soon got to know him. In the summer of 1987 I learned that he was reopening the Youth Club that had been closed since Pat Cheetham gave it up. By October he had talked me into working there and my first step toward a new life was taken.

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So who was Richard? An incredible man that’s who. A printer by trade (I still shuffle wads of printer paper the way he showed me), he involved himself with working with young people from early on. Scoutmaster, manager of a Children’s Home on the Ridgeway, and then Youth and Community Leader. He was also, incidentally, petrol pump attendant, bar worker, shellfish stall owner, and loads more that I have forgotten or never even knew of.

He was also a man who got things done. Richard had a way with people. It’s true he was a bit Marmite and he had his detractors as well as his fans, but regardless of this he knew how to win the important people over.

But his passion was for young people. Not in any unhealthy, seedy, post-Saville kind of way (Though those filthy rumours arose from sewer mouths sometimes) but because he cared. When I first met him he had half a dozen kids – well adults by then – from the Children’s Home sharing his flat because they had nowhere to go when they turned 18. He was like a father to them. A kind, loving, decent father!

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I was talking about him getting things done. Every Sunday for a long while there would be a group of qualified tradesmen working for nothing down the Community Centre. Well not exactly nothing, it was their Community Service. Richard had chatted to the probation services and we had a seemingly endless supply of labour (and sometimes parts but the less said about that the better) refitting the community centre kitchen or decorating the halls.

Another early victory I am reminded of was when the clubs first started. Attendance for the older group was quite low and the Cuffley kids could be found hanging around the kebab shop smoking, most evenings. So Richard made sure they knew they could smoke in the youth centre. This was the late 80s, way before the ban on smoking in public places. And so, the ‘kids’ migrated to the club. Richard gave it six months – long enough for them to realise they enjoyed coming there – and then banned smoking. Now they just nipped outside for a fag but kept on coming to the clubs.

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Richard didn’t really do ‘no’ and as I have said, he had a way of getting people round to his way of thinking. I have said before how I gave up being on the council’s youth worker payroll to become a volunteer because I detested the soulless forms they expected us to fill-in. Yet within weeks of making that decision, Richard had persuaded me to fill in his forms for him. At one stage I was spending half my week down at the Youth Centre setting up the computer, helping Fiona, the secretary, selling adverts for programmes, and who knows what else. He also got me to come with him on holidays both to Belgium and elsewhere. And all this whilst I was descending into the abyss of alcoholism. And though I stopped going to the centre for a couple of years when I reached my nadir, I returned in sobriety and Richard reacted as if I had never been away.

I could hardly moan at my few hours unpaid work. Richard put in a seven day week, sometimes 12 plus hour days. It was his life and it damn near killed him from a heart attack when he was barely 50. It did persuade him to slow down a bit and he eventually got qualified youth workers in to run the clubs. A culture shock for our young people who were used to Richard’s ways.

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He even tried to relax and persuaded me to go on holiday with him. Firstly on a coach trip to see the Blackpool Lights. I’d never done a coach holiday before, let alone one with Richard. I’ll never do one again though we did have quite a laugh. The couple from Essex on the seats in front of us didn’t know what hit them. I also took him to Dartmouth for a few days when we visited Lindridge for the first time. I’ll talk about this Toc H centre again as it was where Hazel and I got it together.

But that big heart was wearing out. He used it up too quickly I suppose. He was put on the transplant list. We were due to go on another holiday together, this time to Norfolk but he got a call to say they had a heart for him. I went alone and waited for a call. Come the Wednesday Linda phoned and said he had had the op and was sat up talking. By the time I went to visit him the following week, he was unconscious. The heart they had given him, was as Richard declared to all and sundry ‘manky!

My friend died and so did an era. The era of pantomimes, shows and holidays to Belgium. But Linda started a new era, one that continues to this day. Long may it run!

His funeral was unbelievable. His coffin was brought up from the Community Centre to St Andrew’s Church on the back of a vintage truck. It was a compromise as Richard had wanted to be on the back of one of Vic Robert’s working lorries but the funeral director was too prissy for that. Vic was one of those ‘troubled’ young people who Richard had made time for and was now running a hugely successful haulage business.

There were wreaths in the shape of mobile phones (His was glued to his ear as he made one deal after another or talked to a troubled young person); the number plate of his car which he adored. Mine was in the shape of a crabstick. He did love his shellfish.

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650 people turned up that day. The church was packed and they overflowed into the Undercroft where the service was piped through speakers. At the wake at the Community Centre, everyone had a story to tell about Richard and they were all about how good a man he was, and they were nearly all funny too.

And what of his legacy. People mostly. People like me who were touched by his presence and are all the better for it. People who were thrown on the rubbish tip whilst still in their teens and picked off by Richard who helped them become human again.

More tangibly, Richard left money is his will for a rubbish bin to be placed by the shops bearing the message, “Richard Gentle 1945-2001. Still serving the community”

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