Fifty years ago, when Larry Richardson started his body shop business alongside the Kern River in Oildale, an ugly sign warning black people to stay out of the 'Dale after dark was posted on the Chester Avenue bridge, within plain sight of his fledgling Kern River Paint & Body Shop.
"They set my shop on fire three times in 24 hours," he said of those who tried to burn him out of Oildale.
"But I'm still here."
It may not be pretty, but the body shop on Beardsley Avenue owned by Uncle Larry, as Richardson came to be known by many of his white customers and friends, helped put his two daughters through college and kept a roof overhead for five decades.
"I opened this shop with a screwdriver, a pair of pliers, a quart of Bondo and a can of spray primer," said the 72-year-old South High grad.
"I worked and worked and saved some money. Next thing you know, I had everything working for me."
The Oildale of old may have been known as an unwelcome place for people of color, but after five decades of doing business there, Richardson appears to have been a happy exception. He believes only a small percentage of Oildale residents were not strong enough to overcome their prejudices.
Ninety percent, he said, are "wonderful."
"I raised both of my daughters from babies and sent 'em to college out of this shop," he said. "I really couldn't want for nothin'."
He got his start working on cars in his mother's front yard.
"I used to do mechanic work, but I got tired of being greasy. I'd much rather be dusty.
"I think I was born working. I always had a job," Richardson recalled. "I'm not the kind to sit around and get in trouble. I'd let other people get in trouble and I'd read about them."
Crystal Carpenter Corr met Larry Richardson in 1978, as her late husband's family knew him well.
"He was always so sweet, and would even trade fish for body work," she said. "You gotta give him props for rebuilding and standing his ground after being burnt down multiple times."
On on a Facebook page titled "You know you're from Oildale when," Oildale resident Phillip Beltran, 58, said when he was a teen, Richardson would let him and other Oildale kids work on their cars at the shop.
The post drew close to 100 comments.
"We saw him burned out multiple times," Beltran said. "The way he responded, there was a lesson in that for us kids."
His response: Rebuild. Don't let hate stop you. Don't let it darken your heart.
Kym Richardson, 47, one of the fender and body man's two grown daughters, said her dad has always been willing to help anyone.
"One of the reasons he has so much respect is he has helped so many of those kids," she said. "He was a mentor to a lot of kids."
"They call my dad 'Uncle,'" she said. "None of us in our family see color. We never have. My dad is just a genuine person. He sees people for who they are.
"They tried to run him out of Oildale. But that never changed him."
His philosophy of life will never make him rich — except in grace and in gratitude.
Jim Breedlove said Richardson worked on a couple of his cars and never charged a dime.
Tonya Longbrake grew up in Oildale, but now lives in Atchison, Kansas. When she was about 5 she started calling Richardson "Uncle Larry," she said in a text message.
"I grew up with Uncle Larry," she said. "He was an amazing man to all of the kids in town."
She remembers spending days at the shop when her stepfather worked for Richardson. They were "some of my best childhood memories," she said.
Richardson's definition of success was different from anyone else's, Beltran said. "He measured success by how many people he has helped."
One way was to allow student trainees from North High to work for him and gain valuable automotive experience.
These days, customers are fewer.
"Business is slow, but I trust in the Lord," Richardson said. "It's up and down, but then, life goes on."
It was only recently that Cecilia, his wife of nearly 50 years, and his daughters and six grandsons were able to convince him to take weekends off.
Before that, he worked seven days a week. For decades.
"He doesn't change with the times," his daughter said — and his flip-phone seems to confirm her observation. "Everyone can change around him, but he remains genuine to the bone."
Hearing a black man say he loves Oildale, and mean it — it's a revelation of sorts.
Some have called him the mayor of Oildale. But Richardson gets a bigger kick out of an expression that comes from his location at the very gates of that unique community.
"I'm the gateway to Oildale," he said, smiling. "And it's a lovely place to be."