Community Government Police & Fire

Denny Richards remembered for his wisdom, humor and legacy of leadership

Posted on March 7th, 2024 By:

Dennis “Denny” Richards arrived in Gig Harbor as the police chief. He departed 37 years later as a community treasure.

Richards, who guided the department from 1987 to 1995, died on Feb. 27. He was 80 years old.

Richards was attracted to law enforcement while he and Sheryl, who became his wife of nearly 60 years, were still attending Hudson’s Bay High School.

Denny Richards in his Gig Harbor Police uniform.

Denny Richards in his Gig Harbor Police uniform. Courtesy of city of Gig Harbor

“He knew that’s what he wanted to do,” Sheryl said in a phone interview. “He stepped out of a Nalley’s chip delivery truck, took the test and they liked him.”

They fancied Richards enough that he advanced from entry-level officer to lieutenant during 20 years with the hometown Vancouver (Wash.) Police Department. Then, during a trip to Gig Harbor to visit relatives, they were stricken.

Vancouver to Gig Harbor

Denny liked to tell the story about looking around at the boats, the water and the beautiful properties and saying, “I could live here,” Sheryl said.

Three months later, he was applying to become chief.

“We were born and raised in Vancouver and got this harebrained idea to make this giant move,” Sheryl said.

Denny Richards and wife Sheryl.

Denny Richards and wife Sheryl. Courtesy of Richards family

Sons Brian and Mark were grown and out of the house. Daughter Julie, however, remained in seventh grade. Mom and dad worried about uprooting her. She accompanied Denny for his final interview.

“He said I’m good with this place if you’re good with this place, kid,” Julie said.

Daughter approved of move

Policemen helped persuade her.

“Officers took me to Dunlap’s Bakery (Susanne’s predecessor) for a bear claw,” Julie said. “They drove me up the street to Kelly’s toy store and got me an ice cream cone. They drove me up in a patrol car to Goodman (Middle School, overlooking the harbor and Mount Rainier, where Harbor Ridge now sits) and said this will be your school. How could you not be enamored with the views? I said, ‘Hey, this place is not bad.’”

Denny Richards and daughter Julie.

Denny Richards and daughter Julie. Courtesy of Richards family

Julie approved. Denny got the job. Three years in, he hired a young recruit named Kelly Busey. Like his mentor, Busey climbed all the way to the chief post he holds today.

He described Richards as poised and personable.

“If there was a crisis, he would address the seriousness of the moment, but he wouldn’t get freaked out,” Busey said. “He approached everything calmly. Nothing upset him enough that he was going to lose focus on the big picture.”

Brought police, community together

Busey credits Richards with developing a good relationship between the police department and community. Everybody knew him. Every day he’d walk the downtown core and check on business owners. He could always be found at civic events.

“He’s the one who fostered the personal touch style of policing we carry on today,” Busey said. “He meant a lot to me. He molded the right demeanor for serving in law enforcement as a leader.”

Denny Richards

Denny Richards. Courtesy of Richards family

Julie added: “He’d go from business to business saying hi to owners and getting to know the staff. He never had a problem striking up a conversation with somebody standing on the sidewalk waiting to cross the street. That’s just how he was.”

Denny retired from the police force on a Friday. He began a new career as Fircrest city manager the next Monday. The role was followed by eight full and interim manager and assistant manager positions with small municipalities, including Gig Harbor. Richards, who earned a public administration degree while policing in Vancouver, commuted home on weekends to Fox Island and later Gig Harbor.

Small-town persuasion

“He liked small-town government,” said Julie. “He wanted to make a bad situation better or just improve on what could be improved on. He just really enjoyed meeting new people and making that difference these small places needed. He wasn’t a big-city guy.”

Richards participated for many years with the Gig Harbor Kiwanis, particularly attracted to the club’s Kiwanis Cares for Kids service projects. The group’s latest newsletter included a tribute to him, expressing that members will miss his sense of humor and the wonderful things he did for the club after joining in 2005. They included donating his hand-crafted wooden items to club fundraisers, and participating in community service projects like pancake breakfasts, road clean-ups and food drives.

Denny Richards

Denny Richards. Courtesy of Richards family

During her first day as club president in 2005, Jeni Mallory said she rang the bell to start the meeting, expecting members to stand for introductions and recite the pledge of allegiance. Nobody got up. They all pulled out newspapers.

“OK, everyone. You need to stand now,” she said.

They kept reading.

“Very funny,” she said, and everybody cracked up. Richards had instigated the prank and supplied the newspapers.

“Denny was wise and funny, too,” Mallory said. “This created a fun icebreaker for me and relieved me of my anxieties.”

Crafted woodworks

Another Kiwanis member, Tina Shoemaker, said Richards often shared his woodworking talent by donating creations for auctions or as tokens of appreciation. She cherishes a wooden pen he gave her after she completed his first term as club president.

Denny Richards crafted wooden toy cars and other creations.

Denny Richards crafted wooden toy cars and other creations. Courtesy of Richards family

“He took wood shop in high school and just ran with it,” wife Sheryl said of his pens, salt and pepper shakers, cars, planes, cutting boards and other works. “He always had a little toy car in the car. If we were in a restaurant or shopping somewhere and he saw some little kid, he’d ask the parents, ‘Do you mind if I give your son this little car?’”

Richards served as a Kiwanis ambassador to Minter Creek Elementary School where grandson Corbin attended, welcoming kids to school, tutoring them in reading and math, and helping out staff.

Cared about Gig Harbor

Robyn Denson met Richards in 2019 while knocking on doors during her run for City Council. He told her of his experience as police chief and administrator. She discovered she was already friends with his daughter, Julie, through the Community in Schools program, where Julie is the development director and Denson serves on the board. Their relationship grew, and he supported her successful 2022 bid for a Pierce County Council seat.

Denny Richards and County Councilwoman Robyn Denson with a wooden pencil he made for her.

Denny Richards and County Councilwoman Robyn Denson with a wooden pencil he made for her. Courtesy of Robyn Denson

“He was a very balanced person, a very wise person and a very kindhearted person,” Denson said. “He was never negative about anything. You could tell he just wanted to make the community a better place. He was always willing to contribute. He just cared a lot about Gig Harbor.”

She also received a wooden pencil that she holds dear.

“This was a huge shock. It was not expected. It’s just such a loss for our community. But he lived an amazing life and contributed a lot. He left an amazing legacy in many places, but particularly in Gig Harbor.”