Dick Long’s Life and Legacy

Though Dick Long left us seven years ago he left a notable legacy. On this Throwback Thursday I’m sharing a piece I wrote a month after his death.

December 27, 2010

It seems that Dick Long never forgot what it felt like to be hungry or to wonder whether he’d have a bed to sleep in at night. Those memories are partly what drove him not only to build a successful car dealership but also to become engaged in St. Paul charitable and civic affairs. When he died last month, Dick, a devout Catholic, left his mark, not only on his family but also on St. Paul.

Dick’s was the classic rags-to-riches tale. He was born in Chicago in 1929. His older brother died when he was 11. Shortly thereafter, his 42-year-old father dropped dead from a heart attack. His mother had four young children and few marketable skills. At age 13, Dick quit school and went to work to ensure his family kept their home and his younger siblings remained in school.

He worked several jobs at once. He wrapped asbestos around the inner shell of water heaters, working in 90-degree heat with no air conditioning. He changed oil on automobiles in the grease pit. He raised chickens so he could sell the eggs on a street corner at night, after working one or two day jobs.

He never finished high school or attended college but he was a voracious reader and an astute learner. He briefly worked as a policeman before his brother enticed him into the automobile business. Eventually he landed in St. Paul, where he lived with his wife and six children. While Dick built Long Cadillac, Mary ran the household and managed the kids.

After Mary died in 1990, Dick shifted gears. The man whose business often kept him away from home sold the dealership and became plugged into his family, which now includes 19 grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Rick Long, the eldest son, notes “Pops” taught his grandkids the value of relationships and how to love and be loved. He gave his children respite from parenting, taking the grandkids to his cabin to fish and share stories — but only after they were out of diapers. Not a modern man, Pops had his limits.

Dick also had his demons. Rick observed of his alcoholism, “Being a person who had been through treatment and recovery multiple times, (Dick) had an affinity for those who were caught in addiction. He was frequently seen spinning through town taking someone to a treatment center or sharing coffee and an ear to listen when someone was down.”

Although he was weary of battling significant health issues, he never lost his faith or optimism. On the evening of Nov. 15, with a smile on his face, Dick said his final goodbyes to his family. He was ready, he said, to be reunited with Mary, the one love of his life, and to meet Jesus.

In his eulogy, Rick said of his dad, “He has every civic recognition this city awards, but, if you knew my dad, this is not what he would want to be remembered by. He would want to be known as a man who loved his family first, as a man who invested in friendships and people, and as a person who tirelessly gave back.”

Rick continued, “My dad’s true passion and mission in life was to assist the needy and to abolish hunger and homelessness … He often told us that if it weren’t for a few lucky breaks, we all could be in the same position and would want someone there for us. My dad worked tirelessly on this mission. He was deeply involved with Catholic Charities, Loaves and Fishes, the Dorothy Day Center, as well as countless other charities and programs. It wasn’t his leadership in this area that he would want to be remembered for, but the work he did and the difference he made.”

Father John Malone of St. Paul was Dick’s closest friend and confidant. To his mind, what really drove Dick was a deep religious faith, which found its expression in what he did and why he did it. Malone observed that while Dick’s childhood was tough, it was nothing compared to that of many people Dick met at Dorothy Day Center. Dick’s experiences added passion to what he did, but that was only half of the story, Malone said. Dick also believed that you serve Christ by serving other people. He often did so by reaching out to those who no one else wanted to care for.

Dick believed everyone should be able to have a great meal at least once a year, his son recalls. Decades ago, Dick made this vision a reality, along with local restaurateurs and a team of volunteers. On Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, Dorothy Day clients are seated at cloth-draped tables and served a hot meal, while music plays in the background, fellow volunteer Carol Frenette explained. While Dick won’t make an appearance there this Christmas, he’ll surely be there in spirit.

~~~~I shared Dick’s story in “Bitter or Better: Grappling With Life on the Op-Ed Page.” He is one of many who has inspired me to live the choice to be “better.” Have you ever thought about what people will say when you are gone? Are you living the legacy you want to leave? If not, what action must you take to align your life with your desired legacy?