Skip to main content
Original Issue

They Cheer When the Parson Is Pitching

Packaged in his own golden glow of fitness, verve and enthusiasm, the Rev. Bob Richards, twice an Olympic pole-vault winner, is spreading the word on behalf of diligence, perseverance, goodness and the Breakfast of Champions

In The Heart of a Champion, a nonfiction work by the Rev. Bob Richards, the world of sports has no room for backsliders or men of faint spirit. Not only do Richards' athletes remember to say their prayers, they advance into battle enduring torturous injuries. Runners tear ashen-faced down the stretch, while others are popping up, one after another, from operating tables to plunge into training against terrible odds. Johnny Twomey, "116 pounds of solid heart," has lost a shoe on the first lap of an indoor two-mile race, but around and around the board track he goes, splinters ripping into his flesh, to take second place. At Helsinki, Bob Mathias pulls a muscle in his thigh on the first day of the Olympic decathlon, but he lays a hand on his coach's shoulder and says, "Don't worry, coach. Somehow I think I can come through." Gritting his teeth, he smashes his own Olympic record. The Reverend Bob himself, pain stabbing at his left leg like a dagger, pounds down the runway at Helsinki and soars to an Olympic pole-vault record. Page after page, crippled athletes come forward wincing, until the reader begins to believe that he is a spectator at a giant, agonizing Olympic Games that somehow has been awarded to Lourdes.

The contestants have spit in the eye of medical science. Glenn Cunningham is there ("The doctors claimed he'd never walk"). Tenley Albright is there. ("They were saying of her, in pity, 'She will never use her legs again.' ") Wherever one turns, physicians are being made to look like knuckleheads.

The Lourdes Games begin, and as the runners leave the starting line a barely audible babble rises from their lips. Hark! It is the sound of men praying. Lou Jones, springing furiously through the 400 meters, is praying from start to finish. Gunder Hagg is praying around a turn. And all the while, our chronicler, the Reverend Bob, is hard at work getting to the bottom of things. To Gil Dodds he says: "Gil, what did you pray for at that three-quarter mark?"

No doubt there are readers who found The Heart of a Champion (published in 1959) a little gummy, but Richards himself faults it for a different reason. Though he regards it as a good book, inspirational to all men, he says, "The mistake I made was having it published by a religious publisher [the Fleming H. Revell Company] instead of by a publisher who puts out sales literature. I haven't made more than $4,000 or $5,000 the entire time on that book."

The Reverend Bob, who at 42 earns in the neighborhood of $125,000 a year peddling Wheaties in television commercials and delivering inspirational speeches on the banquet and lecture circuit, embraces a particular brand of theology that does not equate religious faith with poverty. God put us on this earth to enjoy its fruit, he argues cheerfully. If you're a salesman, he preaches at sales dinners around the country, work hard, have faith and lead the office in commissions. "Some salesmen say they can't close," he cries out, as if the very thought was enough to curdle the brain. "But I've seen men work on it till they're tremendous closers."

A plugger himself, Richards has made the most of his onetime image as a wholesome track-and-field star. Old-timers—people past 30—remember those headlines that in the 1940s and '50s appeared relentlessly in the Sunday sports sections following Saturday meets: REV. BOB WINS AGAIN. POLE-VAULTING PARSON TOPS 15 FEET. VAULTIN' VICAR STEALS SPOTLIGHT. DECATHLON DEACON TAKES TITLE. He won the Olympic vaulting championship in 1952 and again at age 30 in 1956, impressive handiwork for any man, let alone an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren. Between appearances in pulpits, revival tents and banquet halls, he won 21 national titles—17 in the pole vault (indoors and out), three in the decathlon and one in the all-round, a decathlon-type event that includes heel-and-toe walking. Catapulting off the old metal pole, he cleared the magic height of his era—15 feet—126 times. As the years wore on, copydesk men reflexively whipped off their alliterative Richards headlines without having to come out of their postlunch stupors.

