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Bob Richards is explaining how to spell the screenplay he’s developing into a cable TV series.
"It’s A*T*C*,” Richards said. “Like M*A*S*H.”
The shows share strikingly similar storylines. The highly-acclaimed M*A*S*H, which ran for 11 years from 1972 to 1983, featured an Army hospital staff in the Korean War that found laughter was the best way to deal with the situation.
A*T*C *(Air Traffic Controllers) is based on Richards’ 2007 book, Secrets from the Tower, which collects stories from his 24-year-career as an air traffic controller at O’Hare Airport.
Humor, drugs and alcohol were among the many methods Richards and his peers used to cope with the stress of life in the tower.
If Richards creates the next M*A*S*H, fame and fortune will follow for the 1979 Morton College Associate in Arts graduate. If it doesn’t, oh well…
"How many people can say they had fun their whole life and be paid for it?” Richards asked. “I can’t live long enough to do all the things I want to do. The more I see, the more I want to do.”
In the TV business, patience is a necessity. He cites it took nine years for Mad Men to get off the ground. Richards, also a former high school and grade school teacher, is hoping filming for A*T*C can start in the spring of 2014.
TV shows take a lot of time,” explains Richards, who appears on CNN and ABC as its aviation consultant. “It doesn’t come easy.”
The same can be said for Richards’ book. He maintained a journal of all the things he observed as an air traffic controller. Richards just waited for the day he could retire to begin writing his book.
Being in government, you had to wait for the right time,” Richards said. “You can’t do it while working or else you’d be fired.”
Richards says he always has loved writing. He’s kept things written on loose leaf paper as a sixth-grader.
While Richards expects to be called to testify before Congress in a few months about his book, he didn’t write it to be a whistle-blower.
“I wanted to tell my kids what my life was like,” Richards said. “Also, I think it will give people hope to overcome any obstacles in their lives.”
Richards grew up in Berwyn and attended the now-closed St. Mary of Celle School on the city’s north end. After graduating from Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Richards enlisted in the Air Force.
"After I got out of the Air Force, I was looking for a place to go to school,” Richards said. “I wanted to play basketball and figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Morton College seemed like a nice, laid-back school."
Richards, who now lives in Plum Island, Massachusetts, played two seasons of both basketball and tennis at Morton College. Interestingly, the teacher-to-be's best game came sophomore year against National College of Education when Richards just missed a triple-double with 26 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds in a 96-71 win. He received the College’s Blanket Award, given to the student-athlete with the highest grade-point average.
His most memorable instructors were John Mashek for geography and Bill Searles for psychology. Athletic department mainstay Bob “Slivers” Slivovsky also holds a special place in Richards’ heart.
It was interesting learning about the world in John Mashek’s geography class,” Richards recalled. “Bill Searles was one who got me into teaching. Slivers was my favorite human being at Morton College. He always had time to talk. He always had time to help. He always had a smile on his face. He was a great person.”
Richards, who continues to work as a substitute, started out as a teacher. He has a bachelor’s degree in both education and biology from Roosevelt University in Chicago.
“I enjoy helping people and kids,” Richards said, “and passing on the things I’ve learned. I want to help get them in the right direction, like a lot of people did for me.”
When Richards was teaching, he still was on active duty with the Air Force. The nation’s air traffic controllers went on strike in 1981 and President Ronald Reagan fired over 11,000 employees. Richards was called back to active duty as an air traffic controller.
For a period, Richards continued both careers. He taught days during the week and worked three nights and weekends as an air traffic controller. In addition, Richards refereed high school and college basketball games.
The stress level of an air traffic controller is very high. There’s no room for error and mistakes usually result in mass fatalities. He was able to retire at age 47.
In a 2011 interview with the Daily Beast, Richards talked about the price some of his peers paid.
“Maybe I could just take them to visit the cemeteries where my coworkers now reside: four dead of sudden cardiac death, two others of pancreatic cancer, which counts stress-linked pancreatitis as a risk factor,” Richards said.
“All of them were under 50 years old. One was 30, and another, 29. And this doesn’t include the countless controllers who endure all manner of stress-related health issues, including ulcers, GERD and abnormal cardiac rhythms. In just the last four years since I retired, I attended wakes for four more controllers.”
Richards now enjoys traveling. He calls Bora Bora and Tahiti “the most beautiful places in the world.” He just returned from Hawaii and is headed to the Caribbean Islands to ring in the New Year. Richards also has been to South Africa and Central America.
“Enjoy life while you can,” Richards advises. “I don’t understand why people don’t do that.”