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About Utah: 'Mr. Downtown' was forever an optimist

Published: Thursday, Feb. 23 2012 11:25 p.m. MST

Richard Wirick

Jason Olson, Deseret News Archives

SALT LAKE CITY — A month and a day. That's how close he came to his version of Christmas, Valentine's Day and summer vacation all rolled into one.

At a time like this, we need the town's greatest optimist to put a positive spin on such a heartbreaking miss.

The trouble is, the town's greatest optimist is the one who came up a month and a day short.

Richard Wirick, 82, died this past Tuesday, Feb. 21, when he was hit by a bus while crossing the street. The accident occurred in the heart of downtown and that's another irony, because Richard Wirick was the heart of downtown.

"Mr. Downtown" wasn't just a casual nickname for the man who ran the Oxford Shop shoe store for 64 years. The Vest Pocket Business Coalition made it official a couple of years ago when they proclaimed Wirick "Mr. Downtown" and presented him with a plaque, which he proudly displayed in the show window of his store, surrounded by Florsheim shoes, the brand that got him started when he was a much younger man and Salt Lake was a much younger town.

Dick Wirick's story is as all-American as they come. He started as a shoe salesman, then he bought the store. That was in 1948. Downtown Salt Lake City was thriving then. His neighbors were The Paris Co., Auerbach's and Keith O'Brien. Nobody had invented suburban malls yet, or Internet shopping, or 16-screen Cineplexes. Back then a big box was just a big box. The streets of Salt Lake City bustled. Serious shopping meant coming downtown.

Then suburban sprawl came along and downtown became a shadow of its former self. In 1995, after 47 years on 300 South, a parking plaza rousted Wirick, who downsized and moved the Oxford Shop two blocks north to a little hole in the wall on 100 South. Nine years after that, in late 2004, when the roof over his head was literally falling, he moved farther west on 100 South to a smaller hole in the wall.

He was well past "retirement age" by then. No one would have been surprised if he'd just boxed up his shoes and called it a career. But Dick wouldn't do that. He couldn't do that. Downtown was his life. It had cared for him and he cared for it.

For years he'd watched the decline. He saw Main Street dry up. He saw them tear the malls down. He watched Nordstrom leave. The worse it got, the more optimistic he got. Things would get better, was his mantra. The turnaround was right around the corner.

Then, about the same time that he and his shoes made that third move, some good news. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints revealed its plans for the City Creek Center, a $1 billion project (now nearly $2 billion) that would bring downtown back. The new development would have condominiums and stores and restaurants and a river would run through it — and it would be built right across the street from Dick Wirick's Oxford Shop.

He instantly became City Creek's No. 1 fan and its biggest cheerleader. As his sales dropped to an average of about 10 pairs of shoes a day, his spirits soared. Merchants around him, surrounded by orange cones, construction workers and road closures, got impatient, grumpy, moody. Not Dick. He put up a sign in the window: "Constructions Workers Discount." And next to that: "Convention Visitor's Discount." And next to that, to make sure no one was left out, a generic: "10 percent Discount, Entire Purchase."

You couldn't get him down. He joined every civic organization in Salt Lake City and attended every meeting, constantly outshouting the critics and naysayers. There wasn't a mayor he didn't know on a first-name basis. He regularly fired off letters to the editor praising what was coming.

His last one was printed in the Salt Lake Tribune on Saturday, Feb. 18. Eagerly anticipating City Creek's grand opening on March 22, it began: "With the completion of the City Creek Center, we are creating one of America's finest downtowns."

And then, three days later, at 7:30 in the morning, he died crossing the street on 200 South and 400 East.

"It's just heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking," said Pam O'Mara, his friend and business neighbor who owns the Utah Artist Hands store next to the Oxford Shop.

Then she added, "But he'd be really pleased with all the press. He'd be cutting out every article, having them laminated, and hanging them up."

Sounds exactly like Dick's positive spin.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: benson@desnews.com

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