Today, his curly hair graying at the edges but darkened a little with dye, the Reverend Bob vaults into American living rooms as "the Wheaties man," his brilliant, even-toothed smile stretching from ear to ear. Though beginning to show wrinkles off camera, he remains as muscular and flat-bellied as the day he won his first Olympic medal and on screen appears much taller than his 5'10". "You see," he enthuses in commercials, "there's a kernel full of energy in every Wheaties flake." Bursting with energy himself, he turns upside down and takes a short stroll on the palms of his hands. Around the nation, T-shirted, beer-guzzling men dedicated to lazy living glare at the television, bristling. Richards looms into view again alongside a swimming pool and plunges not into the water but into a heaping bowl of Wheaties topped with strawberries and cream.

"Did you know," he muses in yet another sports-oriented pitch, "that enough bowls of Wheaties are poured each year to fill the Rose Bowl right up to the 56th row?" In Chicago a research chemist stalks to his typewriter and irritably demands of Richards, "How much milk is required to go with all that cereal?"

For 10 years the Reverend Bob has been pitching Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions. Sam Huff has come and more or less gone with his slacks, and scores of other athletes have had their brief flings with hair oil, athlete's-foot remedies and gasolines. But Richards keeps hanging in there with his dry cereal, so that today, image-wise, he practically is Wheaties. As a result, the smart alecks out front even call him to account for the package design. "This year," a letter complains, "I happen to be rooming with a fellow who eats Wheaties at an incredible rate. As you might expect, the Wheaties box is always to be found on our kitchen table and as a result I have been forced to stare at Jerry West for more months than I care to recall. Why not try other champions for a change? For example, champions in the world of philosophy? The top line might read: W. V. Quine, metaphysician from Akron, or, Father Joseph Owens, C.Ss.R., neo-Thomist from Toronto."

All right, let the wise guys amuse themselves. In the meantime General Mills, the maker of Wheaties, is paying Richards $75,000 annually, and sales charts indicate that his commercials sell enough Wheaties each year to fill, well, at least Fenway Park. He spoons in another $50,000 making speeches (at up to $1,000 per) and is, in short, fully able to take the wise guys in stride. "Mad magazine," he says, "had me eating Wheaties, then diving into a pool and drowning. You know—glub, glub, glub. They said, 'Let this be a lesson to you. Don't eat Wheaties before going swimming.' Well, that stuff about not eating before swimming, that's an old myth. I have eaten many times and gone in swimming."

To appreciate fully the Richards capacity—both for Wheaties and the defiance of danger—one must see him in action. One recent night the Reverend Bob is sitting on the dais in the banquet hall of Vanderburgh Auditorium in Evansville, Indiana. It is a Monday night, and he is to address the annual awards dinner of the Evansville Sales and Marketing Executives Club, attended by some 200 salesmen and their ladies. He wears a gray flannel jacket on the breast pocket of which rests the orange emblem of the Wheaties Sports Federation, a General Mills offspring that, under Richards' direction, promotes participation in amateur athletics and fitness. Eighteen award-winning salesmen parade single file past the dais, accepting their trophies, and as each name is announced—from R. Davis Barker to Richard A. Schipp—the Reverend's strong hands respond with thunderclap applause that echoes through the hall. He smiles brilliantly upon the award winners, proud of them.

Now he is on his feet, embarked on his one-hour speech. "I'm gonna try to motivate you tonight," he tells the salesmen. "I want to set you on fire; I want to get you to go, to act.... You've got to go through that line, you've got to figure out ways to beat the opposition.... The salesman is on the field! He's out there in the middle of the fight.... Oh, how I love the language of sport in the middle of all this cynical, decadent socialism!"

Richards is nothing if not a superb platform performer. In a matter of minutes he has the Evansville salesmen in his grip. His eyes shut tightly, his hands knifing through the air, he carries the salesmen to successive peaks of grim determination, each time easing them down for a breather with an old joke, skillfully told—sometimes a mildly bawdy anecdote. Bobbing and weaving, his forehead glistening with perspiration, he is Rocky Marciano on the attack against Archie Moore. He is Bart Starr on third down. "No matter what you've done," he cries, getting back to the message, "stretch for somethin' beyond! And lastly, if you want to succeed put God in your life.... Put faith in your life and you've got enthusiasm. Get with it! Feel this dynamic force surge through you and you will win in the great race of life!" The salesmen and their ladies leap to their feet, filling the hall with applause, and then a score of them race to the dais for Richards' autograph. Southern Indiana, he privately muses later, is hospitable enough country, but it is not very lucrative territory for speakers, "though not as bad as L.A. and New York, which are the worst because so many freebies are willing to speak."

