Mt. Airy author has storied life worthy of a biography

Posted 7/16/20

Mt. Airy native Richard Schwartz has been a firefighter, farm worker, general contractor, drummer for a popular West Coast band and the author of several very well-reviewed books. by Len Lear Richard …

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Mt. Airy author has storied life worthy of a biography

Mt. Airy native Richard Schwartz has been a firefighter, farm worker, general contractor, drummer for a popular West Coast band and the author of several very well-reviewed books.

by Len Lear

Richard Schwartz, 68, grew up in Mt. Airy. In 1968 at Central High School he won the varsity football's "Team Award" and was the undefeated Pennsylvania State Fencing Champion in the weapon epee in the 1969 competition. Schwartz graduated from Temple University in 1973 with a bachelor's degree in English literature and proceeded to live such a storied life that it would take a lengthy biography to encompass it all. But alas, I only have this newspaper article, so I will have to summarize it.

“Growing up in Mt. Airy,” he told us last week, “my dog Chico and I went everywhere together. He was the only dog allowed in the pharmacy and library. I raised guinea pigs and hamsters and tropical fish, though now I think back and would not keep an animal in a cage or tank. Played stickball and half-ball at McCloskey School and rode my bike, putting baseball cards fastened with one of my mom’s wooden clothespins so the cards would make a buzzing noise as I rode.

“I mowed lawns for $2 each and used the money to buy plastic model ships and planes and comic books at the pharmacy. I was thinking the other day after speaking with a 12-year-old friend how I also lived on Mad Magazine and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and couldn’t wait until the next edition came out. And then there were snowball fights and snow forts in the winter. And sledding. Sometimes the kids who went to public schools and the kids who went to Catholic schools would brawl. I became good friends with the kid up the block after we brawled one too many times.”

For two years while at Temple, Schwartz worked on a Pennsylvania Dutch farm 11 hours a day, three days a week. He moved to Berkeley, California, in 1973 and formed the New World Trio, an acoustical jazz trio with Eric Vaughan (Godson of Sarah Vaughan) on piano, Samahdi Aheshma (played with Miles Davis at 16 years old) on bass, and himself on drums. He also played in a Berkeley Latin jazz sextet and taught drums in an after-school program.

In 1976 Schwartz joined the U.S. Forest Service to fight fires in the Sierra. It was during this time that he came across an ancient 65-foot stone circle. His curiosity about this configuration led to his first book, "The Circle of Stones," a nonfiction archeological mystery.

“When we were not on a fire, we cleaned up old logging operations that left a lot of fuel on the forest floor,” recalled Schwartz. “When I first started, I made it clear I wouldn’t cut a tree down unless I was on a fire. Somehow, instead of firing me they said they needed someone like me on a crew. The irony is that much of time cleaning up those old logging operations, I picked up and stacked rounds others had cut.”

Schwartz has spoken to and/or written articles for or been reviewed or interviewed by more than 100 book clubs, bookstores, non-profit organizations and other institutions on this and other Native American and American historical topics.

In 1982 Schwartz earned his General Building Contractors license from the State of California, where he is certified to condemn and examine buildings for the State after an earthquake. He is still active in the construction trades and has specialized in design, lighting design exterior, lighting design interior, earthquake retrofitting, drainage/water issues, etc.

In the early 1990s Schwartz joined a Brazilian samba school and played in the San Francisco and Oakland Carnivals. In 1992 he traveled to Brazil and studied Afro-Brazilian drumming. He helped form a band called Orixa Ba Ba that performed with Ray Charles and Tower of Power and on San Francisco's KQED-TV.

In 1996 Schwartz was at the Berkeley Historical Society when a stack of Berkeley newspapers circa 1900 was about to be discarded by the Society. He rescued the newspapers, which became the basis for the book "Berkeley 1900," which took Schwartz four years to research and write. The book was on the "East Bay Best Sellers List" in the East Bay Express for 10 months.

Schwartz released "Earthquake Exodus, 1906" in November, 2005, the only book to focus on the refugees and relief effort instead of the disaster. Schwartz presented a Certificate of Honor from then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (now Governor of California) to the citizens of Berkeley for Berkeleyans' role in saving the lives of tens of thousands of refugees from the San Francisco 1906 Earthquake. The book was featured on many local TV and radio stations.

In July of 2007, Schwartz released the book, "Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley," which documents the lives of 17 men and women who were famous in their day (1850-1925) but have been all but forgotten in our modern world. The book was picked as a 2007-2008 "Holiday Gift Book of the Year" by the San Francisco Chronicle. Schwartz has also recorded over 200 previously unknown local Indian sites, of which he sends reports to the State archive at Sonoma State University.

In 2017, Richard released "The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty, The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of Actor M. B. Curtis." The book has been accepted in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margret Herrick Collection. It is on sale at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island National Park. This book about a forgotten American cultural hero won the Bronze Medal for Biography from the 2018 Independent Publishers Book Awards.

What was the hardest thing Schwartz, who still lives in Berkeley, has ever done? “Assuming medical responsibility for my aging parents and caring for them. And also the most rewarding.”

What is the best advice he has ever received? “There are many but I will choose one. 'You become what you resist.' I catch myself in that about three times a week.”

For more information, visit Len Lear can be reached at

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