Farewell And Godspeed, Mr. Roadshow

[ Posted Tuesday, December 19th, 2023 – 15:19 UTC ]

I realize that it is the height of the holiday season and I should be either writing about politics or attempting to dispense my own particular brand of holiday cheer, but instead today I am personally moved to write an obituary for a well-loved newspaper columnist. Sorry to be such a Debbie Downer the week before Christmas -- which is why I am warning everyone here up front (in case you'd prefer to skip today's article and instead seek out something more cheerful).

I am not alone today -- far from it -- in mourning the news of the passing of Gary Richards. For those of you who don't now or have never lived in or around Silicon Valley, he was a feature writer for the San Jose Mercury News. But few called him by his given name, because for over three decades he was much more well-known by the title of his column series: Mr. Roadshow. His beat was traffic. And the roads. And drivers. And all things transportation, really.

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.

-- Robert Louis Stevenson

His column format was a simple one, where readers would write in with problems, questions, complaints, suggestions, observations, and full-on rants. Traffic everywhere is a rather visceral subject -- and it is especially poignant in car-culture California, the land of the freeway.

Auto racing began five minutes after the second car was built.

-- Henry Ford

I would have to check (it was a long time ago) but I think the first time I ever saw my name in print in a major newspaper was in his column, after I wrote in on some traffic issue or another. I didn't expect to be featured; as I recall I was just offering a suggestion about some other reader's problem or some refinement of what had been previous said in his column. So I wrote it more as a personal letter to Mr. Roadshow, just a sort of heads-up from a different perspective.

Which is why I was surprised when he reached out and contacted me, and we then had a back-and-forth to clarify a point or two, after which he ran my (condensed) letter complete with his answer. He was an easy person to communicate with and from that point on I would, on occasion, write in again on other issues. Not all of them were printed in the paper, but he almost always responded in some way or another, which was a thoughtful and respectful thing for him to do. And every so often I would see my name in print again, when he decided one of my notes would be interesting to others.

There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.

-- Jack Kerouac

At some point I contacted the editorial staff of the Mercury News over something or another (my memory is vague, I think I may have taken exception to a rather bombastic headline, or perhaps their choice of which articles deserved to run on the front page -- some sort of editorial issue). I was astonished when the Editor-In-Chief wrote me back and not only addressed my issue but also invited me in to the paper's offices to see how the front pages of all the sections (newspapers were a lot beefier 20 or 30 years ago, there were more sections than currently exist) were put together in their editorial meeting each day. This was a wonderful peek into a major city's newspaper operation, and as I said I was bowled over that they would reach out to such an extent to someone who was, in essence, complaining about how they ran their paper.

The highlight of touring their offices, however, was not seeing the top editorial staff and how their front-page decisions were made. It was meeting Mr. Roadshow in person. I acted like a total fanboy, I am embarrassed to admit, and couldn't get much out other than: "Your column is great!" I know it may be tough for readers who regularly wade through my excessive verbiage to believe, but I was totally tongue-tied.

Gary was an easygoing and affable guy, and I was glad I can now say that I got the chance to meet him and shake his hand and thank him for the public service he provided. Well, I tried to, at any rate, but I certainly wasn't all that eloquent when standing in front of him.

The Mr. Roadshow columns were amazing, and I kind of doubt anyone will ever be able to fill his shoes. All sorts of contentious issues were discussed in great length (with conversations often lasting for years) -- bicycles versus motorists, pedestrians versus everybody, slow cars in the fast lane (Mr. Roadshow's term for them: "road boulders"), speed demons versus Sunday drivers, drivers who failed to use their turn signals, talking on the phone or texting while driving, and too many others to even list.

Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?

