Lasting Memories

Erika Richards
April 7, 1916-Feb. 13, 2019
Palo Alto, California

Erika Nord Richards never seemed to age.

She died Feb. 13, 2019, just two months shy of her 103rd birthday, after living a remarkable life that was not just good, but great. The most frequent word her family and friends used to describe her is “amazing.”

Erika’s strength, spunk and positive character kept her “amazingly” active. Until two months ago, she took twice-daily walks, swam on Sundays, played bridge five times a week, and enjoyed many social and cultural events. Whenever someone suggested a new activity, her answer consistently was, “Yes, why not?” She was a model of how to live – with zest, optimism, integrity, and a kind heart – and her enthusiasm was infectious.

People often asked for Erika’s secrets to a long life. Her secret #1 was probably her upbeat nature and optimism: She was comfortable in her own beautiful skin; she had an accepting, open, generous spirit and somehow always knew that everything would work out – and it did. Also likely contributing to her long life were three daily habits – dark chocolate, morning coffee, and exercise. In later years, bridge helped keep her mind sharp. And her many friendships were key.

Erika was born on April 7, 1916 in Berlin, Germany, to Walter and Herta Nord, the first of three children. She was raised in Hamburg, living comfortably with a supportive family and many friends. She enjoyed playing field hockey, sailing, and gymnastics. As war clouds loomed, Erika’s parents sent her to school in Stockholm, Sweden, where she trained in exercise and massage, a precursor to later becoming a physical therapist. Erika easily picked up fluency in Swedish.

She returned home to Hamburg in 1936, but not for long, as her parents booked her ship passage to America. “I left Germany .... by myself. I came over here with $10 in my pocket. I was 20,” she told an interviewer a decade ago. “It didn’t occur to me to be frightened….But when I saw the Statue of Liberty, I broke down. That’s when it all of a sudden it occurred to me that I’m all by myself, and I don’t know the language that well….and all of a sudden I was frightened.”

It was probably the last time she felt that way. Erika built her life from the ground up, embracing America and its opportunities. She settled in Chicago (thanks to a job arranged by a young doctor she had met in Germany, who eventually would become her husband). She worked in the physical therapy department of Michael Reese Hospital and lived at International House on the University of Chicago campus. In Chicago she made lifelong friends and with some of them enjoyed weekends at a cabin they rented in the Indiana Dunes.

Erika earned a physical therapy certificate from Northwestern University. Soon after becoming an American citizen, she joined the U.S. Army. It was early 1944. “I think it was mostly adventure – getting away, seeing new things – and it was also a patriotic spirit,” she said. She was assigned to the 155th General Hospital and sent to England on a ship triple-loaded with military troops. Erika worked at the General Hospital on a converted estate in Malvern for 13 months, treating wounded soldiers. She was discharged in 1946 as a First Lieutenant.

Soon she started her next chapter, marrying physician and pharmacologist Richard K. Richards, with whom she shared similar life experiences and interests. They settled in Waukegan, IL, and raised their daughter there, a period Erika called her happiest. While Erika worked part time as a physical therapist, Richard started and built the pharmacology department at Abbott Laboratories and rose up the research ranks at the company while also being a professor at Northwestern University Medical School. Erika became deeply involved in the community, from being a Girl Scout leader to working with the school district to improve curriculum to being a founding member of the League of Women Voters in Waukegan. The League would become a passion, and she eventually became a lifetime member after 50 years, a testament to her confidence as a successful career woman, mother, and active citizen.

In 1966, Erika and her family moved to Los Altos, having been attracted to the Bay Area by her parents, who were then living in Berkeley, and by the research and teaching opportunities for her husband at Syntex and Stanford Medical School. Again Erika became involved in the community, and as part of the League of Women Voters, initiated the process of offering voter registration to newly naturalized U.S. citizens in Santa Clara County. She continued to work part-time as a physical therapist, primarily in convalescent hospitals in Los Altos and Mountain View. She also rekindled her piano playing and dabbled in photography, quilting, and art lessons.

Around 1980, Richard and Erika moved to Los Altos Square, where Erika became a regular at and in the outdoor pools. She and Richard enjoyed many travels, with Erika often adding to her collections of spoons, pendant necklaces, artwork of water scenes, and rocks from dozens of countries. Sadly, Richard died in early 1983. They had been married 36 years; she was widowed for an additional 36 years.

These were very active years for Erika. She had a dog, Sandy. She traveled widely, eventually reaching all continents but Antarctica. She enjoyed years of attending symphony concerts (classical was her favorite music) and theatre, gardening (orchids were her specialty), reading voraciously, participating in the Great Decisions foreign policy discussion groups and playing bridge. An altruistic person, she volunteered at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View for 20 years, primarily working to provide reading materials to patients, as well as at an elementary school and at the Palo Alto Cultural Center. During this time she continued her parents’ philanthropic endeavors by endowing a chair in her and her husband’s name at Stanford’s School of Medicine.

In 2005, Erika was one of the inaugural residents of the Vi retirement community in Palo Alto. She was fond of her new home, making many friends, again through helping to create the new library and by playing bridge. Bridge was something of an obsession. For most of her nearly 14 years at the Vi, Erika played bridge four days a week there, as well as weekly at Little House in Menlo Park and monthly at the Menlo Circus Club. “I don’t know what I would do without bridge,” Erika often said.

Young in heart, mind and body, she continued reading, tending to her orchids, and pursuing a new hobby – as a fan of puzzles, maps and numbers, she began a morning routine of completing Sudoku puzzles. She took advantage of many of the activities at the Vi—the pool, exercise classes, lectures and social events, jigsaw puzzles, field trips, movies and current events discussions. Special to her were her morning walks with companions Clarissa or Belle and afternoon walks with Jim, during which all would admire the sun, trees and blue sky. She was the oldest resident of the Vi Independent Living community and got around the large building with only a cane.

Erika was the matriarch of her extended family and loved the frequent contact she kept with her brother Helmut and with her brother Achim (Henry) before his death. Her greatest pleasure was time spent with her close Palo Alto family of her daughter, Evelyn; son-in-law Greg Pickrell; and granddaughter, Liana Pickrell, all of whom survive her, as does her brother Helmut of Pennsylvania and nieces and nephews and their families.

Her family hopes that all who knew Erika will continue to be inspired by her strength, her joie de vivre, and her ability to accept whatever life deals you and to make the most of it – all qualities that thankfully live on in her granddaughter, Liana.