Eulogy I read at Rick’s Celebration of Life in the Garden City Park Pavilion, August 23, 2017
As a genealogist, I’ve learned many romantic stories of how my ancestors met their soulmates. Great-great grandpa Hiram Rushton sailed across the Atlantic from Lancashire England to Brantford, Ontario, where he worked as a boilermaker on the Michigan Central Railroad. On one of his trips to South Bend, IN, he met Eliza Schmachtenberger who was a cook at the local diner. They were married 44 years. My own parents met because my grandpa Lang from Calumet and my grandpa Billings from Canada worked at the Detroit Ford plant in the mid-1950s and decided to carpool. One day my dad was invited in to meet one Lang daughter and ended up marrying the other. They were married 42 years.
I grew up listening to these romantic tales always wondering how and when I’d meet my soulmate.
As it turns out, I met him in an AOL chat room.
In March 1997, Rick Palmer was living in Minnesota, and I was living in Michigan, when – on a Saturday night at 2am – he checked out my profile and messaged me with those fateful words, “I see you’re a writer…”
Rick Palmer. The name seemed familiar. I asked if he was related to Cathy Palmer, a friend of mine from Garden City. It turns out he was her ex and I knew his kids, but had only briefly run into Rick several years before. Before meeting Rick in person later that week, I checked his credentials with a few of the older teachers at the Garden City school where I was employed. I heard the same story over and over – a great guy, a super intelligent guy, people called him the Gentle giant. So we met.
On our first date, I felt like I was being interviewed. After “approving” of many of my responses, he asked what my favorite food was. When I said Mexican food. He asked, “Will you marry me?” A year later, I did.
At the time, Rick worked as a writer/editor in the district office of an international union. He designed their publication and traveled far and wide interviewing and photographing various people for his stories. On weekends, vacations, and summers off from the school system, I joined him on his trips. And that’s when I discovered the unpredictable wandering spirit that was Rick Palmer.
Rick introduced me to the greatest experiences of my life. From downing shots in Tijuana, to sipping glasses of fine wine in Boston’s Palm Restaurant. From swimming on a nude beach in California to eating lobster in Bath, Maine. From gathering beads on Bourbon Street to talking politics at Georgetown parties. From Amsterdam’s red light district to my ancestors’ Cornwall village church. From touring Vegas, the Hoover Dam, and the grand canyon to driving Highway 1 from Maine to Florida. Yet he never seemed to plan ahead enough to reserve a hotel room. “Let’s see what we find,” he’d say. Which led to the exhausted midnight stop at a seedy motel one night in South Carolina. The $20 a night establishment only took cash. Rick realized that it wasn’t the best place to stay, so he devised an improvised alarm system by having us drink enough beer to build beer can pyramids to place in front of the door and window. We survived the night safely.
In twenty years of marriage, Rick Palmer took me for the ride of my life.
Rick had a fascinating and peculiar mind. Only Rick would quiz a driver in Amsterdam – “Do you have Dutch ovens?” “Do you know what going Dutch means or what Dutch treat is?” He loved music, played guitar, and sang with a deep husky voice that earned him several awards at Karaoke contests across the United States. His rendition of Garth Brooks’ “the Dance” earned him my heart.
Our adventures always included little interesting jaunts and special side trips. As a dedicated husband, Rick took me to visit ancestors in cemeteries in various states from Indiana to Connecticut, and in Canada and Cornwall, too. Rick knew I loved the writing of Flannery O’Connor, so he stopped by her home in Savannah. We visited the Otis Redding memorial in Macon, Georgia because Mark Price mentioned it in a Facebook post one morning and Rick realized it was nearby. Rick never missed taking me to a Jack-in-the-Box on road trips, and often seriously considered planning a quick weekend away specifically for the purpose of getting some JIB tacos.
Rick once saw an aluminum rhino as we drove through Iowa, and stopped to buy it. We had to remove all our luggage from the back of the SUV, put in the giant rhino and pack around it, but that didn’t stop him. It’s been painted black and has a permanent place on our deck.
Rick never did things the traditional way. Although he had a brilliant mind, he dropped out of college shortly after his father died. He went to Western Michigan on a football scholarship and didn’t really like playing football. However, despite his lack of degree, he built a career for himself by sheer initiative and hard work. He worked first as a baggage handler at Northwest, then supervisor on the ramp, then volunteered to write the local union’s magazine. He won so many awards, that he was placed on leave from the airline to work for the union’s district office in MN.
While working at the district, his publication there continued to win awards – I counted more than 30 – and he was soon invited to work at the International Office outside Washington DC. They said they were tired of awarding him plaques so they decided to use him on their own communications team. He always kept abreast of cutting edge technology. He began a series of podcasts before they became popular. He designed websites when Netscape and Frontpage were the tools to use. He taught himself Flash, InDesign, Photoshop, and WordPress using online tutorials. He then began teaching classes at the labor education center on those same self-taught applications. Rick was the ultimate innovator, constantly reminding me that if you don’t stay on top of technology, you get behind pretty quickly.
For the past twenty years, Rick was my best friend, my travel companion, my business partner, my writing coach, and my champion. He was also my most challenging foe at Boggle. I was smart enough not to play chess with him after one game. In 2011, he took a gamble on an early retirement with a plan to dedicate himself to our own web and print design business, and ended up earning more money than he had when traditionally employed.
