Almost six weeks ago, I was heartbroken to learn that a dear friend whom I’ve known since our college days at Texas A&M had died when she developed a DVT (deep vein thrombosis) that resulted in a fatal pulmonary embolism. I attended her memorial service in her hometown of Taylor in central Texas on Feb. 25, and life has kept me from writing this tribute.
So today, on her 61st birthday, I’m honoring Denise Ann Richter.
It’s hard to know where to begin in celebrating the life of “Nesa.” She was all heart, packed into a tiny, 5-foot-1 frame that held only endearment and warmth for the many people in her life whom she loved and who loved her back. She made a significant impact on all who worked with her and were her steadfast friends.
Denise and I met in 1981 when we were sophomores at Texas A&M, taking reporting classes and working for The Battalion, the student newspaper. She was proud to be an Aggie, loved our Batt family and was a dedicated, skillful newspaper journalist. She, like the rest of us, knew the importance of what we were doing and took it very seriously. That extended throughout her newspaper career, which lasted almost three decades until 2010.
Denise came from a small immediate family — only her parents and two half-siblings — and wasn’t close to her sibs. She never married and didn’t have children (she would’ve been the most amazing mom).
But Denise made family for herself everywhere she went, including her hometown. And did she *ever* go places, moving 11 times for jobs, including 10 in the newspaper business, after we graduated with journalism degrees in May 1983.
When both of her parents tragically passed away from cancer in 1982 — Minnie Richter at 54 that July and Albert at 52 that October — we all wrapped ourselves around Denise to support her through that unimaginably difficult time for a 21-year-old. We had a close-knit Batt family and so much camaraderie in our newsroom.
As a journalist, Denise was a bulldog — tenacious, no-nonsense, serious and a stickler for accuracy. Some of those traits were instilled in us by people like Skip Leabo, Bob “Rog” Rogers and Don Johnson, three of our more memorable journalism instructors. But Denise was a natural when it came to being a journalist and had ingrained leadership qualities, and that’s obviously what folks at the Gannett Co. saw in her as they moved her from small paper to small paper to build and oversee newsrooms.
Denise was a polished communicator and the ultimate professional. As a human being, she was thoughtful, kind and understanding. Denise had a wondrously wry sense of humor that kept us all smiling and laughing at The Batt. But when she was working, she was focused and intense.
She was a strong mentor, someone everyone admired for her spirit, talent and spunk. We all looked up to her, figuratively even if not literally.
Here’s a list of the newspapers where Denise worked, most in positions of leadership, either managing editor, editor or executive editor:
The Brazosport Facts in Clute, Texas
Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger
USA Today in Washington, D.C.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times (now the Tampa Bay Times)
Salem (Ore.) Statesman Journal
Lafayette (Ind.) Journal & Courier
Danville (Ill.) Commercial-News
Port Huron (Mich.) Times Herald
Lafayette (La.) Daily Advertiser
In 2010, Denise left the newspaper business and moved to Round Rock, Texas, to work for Acadian Ambulance Co., based in Lafayette, where her last newspaper job had been. Her bosses at Acadian spoke at her memorial service about what a remarkable member of the team she’d been. Denise didn’t just handle communications for Acadian — she literally did it all.
One of Denise’s monumental achievements at Acadian was the networking she set up with emergency medical technicians in Australia. She was responsible for bringing 16 Aussies to the U.S. to work for Acadian and had a network of over 200, many of whom are likely to end up coming here too.
In the week before Denise’s service, I came to know Pat McMorrow, exchanging numerous texts with this charming woman in St. Paul and learning that she and Denise had been the closest of friends since they met at The Brazosport Facts in 1983 and became roomies.
Denise had the honor of being godmother to Pat’s daughter Molly and son Rory, who, respectively, are now 26 and 20 and an ICU nurse and a student at the University of Minnesota. I met and visited with both at Denise’s memorial — the three of them drove from Minnesota — and they’re so impressive. To Molly and Rory, their godmother was Aunt Denise.