All right, all you Holy Joes out there, go ahead and say the Reverend Bob is gross for dwelling on pecuniary matters. But when you frisk him you will find no hypocrisy in him. "What the hell are we talking about if religion isn't motivation, if it isn't life?" he says the morning after his Evansville speech. "Religion should make you happy, it should make you successful, it should give you love. It's a solution to problems." He has come down from his room to the coffee shop in the Ramada Motor Inn and ordered Wheaties, but the waitress has put a substitute before him. "It just lies there in the bottom of the bowl and looks at ya," Richards complains. "No get-up-and-go. A lousy un-American cereal."

Seated at the table with Richards is a somewhat plump man who wears a double-breasted blue blazer and a semi-mod coiffure that leaves his sandy hair lying in curls on his neck. He is Jack Stack, administrative vice-president of Knox Reeves Advertising, Inc., a Minneapolis firm that has the Wheaties account, and he explains that he is tagging along on Richards' week-long speaking tour in order to go over plans for future filming of commercials. Actually Stack is on the scene because Knox Reeves Advertising is not quite sure what Richards will say to a reporter who also is making the tour.

Knox Reeves's concern is understandable. The Reverend Bob is perhaps the greatest reason why Wheaties, its sales having turned soggy in the 1950s, has climbed back to heights of crispy, crunchy profits. In 1933 Wheaties went on radio with Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy, the hair-raising adventures of a teen-age lad possessed of a craving for sports, scientific gadgets and exploration. Jack Armstrong made small boys kick their mothers in the shins if they forgot to stock up on Wheaties. Eventually, however, General Mills made a disastrous mistake. It let Jack grow up, and in 1951, as Armstrong of the SBI (Scientific Bureau of Investigation), he bombed.

Wheaties' advertising, meanwhile, had begun to drift away from its All-American theme and had taken sports champions off the cereal boxes. Sales plunged. Finally, anxious to reassert the product's relationship to the old American virtues, Knox Reeves cast Richards as the living, breathing television extension of Jack Armstrong. Since his debut in December 1957, Wheaties sales have shot up 21%, which is why Jack Stack has come down to Evansville and is sitting in nervous silence while Richards gets a few complaints off his chest.

"Ever read these books by Ph. D.s?" Richards is saying. "The one who can complicate his sentences the most, he passes the test. Nihilistics, meaningless semantics is what it amounts to." If Jack Stack is stricken by a vision of Ph. D.s switching to Kellogg's Corn Flakes, he disguises his fear by remaining expressionless. "Pick up any philosophy book," Richards roars. "It's like pigs grunting! Oink, oink, oink!" Higher education, and organized religion for that matter, have lost touch with the people, the Reverend Bob declares.

Beginning to suffer a headache, which he attributes to the un-American cereal, Richards departs the coffee shop, for it is now time to get on the road to French Lick, Ind., where he is due to deliver a 7:30 p.m. address at Northwood of Indiana, a small college. He plans to rent a car, but from the lobby of the Ramada Motor Inn he spies a 1963 white Lincoln convertible sitting in a used-car lot across the street, and he is taken by it. In La Verne, Calif., where he lives with his wife and three children, Richards owns a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, a Mercedes 300 S, a Chrysler station wagon and a Cadillac Eldorado, which he purchased after roaring up to the showroom on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, wearing a black leather jacket. He also owns 20 truck trailers, minus cabs, 40-footers that are sitting around waiting for him to discover how he can put them to use. Nevertheless, Richards now bounds across to the used-car lot and opens lengthy negotiations with the boss, a tall, bespectacled man named Tony.

"Sixteen's the best I can do," Tony finally says. "Sixteen-hundred's a real buy, yessir."

