COLUMN: Remembering a friend

Published 10:10 am Wednesday, July 12, 2023

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By Tony Clark

For those who had the pleasure of knowing Richard E. Railey, Jr., it goes without saying that the two great loves of his life were his family and the community in which he lived, worked, served and played for seven decades. Those who knew Richard best, however, are also aware of his other passions. Hunting, complete only with the companionship of his trusty hounds and hunt club buddies, was of paramount importance to him. He loved his Outer Banks and the sea that pounded its shores, a love instilled in him by his naval officer father and reinforced by the countless waves and beers he enjoyed in the sweltering summer heat by the shore and cooling relief that only the easterly breezes the Atlantic could provide. There was politics, of course. Politics, were it not for his deep and abiding faith in his creator, could easily have been mistaken for Richard’s religion. He was an old-fashioned democrat of the best sort: the kind who was fiscally conservative and genuinely championed social justice for justice’s sake. He loved the strategy and intrigue of a close campaign. He even…and don’t tell anybody I said this…he even enjoyed seeing a good Republican candidate win an occasional election. Above all, he was a Southern gentleman of the best kind, one who would eagerly engage in a discussion about your misguided political opinions, but only under the condition that the conversation include generous helpings of bourbon and a post-debate wink and a handshake.

It was during one such discussion that I first met my friend Richard. Now nearly twenty years past, the exact details of our first encounter have faded with time. I do remember it took place at the Southampton County homeplace shared by his sister-in-law and her husband, and vaguely recall it having been an engagement party of some sort for one of his beloved nieces or nephews. I am certain of the fact that many of our mutual friends and acquaintances were in attendance and that, after a bourbon or two had been shared, our initial conversation turned to politics. As the differences between my conservative tendencies and his progressive leanings became increasingly clear, so did the discomfort of others within earshot of our conversation. The three most important women in the room, our wives and his aging but fierce mother, were resolute in their condemnation of our behavior, insistent that it end before we fought or, even worse, embarrassed our families. What no one else besides Richard and I realized in that moment, however, was that we were the two happiest pigs in the mud. I recognized a twinkle in his eye that those who love him will remember forever, I think he recognized a stubborn willingness in me to hold my own in a political debate, and we had each made a new friend. I will miss him dearly.

And then there is Thomas Jefferson, the architect of four things that Richard loved, not as much, but nearly as much as anything outside of his family and friends: his country, his commonwealth, his university and the code of Virginia. I’ve known few people, if any, whose love of country and the intricacies that make up its legal underpinnings can be matched by that of Richard Railey’s. Richard gave credit for these and all other good Earthly things to God first, followed closely by our country’s third president. He loved the law and the endless study of Mr. Jefferson’s code which that love required. He genuinely respected our government and the institutions tasked with ensuring the equal application of the law. He desperately loved Mr. Jefferson’s university, the University of Virginia, which nurtured and challenged his immense intellectual curiosity and love of the law that defined his personal character and professional acumen for decades. Above all, he was grateful for those who sacrificed and served so that his beloved America could achieve its goal of becoming a more perfect union.

There is never a fitting time for this world to lose a man like Richard Railey. These departures will always feel premature, regardless of the circumstances, as if there was just a little bit left on the table either undone or unsaid. It will always feel like we were somehow robbed of someone or something; but we were not. And neither was Richard. In fact, while I will badly miss my friend and wish our time here had lasted a little longer, the end was profoundly befitting of the man; he left us while surrounded by family on his Outer Banks, enjoying fireworks on the day we celebrate the independence of this great country, and 197 years to the day on which his beloved Mr. Jefferson was also called home to their maker.

Some endings are perfect, and even though we weren’t ready for it, Richard’s clearly was.

Godspeed, my friend. You left your mark, you were loved, and you will be missed.

Tony Clark is a Southampton County resident and can be contacted at