SALT LAKE CITY — One hundreds years. That’s how long Richard Beckham has been alive. A century. Ten decades. That’s thirty-six thousand, five hundred and twenty-five sunrises and sunsets.
In Beckham’s lifetime, America survived the Depression, the ‘70s and leisure suits, Lindy crossed the Atlantic, Amelia Earhart disappeared, two world wars and the Cold War came and went, Einstein theorized relativity, the nuclear bomb exploded, the Beatles sang, Armstrong walked on the moon, TV, computers, smartphones and texting were created.
Beckham lived through it all. Actually, he was in the middle of some of it. He is the last survivor of the official Navy search party that was dispatched to the South Pacific to find Earhart. It was Beckham who sent the first message to the world of Earhart’s fate.
After a lifetime of moving, Beckham finally settled in St. George with his wife, Vera. He is hard of hearing, but if there is anything else that is troubling him he doesn’t mention it. That’s not what people who lived 10 decades and grew up in the Depression do. He didn’t complain when his first wife ran off, leaving him to raise a son alone. He didn’t complain when he had to do without during the Depression and his family had to start over. He just kept his head down and moved on.
“I can never remember him complaining,” says Brandon, his devoted eldest grandchild.
At 100, Beckham, a small man with a full head of gray-white hair, is still independent. It was only a year or so ago that he was still driving a car. When Brandon tries to help him, he’ll say: “I got it! I got it!”
Earlier this month Brandon flew from his home in Washington, D.C., to Las Vegas and then rented a car and drove to St. George, where he picked up Richard and Vera and drove them to Salt Lake City for a weekend of centennial birthday celebrations, which included a ceremony in his honor by the state Legislature.
“As a family doctor I can tell you this is a well-made individual,” Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, said as he introduced Beckham on the House floor. Beckham appeared to be confused after being presented with an official proclamation and standing ovation, later confessing: “I didn’t know what the heck was going on at first. I feel like they were going to a lot of trouble.”
Only 0.0173 percent of the population lives to be 100 years old, and that number has been increasing for decades (it was 0.015 in 1990). According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 80 percent of centenarians are female, which makes Beckham even more of a rarity. He is favored by genetics — he has a sister who lived to 102. He also benefitted from self-discipline and clean living. He drank alcohol and smoked in the Navy, but quit both, cold turkey, as a young man. When Brandon asked him how he was able to quit, he simply said: “The surgeon general came out and warned us about cigarettes. They put a warning on the package. I thought, I guess I shouldn’t smoke anymore. So I quit.”
During his century of life, Beckham has been a pilot, ham radio operator, navigator, soldier, sailor, high school teacher, cowboy, engineer, single father and missionary. “He’s led a great life,” says Vera.
He was born March 6, 1915, in Texas, shortly after Congress rejected a proposal to give women the right to vote and exactly two months before Babe Ruth hit his first Major League home run. Beckham grew up on a ranch, working alongside his father, and he was a passionate camper and Boy Scout. During the Depression, circumstances forced his family to pack up their Model T truck and drive to Washington to start a new life.
Unable to find a job after graduating from high school, Beckham joined the Navy in 1934. The military utilized the radio and Morse code skills he learned in the Boy Scouts. In 1937, he was serving on the USS Colorado when the ship was assigned to search for Earhart, the legendary pilot who disappeared near Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean while attempting to fly around the world. Three seaplanes were catapulted off the ship to search the water and the islands in the area where it was believed Earhart had sent her last radio signals. Beckham flew in the rear seat of one of those planes as an observer.
“They shoot you off (the ship) with a charge of gunpowder,” recalls Beckham. “The airplane goes out with the engines running wide open. You think it’s going to hit the water, and it just barely makes it and then you start breathing again.”
He searched one side of the plane while the pilot searched the other. It was Beckham who sent the first messages to the world via Morse code that the search was underway and that Earhart hadn’t been found. He claims to have forgotten many things over the years, but he still remembers the search.
“It was nothing but water,” he says. “It’s pretty hard to tell if you’re going over the same place or if you’re going to miss a place because you can’t tell one place from another.” For 10 days they stared at the endless miles of ocean before they accepted defeat. “We had a glum feeling about it,” says Beckham. “We did little talking about it on the ship — because we didn’t find her, I guess. I felt bad about it. What could I say?”
Beckham was the only man who had a film camera on the search team and he still owns the only footage of the search.
The family is lobbying to have Beckham included in an expedition to locate what they believe is part of Earhart’s plane, hoping it will solve the mystery of her disappearance. An organization called TIGHAR will begin the expedition in June.
“I've contacted them about it,” says Brandon. “They are aware and will keep me abreast with their plans.”
Beckham quit the Navy in 1938 and became a high school teacher in Oregon. A few years later he studied engineering and earned a pilot’s license. He joined the Civil Air Patrol, which enabled him to use his pilot and radio skills while also traveling extensively. He served in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Guam.
He married along the way, but his wife abandoned him and their young son and Beckham raised him alone. Moving frequently, he had few opportunities to find a new wife, and it would be more than two decades before he married his second wife, Dolly, in 1971. She died in 2002, and three years later he married Vera.
Beckham converted to the Mormon faith and was baptized when he was 63. He and Dolly eventually served two missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — one in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the other in St. George.
Leave it to Brandon to sum up his grandfather's life: “Growing up, my grandpa has been great example of hard work, self-reliance, and independence. He taught me how to build sailboats, shoot a rifle, tie my shoe, Morse code, ham radio, the virtue of hard work. He came from humble times. He wasted nothing. He saved his money. He didn't buy things that didn't matter. He knows what it’s like to go with nothing and to struggle. Our family admires him.”
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