"All right, now we got to level," the Reverend Bob says. "What kind of car am I going to have?"

"You can call the lady who owned it. We just sold her a Cadillac."

"A little old lady, no doubt, who hardly did any driving," Richards fires back. "Well, I'll tell you. I don't have my checkbook with me. Will you take a counter check?"

"They won't take no counter checks no more," Tony says. "Can't do it." The deal is off. In a rented Chevy, Richards tools off to French Lick, avidly discussing foreign affairs along the way and concluding that the only solution to Vietnam is to drop the bomb. In the back seat Jack Stack squirms.

At the French Lick Sheraton, a rambling old resort hotel, Richards is met by a lanky man named Fossum, who is provost of Northwood. Fossum points out that Northwood students, in contrast to Purdue's, shake hands warmly, and that in the future they will be the people "who will run the J. C. Penney store and the local dairy." Having been briefed, Richards proceeds to the campus in nearby West Baden, where, spotlit on a small stage that sits in a great, eerie atrium, he motivates away, receiving a standing ovation from the future J. C. Penney managers. "He's the best speaker we've had," says a redheaded coed. "David Brinkley was amusing, but Mr. Richards is dynamic." Accolades ringing in his ears, Richards goes on to Fossum's house for hors d'oeuvres and a glass of ginger ale. "Mr. Stack here," Richards says, introducing Jack Stack to Fossum's wife, "is along to see that I don't say the wrong things to this other fellow, who is writing The Rise and Fall of Jack Armstrong." Stack turns crimson. Later, back at the hotel, the reporter shows Richards a copy of the Evansville Courier, in which he is quoted ripping Avery Brundage and the AAU for being 50 years behind the times. "You said that?" Stack exclaims, reading over Richards' shoulder.

"Every word of it," Richards smiles.

"I see," Stack says, shrinking away to his room.

The Reverend Bob is at home in the Midwest, having been a Midwesterner himself. The son of a workingman, he grew up in Champaign, Ill., where he shined shoes, sold popcorn in beer joints and, he recollects after mulling it over, "swore pretty badly." His parents were divorced when he was 16, and his mother moved to Seattle, whereupon young Bob was taken in by a Champaign minister, The Reverend Merlin E. Garber of the Church of the Brethren. The Reverend Garber made Bob memorize 10 sermons, then sent him off, at age 17, to Bridgewater College, a church school in Virginia.

The Brethren sect "licensed" Richards to preach when he was 18, and he worked his way through college by filling three pulpits, one of them 200 miles to the south. "I have never in all my life taken a note into a pulpit," he proudly points out. He married a niece of the college president, then moved on to the University of Illinois, where he became Big Ten pole-vault champion, was ordained a minister at 20 and earned a master's in philosophy at 21. But, alas, he lost his belief in God.

"At Illinois," he says, "I was in a group of atheists. There were several Communists in the group." The mind boggles at the vision of Bob Richards, the Wheaties man, fellow-traveling, but he presses on. "I remember looking up one morning and believing the universe was only electrons and protons. But one night during a house meeting of this group a teacher said, 'Ultimately we've got to realize that one day the earth is going to get too close to the sun and go poof!' And believe it or not, that was the greatest religious experience I've ever had. There's got to be more to life than poof! That very moment was my road back to faith."

Restored, the Reverend Bob forged ahead, teaching philosophy and then becoming pastor of the Church of the Brethren in Long Beach, Calif. at $6,000 per year. At the same time he pole-vaulted his way back and forth across America, picking up travel expenses from promoters, of course, and capitalizing on his fame by booking himself into pulpits and banquets. "The AAU couldn't say I was cheating," Richards explains neatly, "because professionally I was a speaker. I was a minister. To crack down on a minister would have put them in a terribly embarrassing spot." The fact that the AAU forbids American amateurs to profit by their reputations, even to the extent of earning a speaking fee, galls Richards, and he becomes livid as he ponders the reality that Russian athletes, apparently with Avery Brundage's approval, are given lavish subsidies in the form of goods and services. "Semantics!" Richards cries, condemning Brundage and his officious cronies to the same pigpen where the Ph. D.s stand oink, oink, oinking. "What we've got to do is adopt a Philadelphia-lawyer technique to talk around these stupid jerks. The issue isn't ethics. Do you realize what it costs to feed and train an athlete? The issue is whether we're gonna have an athletic program."

