June 9, 2021 – Slinger, Wi – I can still remember that warm summer day when my oldest brother told me a friend from school was coming to play “scrub baseball” with us.
Scrub baseball is where you tag up and bat in the order you tag home plate… it’s not a game just keep playing (and batting) as long as you keep getting hits.
Because I was unusually short for most kids my age, and would remain so up until I graduated from high school, (only three girls were shorter), Richard seemed taller than tall to me.
He had wavy, curly, blondish type hair, was always smiling, and was quiet yet had an outgoing type personality. He was 11 years old, I was 8 and would turn 9 at the end of November. He would be entering the 6th grade when school started and I would be in 4th.
We played scrub baseball in late morning of that day, and we asked if Richard could stay for lunch so we could continue playing in the afternoon.
I was lousy at baseball (always was), and I appreciated Richard having the patience and kindness to let me play with him and my brother. Richard could hit the ball farther and I was impressed by how fast he could run.
I can remember one other time when I was playing in the local cemetery near our house, despite my mother’s strict orders, when Richard saw me and stopped. We played tag and ran among the gravestones until it was time for him to head back home.
Since his family lived close to us, we rode the same bus to and from school every day and I always made it a point to say hi and received that contagious smile in return.
In the following spring on May 9, 1959, we were experiencing an unusually warm day. I remember grades up through 5th were given a longer recess that afternoon.
Grades 6th through 8th were in the gymnasium attending a type of assembly program.
While most kids were playing sports or other activities, a girl and I were practicing our latest “rock & roll” moves at the far end of the playground near the high school.
It was while we were practicing some fancy moves, that a single, large dark cloud seemed to be moving toward us. It completely blocked out the sun that had been shining and heating up the temperatures that day.
It was when the assembly ended the upper elementary grades were now being released to participate in a late-day recess. The single gymnasium exit on the southwest end of the school suddenly burst open near where I was, and there was Richard leading the pack, running at full speed and heading to the open baseball field to tag up for scrub baseball.
As he ran past, I stopped dancing and followed him as he outdistanced the others that were following.
The single, dark cloud that was blocking the sun was now over the outfield, and as I continued to watch him, there was a sudden deafening clap of thunder and a lightning bolt struck Richard as he tagged in at home plate.
Trying to comprehend what had just happened, seeing him lying motionless and on fire, coupled by the sudden surge of hundreds of screaming and stampeding students, made the realization and panic overwhelming.
I entered the east side school entrance. Two 7th grade classrooms were immediately located inside. The stampede was filling the hallways. Because of the distance I had to travel, I was at the end of those entering the building, and as I cleared the double entrance, one of the 7th grade teachers grabbed me and practically lifted me off the ground. I can still remember him shouting, “What the hell is going on”? All I could scream out was “Richard Zelm is on fire.”
Without a second thought I was immediately thrown aside, and I watched the two 7th grade teachers sprint to where Richard lay motionless on the ground and begin throwing sand and whatever else they could find to extinguish the smoldering fire.
As the levels of panic began to subside, I slowly walked down to the lower level where the 4th grade classrooms were located, trying to process what had just happened.
In the 50’s, there wasn’t any type of training for grief counseling in schools. We simply returned to school that following Thursday morning to resume classes as usual.
All I could think about in the following days was not being able to say hello to Richard or receiving that friendly smile he never denied me. Richard would have turned 12 the following month, on June 9, 1959. Several years later when I turned 11, I kept thinking Richard and I were the now the same age.
Though years have passed, memories of him still come back to me. Whether it would be watching kids play baseball, being in a cemetery, or seeing a likeness of his smile, my thoughts of Richard would always return.
I’ve made the journey four hours north of where I presently reside, and have restored and cleaned Richard’s and his parent’s headstones where they are laid to rest. That day when I finally was able to visit him, it gave me that brief afternoon to remember him and the brief time he was able to share with us.
In the Cemeterians group that I lead, we believe that “if you say their name, they will never be forgotten.” Richard will always have a special place in all of our hearts.