COLUMBIA — In high school, Cathy Richards wanted to emulate the great Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. She carried a basketball everywhere she went. And every night she practiced shooting baskets 100 times after coming home from basketball practice at school.
She wants to bring the same work ethic and passion to the job of public administrator.
At a young age, Richards knew the meaning of hard work from growing up on a farm in Harrisburg. She was responsible for chores such as walking the ducks, feeding the animals and breaking ice from the pond in the winter.
"I can milk cows lickety-split," she said, snapping her fingers.
For the first three years of school, Richards walked to and from a one-room schoolhouse everyday. After third grade, she was bussed to Harrisburg for school. There, she started noticing social differences between people and what these differences can mean. She was sometimes picked on for being poor, something she hadn't noticed before.
"I was told we were poor, and I didn't realize that until later on in life because we were all the same in the country like that," she said. "We all lived off the land."
It was in school that Richards discovered her passion for basketball. It was a privilege for her to play. She had to stay on the honor roll and study diligently.
"I was the first one that brought it to Harrisburg, bouncing the ball behind the back," she said of women's basketball. "I just loved stuff like that, passing the ball over the back, behind the head. For as small as I was, I was rather creative."
Today, she says, she loves all sports, and now she loves to play golf, and she plays it well.
Richards is not only an athlete, but an artist as well.
She was young the first time she got public recognition, when her drawings consistently were shown on the KOMU/Channel 8 news, during the time set aside for children's pictures.
"I would send in this stupid horse I would draw every freaking week," she said. "And they would show my horse. It just meant everything to me as a little kid."
"I remember sitting there waiting until 6 o'clock at night for the news to come on," she said. "Mine would always show up."
She still paints and draws, but mostly for personal satisfaction. She's sold one painting, which featured zebras. Her painting of a horse's eye hangs at the landing of the staircase in the Roger B. Wilson Boone County Government Center. A similar painting in Kansas City inspired her.
"I don't know how many things I've painted and have gone through things in my life on that picture," Richards said. "It's so cathartic. I really like that you can think about nothing and everything when you're painting and drawing."
Richards is the sixth of eight siblings. Her family did everything together, she said, which is why she feels comfortable around all people.
"There is not a stranger to me. I always try to make people my friends wherever I go," Richards said. "You never know when you may have to call upon that friend for help, and I want to be available for them as well."
Richards remains close to her brothers and tries to stay in contact with her sisters who live farther away. She was a tomboy as a kid but still loved to play with her Barbie dolls. Her family is important to her, and she has learned that they are the people who will always support her. It also has taught her how to interact with people.
"Give. No taking. You only get in fights if you take," she said, laughing. "You just have to learn to negotiate, and you learn to share, and you learn that there's no one that will love you more than your family."
At 18, Richards married her high school's basketball star. Marrying that young, she said, “was stupid.” As in many small towns, she followed the trend to get married right out of high school, putting off college. Also, money was scarce when she graduated. Deciding to put off college is a decision she regrets now.
"If I would've just listened to my mother and father ... ." she said.
The couple was married for 24 years and had a daughter and son. After their divorce, Richards wanted to be closer to work and school, so she moved to Columbia. Then, at a coffee shop, she met her current husband, Michael.
"Things change, things happen," she said. "But I always look at when things do happen they're opportunities, or it’s how you look at it. I'm an optimistic person, and I look at it as just another door was opened, and I was going to take that door and see what life had to offer. And it's turned out quite well."
Richards and Michael have two children, but consider a boy they mentor a part of their family. Michael , a retired teacher, hit it off with the child at one of the many Boys’ Towns the boy stayed at. Cathy now considers him "one of my own."
"He's such a sweet, talented kid," Cathy said. "And he needed someone with roots."
Bright, creative, artistic and "just lovable," the boy found a father in Michael. The couple had to convince the boy's adopted father that they would be a good influence so that they could visit him at Ozanam, a home for children with emotional, behavioral or learning disabilities. Now 19 years old, the boy lives in Belton, Miss., so the Richards call and write him, due to the busy campaigning schedule.
"Knowing him has made me grow, too," Richards said. "All of us need to take that second and think about those without. They don't have families like I grew up with."
She believes there's always someone waiting to be helped. She now wants to start mentoring a new child from Coyote Hill, a children's home in Harrisburg, after the hectic election schedule tapers off.
Even without a long list of degrees and job titles, Richards believes she's completely qualified for the job of public administrator. Connie Hendren, Columbia's public administrator of 16 years, agrees. Richards talked to Hendren and to Hendren's staff. She visited the facilities of clients and researched the position diligently, even before deciding to run.
"She has been the one who has shown the most interest," Hendren said. "I think she has as close to a realistic picture going in as anybody."
Life experiences trump job titles for Richards. Her take on qualifications is that performance on a job is more important than looking good on a resume. She also wants to have the experiences in the position before deciding what to change or presuming everything it entails. To explain what she means, Richards falls back on what she knows well: athletic coaches.
"We all sit up there on the benches and look down and say how it should be," Richards said. "But then if we're thrown down there in the arena, everything looks different."
Her experiences include various jobs as part of her previous work in steno services. She worked at almost a dozen places, including MU and Stephens College, and enjoyed learning new things at each place. She especially liked the exposure to many fields while at MU. Many of the employers asked her to stay, but she refused each time because of her family. Through that, she learned what she liked, as well as administrative skills.
After putting away her own ambitions for her family, Michael encouraged her to complete her education and go after her own dreams. That path took her in a few directions before arriving at the bid for public administrator.
She started a nursing degree, taking one year of classes and six months of fieldwork before having to quit because the classes moved to a time that interfered with her work.
"It just killed me because I really wanted to be a nurse," she said. "I really thought I would be a good nurse."
She still wanted to help people, so she decided a degree in counseling could do that. Richards sees counseling as an everyday job of simply talking to people, regardless of an official certificate. While earning her master's degree in counseling, Richards works as the office manager for the Boone County Commissioners, which she has been doing for more than eight years.
Despite the many bends in the road Richards has taken, she remains confident she'll be OK wherever the road will take her.
"You do the best you can do at anything you're given," she said.