Unencumbered by AAU restrictions, Richards kept so busy speaking that he had to resign his Long Beach pulpit after three years' time in order to lighten his schedule. Then in 1957, a year after his second Olympics gold medal, the Reverend Bob finally stashed away his pole and began a weekly television show in Los Angeles telling sports stories to kiddies. It was a frustrating experience. Richards wanted to climax each story with an inspirational moral, but the sponsor, Union Oil, ordered him to knock off the moral on the grounds that it was "too maudlin." Happily, Wheaties came to the rescue.

Actually, Bud Wilkinson, the onetime University of Oklahoma football coach, might have gone on to become the Wheaties man, for he was the figure that Knox Reeves admen coveted. But the university president refused Wilkinson permission to pitch cereal and coach football at the same time. So the admen turned to Richards, who assessed the Wheaties climate and found it receptive to his inspirational bent. To Union Oil he said, "Get yourself another pigeon." Ten years later the Richards-Wheaties marriage remains a happy one, and around the Knox Reeves offices Richards is known fondly as The Rev.

As a matter of fact, high school and community organizations now clamor for films of his motivational speeches which General Mills lends out as a public service. Such is the demand that one must wait at least six weeks to lay hands on Life's Higher Goals. Response to the Challenge and Will of the Champion are moving nicely, too.

Though Bob Richards in the flesh costs cash, the market for him is humming, and now, having knocked them dead at Evansville and Northwood, he faces a grinding Wednesday schedule. Up at 6:30, he must motor two hours to Louisville to appear on a morning television show, where he will follow a trained cockatoo. Then he must fly to Erie, Pa. to address the annual awards dinner of the Sales and Marketing Executives Club at Erie. He begins the day cheerfully. Does he really eat Wheaties every day? a lady interviewer asks him on the television show. "For the money they're payin' me, you'd eat Wheaties every day, too," Richards answers. "But, seriously, I do enjoy them and have eaten them for 30 years." Leaving the studio, Richards passes a monstrous yellow statue that guards the front of the building—a sculpture of a hefty nude rising off her haunches while brandishing a clenched fist in the air. "The title of that statue," Richards muses, "is How Many Times Have I Told You Not to Come into the Bathroom When I'm in Here!" He gets into a car and idly wonders if he ought not to have given the lady interviewer a more comprehensive answer to her question about his Wheaties appetite. "For the first five years, of course," Richards crows in a mock stage voice, "I held my nose and gingerly put one flake at a time on my tongue and then hurriedly washed it down with a bourbon and water." In the back seat Jack Stack forces himself to chuckle politely.

Richards was only joshing, naturally, and he proves it in the coffee shop of the Louisville airport by ordering Wheaties. Unfortunately, as in Evansville, this coffee shop doesn't seem to have Wheaties either. Scorning any un-American substitutes, Richards orders eggs and sausage.

As he boards his flight, the Reverend Bob carries a yellow-jacketed manuscript, which, as it turns out, is the script of a movie he has written and intends to produce. At home in La Verne he owns a film studio, housed in an abandoned Methodist church. There he embarked upon his movie career two years ago with a film entitled God, Guns, and Guts. In conversation he refers to that film as "Circuit Rider," because he himself played the part of a marshal who turned circuit rider but ultimately found himself in circumstances that required him to take up his guns again. No sooner had he loosened up his trigger finger than Richards discovered he'd run out of money, so he abandoned God, Guns, and Guts. His new movie, backed by fresh cash, is A Young Man's Journey. On board the plane he drops the script into Jack Stack's lap for inspection, then takes a seat directly in front of Stack. "This film's an attempt to show young people right in the middle of the muck and mire what decisions they have to make," Richards advises.