Interesting fact about The Facts: Denise and several other Batt friends worked after graduation at the small paper, a breeding ground on the upper Texas coast for young journalists. Some of those folks are John Wagner, Cathy Saathoff Barber, John Lopez and Dillard Stone, a TAMU Corps of Cadets leader who was a couple of years older than Denise and me and had been editor at The Batt his senior year.
Dillard dated Denise’s dear friend and our Batt colleague Phyllis Henderson at A&M, and they’ve been married almost 40 years. Cathy went on to become food editor for years at The Dallas Morning News, where she was my colleague until retiring in 2015. (I saw Cathy this month in Santa Fe at the celebration of life for another friend and former colleague.)
During her eulogy for Denise in late February, Pat spoke of how, when she and Denise were writing obituaries at The Facts all those years ago, they promised each other that whoever went first, the other would write her obit. I hate that either of them had to keep that promise. Pat also joked about how Denise, ever the champion of by-the-book journalism and accuracy, insisted that the cause of death MUST be at the top of the obit.
So it was, indeed, Pat who wrote Denise’s grand obituary, designed the beautiful program for the service, helped organize the reception at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Taylor, is handling Denise’s estate, and so much more. She is truly the best, most caring friend anyone could have.
Here’s how thoughtful Pat is: In the program, she included a photo of a needlepoint Denise had hanging in every home she ever lived in, taken from Psalms 23:6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
An excerpt Pat wrote for the program says so much about Denise:
“While the world has lost a major source of sparkle, Denise will shine on through everyone on whom she bestowed love, baked goods, needlework, Advent boxes, baskets and … Mardis Gras beads!”
Pat’s eulogy paid tribute to Denise’s exceptional journalistic talents, which we saw during our long hours spent deep into the nights/mornings at The Batt.
“She was really, really smart and she was a good writer, maybe a better editor,” Pat said. “Even when we were so young, she could read a room and she could think on her feet. … And as all of you know who worked with her through the years, she only got better.”
Of the devastating loss Denise suffered when her parents died so young when she was so young, Pat said:
“She taught us how to get along after tremendous loss. She decided that she was not going to be defined by tremendous loss … she would much, much prefer to be defined by love.”
There was also a graveside service, where the wind made it bitterly cold and to which Denise was given a ride in her urn by an Acadian ambulance, such a special gesture by her company. After that service, Pat, her kids and other Taylor friends huddled in a group hug to cry and share warmth near Denise’s grave.
Later at the reception, the entry table had a pair of Toms shoes that a hometown friend of Denise’s painted in Aggie theme for her, along with lots of Mardis Gras beads (Denise loved to decorate for MG), and boxes of small M&M packets decorated with “Thank you for being a friend” (because Denise loved M&M’s, especially peanut, and was a huge fan of The Golden Girls).
Another reception highlight: Huge bowls, made by hometown friends, of Denise’s recipe for Texas Trash, which I sampled and even took some home because there was SO much of it. It had the usual — Chex, pretzels, peanuts — but also had Bugles and Golden Grahams cereal pieces mixed in. There were also Tiff’s Treats cookies and brownies — and if you’ve never had Tiff’s Treats, you’re missing out!
I’m so glad I was able to drive down to Taylor, just northeast of Austin, for Denise’s service. Not only did I meet a number of her hometown “family,” but I also got to see a college and Batt friend, Johna Maurer Gilbert, who lives in Austin. It was fantastic catching up with her in person (as opposed to social media) after almost 39 years.
We can’t talk about Denise’s wonderful life without bringing Phyllis Henderson Stone further into the conversation. They were inseparable during college, later when both worked at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and beyond. I joined them and another Batt friend Dan Puckett (whom we lost to COVID-19 in 2020) on the staff in Fort Worth in April 1987. I remember when I flew from Odessa, where I’d been a sports writer since we graduated, to interview at the S-T, Denise and Phyllis took me to the famed Billy Bob’s honky-tonk for dinner to show me what a great place Fort Worth is. I was sold.
Denise and Phyllis had a precious friendship, and they were practically twins — not in terms of features but in height, both being 5-1.
The week of Denise’s memorial, Phyllis told me how a former editor colleague of ours in Fort Worth, the late Andy McMills, used to call them The Stump Sisters just to rile them up.
