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."

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

(12) comments

dlc

FAKE NEWS....this is story is full of outright lies and innuendo. The lies and fake news printed in this newspaper is why it's circulation rate is so low and it was recently sold; why would anyone pay money to read such lies. Bakersfield deserves much better.

awol

By all means good for Larry, but shame on the Californian for partaking in revisionist history to make the story more "PC".

Stephen

Good for "Uncle" Larry for standing up to the bigoted trolls who can now crawl back into their holes where they belong.

Ac89

If this isn't the most racist article I've seen. We all know he doesn't go by "uncle" Larry and we all know that uncle is a reference to Uncle Tom. Titling your article that and placing an importance on the word Unlce only shows the true agenda of this garbage writing. You should remove the article and issue an apology!

Boogerface Nutter

I don't know that at all. When I grew up on Needles, there was a black man outside the local convenience store. We only knew him as Uncle Bud. As kids, we knew nothing of Uncle Tom, we only knew that little kind old guy who had a machine that ground ice blocks into chunks. I suspect it was much the same for those kids who knew Uncle Larry. I suggest you look into your heart.

TimRoss

I like this story and respect the man worthy of it. This is one of the reasons local news matters.

ddhinds

I was born & raised in Bakersfield. I am 77 years old. You stated 50 years ago there was a sign telling color people to leave by sundown. 50 years ago I would have been 27. I never ever saw any sign that said what you have mentioned in your article....NEVER!! I call this utter BS! This may have been the case back in the 20s,30s or even the 40a but not so in 1969. I think you have your dates mixed up. [thumbdown]

Marshas

ddhinds, Maybe you didn't pay attention. I don't remember the signs so much as being told about them by my grandmother, aunt and cousins who lived there. We lived in East Bakersfield but visited Oildale often. I remember being told about crosses burned in yards and the fires as written about in this story. My family witnessed these things and they were disturbing to them and myself then and now. Racial prejudice is not BS. Thanks for a well written article Mr. Meyer.

Boogerface Nutter

I think you have the blinders on. I'm 71 and lived in Bako for 33 years, through the 80s. Even then, I recall a black family who bought a house in Oildale, only to have crosses burned in their yard and a group of white men hanging outside who would not let anyone come or go. They set fire to the fence at one point. I don't recall too many other episodes like this but it only took a few to add to the reputation of Oildale.

RefereeB

Another great story Mr. Meyer. Praying for Mr. Richardson and his body shop to prosper. Your article can only help...

Citizen

Mr. Richardson sounds like a wonderful, heroic man with compassion for his community. Oildale missed out on many more like him by burning up his shop three times. Maybe that was the goal of the racist arsonists. Thank goodness he was not burned to death in the fires.

Rie60

This man needs more business. People who knew him and care about him need to spread the word. My little sports car's in the shop right now but when it's done I will have him paint it

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