"You show them what happens with dope," he goes on. "Show them with their eyes burned out—the reality. If you talk about sex, talk about abortion, the suicide attempts, the broken hearts. The movie deals with seven problems of young people: sex, dope, abstract education, abstract religion, military involvement, corrupt politics and the frustration they feel when they can't realize their ambitions, when they're not rewarded according to what their talents deserve. I would call that last problem 'the thwartation of ambition.' Anyway read the script."

Stack, however, is reading the script, and presently, when Richards dips his head into the aisle to ask his opinion of it, Stack mumbles something unintelligible. "It's kaleidoscopic, isn't it?" Richards says. "It jumps all over the place!" He arises and goes to the lavatory, whereupon Stack tells the reporter that the script is plotless and fails to establish its characters. "But it's not unlike some of the Italian films," Stack hastens to add. "It's not unlike Blow-Up or Boccaccio '70 or 8½. It's got Antonioni and Fellini in it."

"That's right!" Richards cries, returning just in time to hear the last of Stack's words. Standing in the aisle, he roars, "It's kinda like La Dolce Vita, Alfie and The Perils of Pauline all rolled into one!

"Look, this will be a smash," Richards tears on. "We'll make $10 million out of it." Who's "we"? he is asked. "I and a guy who just put up 50 thou—a fella who just sold some real estate and's got some extra money. If I can just hit on one film, then we'll make 10 films. I've got a boy-and-a-dog script I want to do. I want to do Martin Niem√∂ller, the minister who opposed Hitler. I want to do Bonhoeffer. He participated in a plot to kill Hitler and he failed and was caught, but he was right. I think this kind of dialectic in a film would really make people committed." Seated now, Richards fixes his listener with a savage smile. "What if you knew Fidel Castro was going to set off a button and kill millions? Would you kill him? Interesting question! Interesting. Oh, beautiful! I want to do it!"

Now Stack has passed the Young Man script forward, and Richards is calling attention to the passages in it that particularly move him. In one of them, a presidential candidate named Dr. Complex proposes that all our ambassadors be psychiatrists and that instead of hosting drunken cocktail parties at their embassies they invite heads of state to lie down for analysis. "We would have peace," Dr. Complex argues, "because all of the leaders of the world would take out their hostilities on the psychiatrists instead of on other nations." The candidate goes on to argue that nuclear missiles are phallic symbols and that the American military's belligerence toward China can be rendered harmlessly inactive by giving each of our generals a Chinese mistress.

"I get across my points through the ludicrous," Richards says.

Suddenly the Reverend Bob's gaze is arrested by the rear end of a stewardess who, outfitted in a white knit dress of miniskirt length, has bent over in the aisle. "They bend over and their garter strap shows," he grumbles. "Now tell me, what is esthetically beautiful about that?" He disapproves of miniskirts, not on moral but on esthetic grounds. "Women are really women in a nice silk dress or a beautiful long evening gown. What's happening to women? I agree with Chuck Connors—those miniskirts must have been designed by homosexuals!" Casting one last look of disapproval at the stewardess, the Reverend Bob drops off to sleep.

He awakens cheerfully in Cleveland, where he will have lunch and change planes. "Excuse me," a waitress says as she serves him, "but aren't you Jack Armstrong?" Wheaties' search for the embodiment of the old Armstrong image has been more "successful, it seems, than the admen dared hope. Richards blinks at the waitress but keeps a straight face and says yes.

"Oh, my Lord," the woman gasps. "My brothers and I used to listen to you all the time years ago. You were fantastic, Mr. Armstrong. Oh, I'm so thrilled." She asks Richards to autograph a menu, and he writes, "To all my friends from the days of Hudson High...." And then, when the waitress is gone, he drops his voice to Jack Armstrong's precocious bass and says, "Billy, if we can get the savages to think we're going to the other side of the island, it's possible we can get a boat through that opening over there to the ocean."

"Gosh, Jack," pipes adman Stack, who by now has given up his watchdog mission as a bad job and yielded to Richards' impulsive spirit. "I've just slipped and broke my leg. You'll have to carry me along with the scientific equipment."