-- George Carlin

But it wasn't just a forum for venting road rage -- Mr. Roadshow was also a powerful liaison with all sorts of official departments as well: the state roadworks department (CALTRANS), local city maintenance departments, the cops (both the California Highway Patrol and local departments), the Department of Motor Vehicles, city planning departments, regional transit agencies (rail and bus), as well as many, many others. When a reader was getting the runaround from any of these agencies, Mr. Roadshow's intervention often worked wonders. When he would contact these agencies, he had the power of the press behind him. They knew that he wasn't just one random citizen with a problem, but that the problem was going to appear in a major newspaper in one of its most-read columns. This leverage was enough to move a lot of bureaucratic mountains. Potholes would get fixed in a flash, the D.M.V. would suddenly find paperwork and process a form, the cops would promise to crack down on a dangerous intersection or road with too many speeders -- time and time again, people's problems would be solved. In record time.

Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn't block traffic.

-- Dan Rather

Mr. Roadshow wasn't just a place to vent, it was a way to make things happen. His contacts in all these agencies cut out a lot of middlemen, and the departments involved obviously knew that getting bad press over an issue wasn't good for their public relations, so they'd bend over backwards to help some reader out. That is not just the power of the press, it is using that power in very concrete (can't resist the roadbed pun, there) ways. Mr. Roadshow was a force for good in the transportation world.

Over the years, issues would arise that were so contentious the two sides would eventually just have to agree to disagree. Mr. Roadshow was a careful referee to such fights, and while he knew he couldn't come up with some magic solution to make everyone happy, he at least got people on both sides to understand and appreciate the other side's point of view. On some very contentious issues, mind you.

I have found out that there ain't no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.

-- Mark Twain

Richards was born and grew up in Iowa, where people (and drivers) are much more polite. His Midwestern niceness was apparent when he was trying to get people to behave better on the roadways. He held a notable contest for a slogan to remind people of the importance of signalling lane changes and turns, the winner of which was: "Don't be a stinker, use your blinker."

One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are.

-- Edith Wharton

Mr. Roadshow was a big proponent of electric vehicles and hybrids, after buying his own Prius (the plural of which, according to him, was: "Prii"). This was back when all electric vehicles got a magic sticker which allowed them free use of the carpool lanes in the state. When this perk disappeared, he held a party where Prius owners (and drivers of other brands) could get their stickers professionally removed from their cars (which wasn't easy). One of his big fans showed up for the occasion -- Steve Wozniak, who also drove a Prius. That's how big a deal Mr. Roadshow was in Silicon Valley -- even a computer celebrity like Wozniak was a big fan. From his official obituary in today's Merc: "When a fan approached Woz and asked if he could take a photo, he handed the Silicon Valley legend his iPhone, then walked over and threw his arm around Mr. Roadshow and smiled for the camera." In some circles, Mr. Roadshow was more impressive than the co-founder of Apple Computers. That's how well-loved he was here.

Sometimes all you need is a great friend and a tank of gas.

-- from Thelma And Louise

In his earlier days (before he began having medical problems which slowed him down), when a reader would write in about a certain road or intersection or on-ramp they were having problems with (usually with suggestions as to how it could be improved), Mr. Roadshow got in his car and drove out to check the road out himself. He'd then report back, usually with some version of: "I see what you mean!" That sort of dedication is why he built such a loyal fan base.

He will be missed. Greatly. Page two of the Merc will never be the same again. Even if he is replaced and the column continues, his will be enormous shoes to fill. My condolences go out to his wife (who became known in the column as "Mrs. Roadshow," naturally) and his family. It is rare, these days, for a local newspaper columnist to generate such love and to have such a tangible impact on so many people's lives. Which is why I had to dedicate a column to him, because he certainly deserves every honor imaginable.

Mr. Roadshow is gone, but he will never be forgotten by the drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians, train commuters, and everyone else moving in whatever way from point A to point B throughout the entire San Francisco Bay Area.

It's not the destination, it's the journey.

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thank you, Mr. Roadshow, for giving us over three decades of your relentless dedication to making all of our journeys safer, smoother, more pleasant, and better all around.

Requiescat In Pace

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


2 Comments on “Farewell And Godspeed, Mr. Roadshow”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    I sorta feel the same about you.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    What Joshua said!

    My donation this year may be a little late, as per usual. :-)

    Love ya to bits!

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