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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County history: Leverett Richards, aviation reporter

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: January 27, 2024, 6:02am

When the military tested a high-altitude B-52 at low levels in the hot turbulence of Eastern Oregon’s high desert in 1959, the giant bomber crashed. The Oregonian sent Leverett Richards, its aviation reporter since 1935, to cover the breaking news and get pictures. The 288-mile trip could have meant six hours of driving, hiking miles to find the site and returning after dark — and missing the deadline.

Instead of driving, Oregonian reporter and pilot Richards flew, carrying a photographer and an Associated Press wire technician, making it to the crash site in an hour and 25 minutes. With the photos taken, they rode to the Burns, Ore. Times-Herald, developed the images and sent them over the AP wire in time to make their deadline. According to Richards, the newspaper was among the first in the country to cover a state by air.

Educated in journalism and graduated from the University of Washington, Richards was a “just the facts” reporter who used shorthand to take notes his entire life. In 1931, he joined the Clark County Sun as editor. When City Councilman George Stoner objected to a city council story, he challenged Lev to a duel. Lev chose pillows in a phone booth. Two years later, he joined the Oregonian.

In 1934, he married Virginia Durkee from Battle Ground. The couple lived most of their lives in Clark County. After Pearl Harbor, Richards joined the Army Air Corps Reserve (later the Air Force) because the Army was desperate to train pilots. Virginia took over his job as The Oregonian’s Southwest Washington correspondent and photographer. Lev continued to serve in the U.S. Air Force Reserve after the war, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1968.

During Richards’ career, he covered a wide range of news stories, including the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, D.B. Cooper, agreements with Indian tribes and the 1948 Vanport flood. Reporting on Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption, he circled the volcano so often he claimed he wore out three photographers.

Richards arrived at Pearson Field an hour after the 1937 Russian Trans-Polar flight landed. That story didn’t end until 55 years later at the dedication of the Chkalov Monument, where Richards met the flight’s last living member, Gen. Georgi Baidukov. The two 85-year-old pilots swapped many flying stories that day.

When Oregonian Publisher Fred Stickel found out his “one-man air force” had been on the payroll for 50 years, he threw Richards a party. Considering it a hint at retirement, Lev presented his boss with a $10,000 invoice for his flights at a modest $10 an hour. Stickel ignored the bill, knowing that Lev would rather fly than eat.

For 54 years, Lev was an explorer, pilot or reporter for the Air Force and The Oregonian. When interviewed by William Vallani for the Oregon Aviation Society Newsletter in 1997, Richards said he had nearly 11,000 flight hours. Those hours include his visits to the North Pole, 14 visits to the South Pole and flying to 75 countries. Richards was part of the crew that made the first airdrop at the South Pole and covered the first polar landing there in 1956.

He died in 2000. Leverett and Virginia live on in the rhododendron varieties named after them.

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Columbian freelance contributor