He was a tireless worker who didn’t quit no matter how difficult the challenge. He spent six years renovating our Maryland home, stripping it down to the studs, and more than tripled the home’s worth in the process. He started all over again remodeling our current home, and renovated his mother’s house, as well. He worked every night and every weekend on something – whether it was a website or a home improvement. Rick threw himself into whatever he put his mind to doing. As an example, our home boasts three decks on multi-levels. Rick enjoyed grilling out on the deck every evening – summer and winter – so why not have three?
If I had to use one word to describe Rick it would be enthusiastic. Rick was passionate about so many things…photography, Stan Lee comics, well-designed buildings and advertisements. He was a dreamer who liked to listen to thunderstorms or the sound of distant train whistles outside our bedroom window. When we he was on a flight from MN one night, he memorized Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “Love is Not All,” and was beaming as he recited it to me when I picked him up from the airport.
He loved to cook and created a “Cooking with Rick” website. He had plans to print his own cookbook, someday. He was famous for his “little pizzas,” Zeb’s beans, and barbecued chicken. Each house we remodeled had to include a large island so he could roll out homemade pizza crusts. To my great benefit, he was also passionate about grocery shopping. He was thrilled to be in a town with a Publix Market. He stopped at independent grocers on our travels around the United States and was delighted to find any unique food product. I have a picture he made me take of him holding “Ale 8 soda” he found in a supermarket in Kentucky.
Rick also loved his hometown Garden City. When we returned from living in Maryland, it was his first choice for our relocation. He volunteered his time and design skills to community organizations, including the GC Business Alliance and the Friends of the Library. He started a Garden City group on Facebook – where he tried his hardest not to get mired in political discussions, to no avail. He was an avowed liberal and political activist who couldn’t help himself. He’d been passionately arguing politics since he first enjoyed debating his conservative father as a teenager.
Rick was a voracious reader who avidly consumed the daily New York Times, historical novels, and op ed columns. He often read dozens of books in a month. He loved words and was an excellent writer. He couldn’t help taking over my crossword puzzles when he’d see me puzzling over blanks while eating breakfast at the local diner. He’d say, “Why don’t you let the big fella take a lookey loo?” and, annoyingly, he’d hand it back with the blanks filled in.
In all honesty, Rick wasn’t always the easiest person to live with. He had this annoying scowl that set off my last nerve. It would appear at the oddest times, when he became irritated by the most inane things. It appeared when his coney dog and loose hamburger were served on separate plates, making an unsuspecting waitress slowly back away from the table in shock. This, of course, would irritate me, and I’d tell him to wipe that look off his face, to which he’d reply, “Why do they do this? Who wants their dinner on two plates?” And the argument would begin.
Rick couldn’t find anything, ever, anywhere in the house. Early in our marriage, he called me to help him find some elusive object. When I replied with a famous Roseanne Barr joke that my uterus is not a tracking device, he twisted that comment to his own version, and throughout the rest of the marriage, he’d yell, “Gerry, I can’t find something! Bring your ovaries in here!”
Despite being a large man for his entire adult life, Rick never correctly estimate his size. At 6’5 and 300 pounds, he destroyed countless fragile objects in our home, before we simply redecorated with shatterproof decor. He also knocked over countless Diet Cokes in countless restaurants throughout our marriage. Friends and family were known to “Rick-proof” their homes when they knew he was coming. And he’d assume everyone had his lofty outlook on the world. I once arrived home to an empty house and complained that he didn’t leave me a note about where he’d gone. He pointed up to the top of a doorpost, where he had placed a sticky note.
When we weren’t traveling, Rick was out wandering the city on his bicycle, often riding more than 10 miles a day, listening to his latest book through earbuds under his helmet. He couldn’t pass up a street without investigating it. We were on our way to the Home Depot one Saturday morning in Maryland – which was our usual destination when we owned our first “Palmerosa” fixer upper. We were driving along and he suddenly said, “Hey, there’s a road I’ve never taken!” and veered off to explore.
To Rick’s great consternation, he made friends wherever he went. He fancied himself an “old curmudgeon” – his exact words. He said he wasn’t one to have many friends or enjoy parties or social events. Yet, he’d start up conversations with complete strangers wherever we went. He’d come home from his grocery shopping trips with recipes from someone he met in the checkout line. He knew neighbors on various streets by name and told me how they constructed their fences or described other projects that he’d stopped to admire on his bike rides.
I’m still Facebook friends with a young man we met one night in London after Rick befriended an entire group of twenty-somethings. We ended up spending the evening partying with them the night before a soccer game. On our way back from Florida this spring, we met two young men from Switzerland and I gained another FB friend. When we were in Amsterdam, Rick struck up a conversation with two women sitting next to us at a cafe. By the end of the evening, they had invited us to stay with them on our next trip.
Everywhere we went, Rick Palmer made friends. He was the most gregarious loner I’ve ever met.
Rick’s life may have been cut short by cancer, but – wow – did he ever live in the time he had. My Big Fella had a huge heart and an indomitable spirit. He gave me twenty unforgettable years of love, laughter, and adventure. I know our story didn’t begin with a traditional romantic meeting, but I found my soulmate in an AOL chatroom, and my life was never the same.