"It's all right, Billy. I've been doing some eugenic exercises, which have made me strong, and plus that, I had my Seitaehw this morning, which is Wheaties spelled backwards. We gotta hurry, Billy. Football practice starts next week."

And so, with a giddy Jack Stack in tow, Richards wings out of Cleveland, landing in Erie in the laps of a welcoming committee from the Sales and Marketing Executives Club. On the fringe of the committee stands an attractive little black-haired woman who clearly carries a burden on her mind. She explains that a crisis exists at Fairview High, which is located in a prosperous suburb. "It's really serious," says the black-haired woman, whose name is Joanne. Would the Reverend Bob please speak to the student body the next morning? Shoring up her appeal, Joanne points out that she eats Wheaties constantly.

"I've got to drive to Grove City, Pa. tomorrow," Richards hedges. (Earlier in the day, at the Louisville airport coffee shop, he had done an imitation of high school audiences, screwing his face into a sour expression and sprawling indolently in his chair. "The hardest audience in the world is a high school audience," he said. "They look at you as if to say, 'O.K., Buster, move me. I'm here because I have to be.' ") Richards tells Joanne he'll see if he can arrange the Fairview appearance, and then he speeds off to the local YMCA for a workout.

The Erie sales executives and their ladies, convening at the Kahkwa Country Club that evening, emerge as a stylishly dressed, sophisticated group. But even though one tipsy gentleman heckles Richards ("We luv ya, Reverend," he calls out from his table), Richards sweeps up his chic audience and transports it to new peaks of motivation, after which the dinner chairman tells the audience, "We have been in the presence of one of the great human beings of our time." Erie is a smash success, except that first thing the next morning Joanne phones to renew her plea.

Richards finally consents to speak at Fairview High, but at breakfast he says, "You see, the thing about this is that one speech does no good on this kind of problem. You've got to get with these kids for a while and work with them and play with them to accomplish anything."

Joanne, who has been combating child vice in Fairview as a member of a group called the Parent Action Club, briefs Richards en route to the school in her station wagon. "Our program, our approach to these children," she says, "is, 'Look, you can't run for President on LSD. You can't be President on an LSD campaign.' "

"That's pretty good," Richards says. "Why don't you give the speech?"

"I have a confession to make," Joanne says, lowering her eyelids demurely. "I don't really eat Wheaties."

"No wonder you're so short," Richards snaps.

From the stage of the school auditorium, Richards regales a packed hall of 700 children with stirring sports stories interlaced with jokes and admonishes them to make something of themselves. Astutely, he barely mentions the problem at hand. The entire audience hangs on every word, the little junkies and elbow benders indistinguishable from the rest. Richards gets a roaring standing ovation. Jack Stack, driving him on to Grove City in a rental car, holds forth rapturously over the big Fairview reception until he is distracted by a flatbed truck up ahead carrying a huge, cone-shaped load under canvas. "You suppose that's a missile?" Stack wonders.

"No," says Richards. "That's the dope they just hauled out of Fairview."

Pressing on into Pennsylvania, Richards is bound for Grove City College, a Presbyterian institution whose students he will address. He gazes at the countryside, dismal on a sunless day, and is preoccupied by memories of his early speaking days when he cut his teeth working before high school audiences in small towns. "I know all these towns around here—New Wilmington, New Brighton, Beaver Falls, Rochester. I'll betcha no person in America has been in more communities than I have." Indeed, at a roadside lunch counter minutes later, a stout, gray-haired customer looks up and, recognizing the Reverend Bob, says, "Do you still go to the high schools?"

"No, sir," Richards replies. "I decided to save the salesmen. But today I'm going down to Grove City to save the Presbyterians from the abyss of a flaming Hell." Settling jovially into the car once more, he idly sings a tune: "You'll find your life will begin/The very moment you're in/Ar-gen-tina...."

The gray midafternoon sky casts a shroud of gloom over the route, but suddenly Richards claps his hands, and the savage smile, teeth gleaming, lights up his face. "You know what's funny?" he cries. "These colleges have an arrangement whereby the Government provides them money for visiting speakers, so each time I arrive at a college the Government, in a way, is giving me $1,000, and then I give $600 back in taxes. I go on to the next college and the Government gives me another $1,000, and I give another $600 back." Jubilant over his ironic discovery, the Reverend Bob advances into Grove City, where the college athletic director, Jack Behringer, provides him with a basketball uniform and an empty gym for a workout.