During college, Denise and Phyllis co-wrote a column for The Batt in February 1982, and I found it in the online Batt archives as I was preparing to attend the memorial. It was a self-deprecating view of their shared shortness with a headline that said: “It’s a tall, tall world we live in.”
Here’s the lede (what we journalists call the opening of a story):
“This will be a short column but it’s going to pack quite a punch. Unfortunately, it will hit most of you in the kneecaps.”
Priceless. They went on to write: “We feel especially qualified to comment on this subject because our combined heights barely surpass that of Texas A&M’s shortest basketball player. When he’s barefoot. And we’re in heels.”
I have so many lasting memories of our years at The Batt, but one that jumps out involves Denise and me, and it happened 40 years ago. Texas A&M was in the midst of a rather controversial search for a new head football coach after firing Tom Wilson on the heels of a 7-5 season that included an Independence Bowl win over Oklahoma State. I’d just become sports editor and Denise was our city editor.
In the cold, Denise and I stationed ourselves for hours on end outside the Memorial Student Center, where the A&M regents were meeting with candidates for the job, including Michigan’s legendary Bo Schembechler and, later, Pittsburgh’s young, up-and-coming Jackie Sherrill.
On January 19, 1982, the morning we received confirmation that Sherrill had been hired, Denise and I wrote the front-page story together. I have a vivid picture in my memory of Denise sitting at one of our boxy ECRM computers and doing all the typing as we worked out the story details.
Meanwhile, our editor, Angel Copeland, and fellow staffer Jane Brust were writing sidebars for the front page so we’d have the big news in the paper when it hit the streets of campus by noon. As I recall, the paper was a little late getting out that day. It’s an experience with Denise that I’ll never forget.
Our Batt friends and colleagues have a shared love and admiration for Denise.
“Denise was such an integral part of my life back in the day,” John Wagner, a talented writer a year behind me in school whom I hired when I became sports editor, shared after we learned of Denise’s passing. “I always looked up to her and learned so much from her.
“I watched her write an article one day. She did it in a way I’ve never been able to master. She wrote 5 or 6 sections, not in any order, and then shuffled them around until she liked the fit. Amazing.”
David Fisher, one of our talented photographers, remembers Denise as “passionate and funny and kind.”
When we were seniors in the spring of ’83, about 10 of us, including Denise, took a van trip to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater for the Southwestern Journalism Congress convention with our beloved sponsor, Don Johnson, who was known as DJ and also taught editing and newspaper production.
After we got there, several of us decided to drive around town, with our editor, Diana Sultenfuss, doing the driving. Somewhere along the way, someone noticed a sign for Duck Street. Having grown up in Taylor, home of the Taylor High Ducks, Denise always had a thing for ducks, so we just HAD to stop and take a photo of the group with that sign.
I took photojournalism that semester and was always carrying a 35mm camera, so I shot the photo and a bunch of others on the trip. I’d had them on negatives for over 30 years until I finally got them transferred to digital a few years ago so we could cherish all those memories of Denise and the gang.
One of our Batt close friends, Colette Hutchings, shared a memory from that trip:
“I fondly remember that trip to Stillwater for the SWJC. The OSU Jazz Band was the entertainment for one evening — so many decided to leave when they started playing. NOT Denise or me — the band was amazing. We ended up dancing with members of the band — truly memorable!”
Just three months later, Denise was a bridesmaid in Colette’s wedding to Dr. Andy Dean. Colette shared some pics from her wedding with me after Denise’s passing and said, “Denise joked that she felt like Little Bo Peep. I can hear her giggling now.”
A few years ago, Denise sent me a message on Facebook Messenger that I have and always will cherish.
“You’re such a good soul, and you deserve all the happiness that’s come your way.”
I used to love getting cards from Denise — they’d have the cutest little duck stickers on the envelopes.
We last exchanged texts on Christmas Day. I learned from one of our Batt friends that she was gone eight days after her passing, and it left me shocked and crushed.
Denise was such a unique, sweet soul. I’m blessed to have been her friend.