When Wallace Aeneas Richards died in Maryborough in 1997 at the age of 66, the small Victorian country town lost one of its favorite sons. ‘Wal’ to those who knew him, wasn’t the local mayor, schoolteacher or town cop. But since his death he has almost singlehandedly transformed the lives of the town folk and left an indelible impression on all who had lived there during his lifetime.
Wal was physically and intellectually disabled. He could neither read nor write. He never held down a conventional job. Yet his daily presence in the main street of Maryborough was his vocation of sorts.
Maryborough was a goldrush town in the 1850s, built on land stolen from the Dja Dja Wurrung people, but during Wal’s days it was a sleepy little place. He would sit every day on his favorite bench on the corner of the town’s two busiest streets, High and Nolan, greeting everyone who wandered past.
Wal’s limitations meant he was unable to communicate in any conventional sense. He was painfully shy. His speech was slurred and difficult to understand. But then he had little to talk about anyway. Like many similarly disabled people, he was marginalized and tolerated by his community. Time magazine described him as “cut off, forever an observer on the edges of his small world.”
No one knows for sure when it happened, but in his teens or early twenties Wal picked up a Box Brownie camera and starting taking photographs. It was considered a harmless enough hobby for a boy with nothing much else to do. Most people who saw Wal clicking away around town assumed there was no film in the camera or that Wal couldn’t frame an image or focus the lens properly.
It was guessed that Wal Richards’ pictures were worthless.
But Wal’s images have proved to be far from worthless. In fact, half a century of Wal Richards’ amateur photography has yielded some priceless memories and extraordinary images, made all the more astonishing because of the simple man who captured them.
Wal’s preferred subject was always weddings.
By some estimates he attended around 2000 of them during his adult life. He was never invited to them, but he turned up anyway, primarily photographing brides and bridesmaids. The men in the wedding party were usually relegated to the edge of the frame.
Some Maryborough locals actually prepared a table setting for Wal at the wedding reception, knowing he’d be there whether they invited him or not. The Melbourne Age reported one Maryborough bride as saying, “Some of the younger people around town would say, ‘Ah, we don’t want Wal to be at our wedding. We won’t put an announcement in the newspaper so he won’t know about it.’ But Wal would turn up just the same. He would find out somehow.”
In fact, the Time reporter Lisa Clausen quoted another local saying, “If he didn’t turn up to your wedding you would wonder what was wrong with you.”
Wal rode his bicycle to places like Avoca, Dunolly, Talbot and other nearby goldfields towns up to 20 kilometers away. He even caught early morning trains to Melbourne to capture people’s weddings. He was as much a part of a Maryborough wedding as the flowers, the organist and the minister.
That being said, he was only a shadowy figure in the proceedings. Fittingly, I suppose, you can see Wal’s shadow (in the hat) in the foreground of this happy couple’s photo:
When Wal died, his family discovered 20,000 unlabeled photographs boxed up in his elderly parents’ backyard shed. These were the pictures no one thought would turn out. They proved to be a remarkable community treasure.
A year after his death, Wal’s sister-in-law, Roma Richards, and his neice, Jane Mychajlyk, together with the curator of the local art gallery, exhibited 4000 of his photographs in the old Maryborough town hall to breathtaking acclaim. Over 5000 people (twice the population of the town!) visited the exhibition and crowds had to be turned away at the door.
The portraits of ordinary people, otherwise unremembered by history, were on display for all to see. Few of us will ever have our portrait hung in a gallery, but Wal’s shaking hands had captured thousands of brides, their attendants, their fathers and their new husbands. As Lisa Clausen says, “Wal’s photos are finally telling Maryborough everything he learned about it over a lifetime — wisdom he could not share in any other way.”
Wal Richards’ story affected me deeply when I first heard it. My own sister is intellectually disabled and I grew up around people just like Wal so I heard all the names people like Wal and Joanne get called. I’ve seen them hover at the edge of social gatherings, never the honored guest. Wal’s story reminded me that no one’s life is without value. Even the overlooked or sometimes scorned town ‘simpleton’ can can transform a community. As former and current Maryborough residents scoured the walls of the town hall, searching to see whether a shot of their long-past wedding graced the exhibition, Wal was finally the honored guest.
There is something fundamentally Christian about the idea that the one who was despised and rejected should be the source of redemption. The Apostle Peter compares Jesus to a stone, overlooked by others but chosen by God. He quotes Psalm 118, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone” (1Pet 2:7). Likewise, Paul; writes about God choosing the least likely ones to do his work: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1Cor 1:27-29).
If you do an internet search for notable people from Maryborough, Google will give you a list of a bunch of football players. I hadn’t heard of any of them before. The noted broadcaster and public intellectual, Phillip Adams, is from there. But Wal’s name doesn’t come up. We still want to revere the powerful and impressive. But I’m more persuaded that the world is not changed by the single great breakthroughs, or the short dramatic lives of celebrities, but through ordinary people choosing daily to act with kindness and grace. The mayors of Maryborough or the captains of the town’s industries will not have so great an impact as those citizens who chose to lovingly serve their neighbors, decade after decade. The unsteady hands of Wal Richards can testify to that.
In the same way, the empty, nail-scarred hands of Christ have transformed this world more than any hand that has ever held a sword, a pen, a seal or a script. Because, like Wal Richards, Jesus notices and loves everyone.
In 2018, the Central Goldfields Gallery in Maryborough, in conjunction with a grant from the state government’s Regional Centre for Culture, mounted a revival exhibition Wal Richards: Wedding Photographer with just a few hundred of Wal’s pictures.
It was every bit as popular as the first exhibition.