Shooting baskets and retrieving the shots himself, Richards delivers an interview on the subject of his $75,000-a-year Wheaties job. "Frankly, I feel I'm underpaid," he shouts. "I feel anyone else would ask for more, but I don't think the money's the primary consideration. If it hadn't been for the opportunity to motivate kids," he cries, going in for a layup, "I wouldn't be interested in the job." And he blows the layup. "I've watched the other commercials and, hell, there's none better than ours. These yum-yum cereals with their tigers growling! Ours are done with dignity and sincerity. This basket's not up right. You can't put the ball in. When they hired me it was public service. How else could you use me? Why didn't they go to Zsa Zsa Gabor?"

Now Richards is running laps, breathing hard, but his voice belts across the gymnasium, echoing off the walls, as he replies to churchmen who have criticized him for going commercial. "I don't have any conscience pangs about taking money from General Mills," he hollers, "because everybody in this country is taking money in some way from corporations. At the same time, I have not taken one penny from any church since I signed with General Mills, and I don't intend to." Richards pounds up a flight of stairs to a weight-lifting room, still defending himself at a trot. "I know some preachers who make 25 a year, and that's three times what other preachers are making. I'm making three times what they're making, so what's the difference? And after the Government takes its end, those $25,000 preachers and I are even."

His back arched as he presses 175 pounds, Richards grunts his words. "I haven't bled the public for one cent. I haven't asked a church for anything. Listen, if they're gonna accuse me of commercialism, they'll have to accuse Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, Oral Roberts, a lot of guys who make way more than me. Why, there are evangelists making half a million, maybe a million a year," Richards declares, setting down the barbell and attacking a heavy bag, "and they don't pay taxes on their money."

Thirty minutes later, showered and outfitted in his Wheaties Sports Federation jacket, Richards is led by Athletic Director Behringer to dinner at the Penn-Grove Hotel, where the president of the college, Dr. J. Stanley Harker, stops by his table to welcome him. "I'm sure we're going to hear a splendid speech tonight," says Dr. Harker, a stubby, red-faced man.

"Well, don't expect too much, the money you Presbyterians pay," Richards replies, deadpan.

"I thought you said you never take money from a church," Jack Behringer butts in.

"Yes, that's right," Richards fires back, "but I don't consider the Presbyterians a church."

Dr. Harker exits laughing, beet red. Soon after, Richards rises from the table, invigorated by his workout and dinner, ready to go to work motivating for the fourth straight night. He detests the endless travel his work necessitates. He's had nights when he has awakened in a strange motel and wondered what town he was in. He is not permitted the luxury of being sick. ("You can't cancel," he says. "It's unbelievable, the trouble it causes.") With Uncle Sam banging him for the lion's share of his income, the only thing that keeps him going, he says, is the conviction that his message of inspiration is reaching people. He fondly recalls a man stopping him in the lobby of an Indianapolis hotel and saying, "Mr. Richards, you once gave a speech at the penitentiary and because of what you said, I'm on the outside today."

He realizes that at 42 he hasn't many years left as the man who demonstrates that Wheaties makes muscles. "I'm wrinkled, I'm crinkled," he says. But he hopes Wheaties will value his inspirational qualities sufficiently to convert him into a Knute Rockne image. Meanwhile, for a few years at least, the nation remains his pulpit, and so he must go on.

Now, leaving the dining room of the Penn-Grove Hotel, bound for yet another speech, the Reverend Bob glances down at his gray flannel Wheaties jacket and says, "This thing's harder to get out of than a chastity belt."



In 1951 prayerful Richards becomes second man to top 15 feet.


Richards leaps for joy in Helsinki after setting '52 Olympic mark.


A two-handed wave at Melbourne celebrates his 1956 gold medal.


Advice is given sons Paul and Bob (right), who has vaulted 15 feet.