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Okla. retiree in Malawi dies serving as volunteer coordinator

LILONGWE, Malawi (BP)–Vernon Richards, 63, one of Oklahoma’s hosts for mission volunteers in Malawi, died Feb. 6 in Lilongwe of an apparent heart attack.

Richards’ wife, Jo, who has served alongside her husband in Malawi the past nine months, said Vernon left home after a busy day to play squash with a missionary at the Malawi Golf Club. About an hour into the game, he collapsed and was rushed to British Medical Center, but doctors there were unable to revive him.

The Richardses left for Malawi last May and have served as hosts to the hundreds of volunteers from Oklahoma since that time. They had planned to spend at least two years in the African nation picking up volunteers from the airport, taking them to their ministry locations and providing logistical support for them during their stay.

Jo told the Oklahoma Baptist Messenger newsjournal that Vernon had been fighting high cholesterol and was taking blood pressure medicine. The couple had been walking the last few weeks and walked the morning he died.

Dave Clippard, Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma associate executive director and head of the church outreach team, said Jo told him Vernon was enjoying life right up to the very moment he went home to be with Jesus.

Jo told the Messenger she didn’t want Vernon to play squash that day. “I tried to get him not to go,” she said from IMB missionaries Sam and Marlyn Upton’s home a few hours after Vernon’s death. “I told him not to play too hard, and to come back to me.” She said when the Uptons drove into her driveway, she knew something was terribly wrong. She added that the heart attack happened so fast that even if he had been in the United States, there was probably nothing that could have been done to save his life.

Vernon retired in 1995 after a 28-year career as a welder at Tinker Air Force Base. A native of Maud, Okla., he was a member of Choctaw Road Baptist Church, Choctaw.

He was certified in Evangelism Explosion, C.W.T. and Lay Evangelism School and One-Day Soul Winning.

Jo began working at the Baptist Building in 1979, first in the annuity office, then in evangelism, Woman’s Missionary Union and the church outreach team. She retired March 31, 1999.

A memorial service was held Feb. 8, which is Jo Richards’ birthday, at the Lilongwe Seminary chapel. Emmanuel Chinkwita-Phin, president of the Malawi Baptist Convention, said Richards was the first Southern Baptist missionary “to die in our country, and we will never forget his sacrifice.”

The Richardses were planning to return to Oklahoma in March or April for a furlough before completing their two years in Malawi.

Jo Richards is scheduled to return to Dallas, and spend a few days there before returning to Oklahoma, where a memorial service is tentatively scheduled Feb. 17 at their home church in Choctaw.

Vernon is survived by two sons, Vernon Lowell Jr. of Edmond, Okla., and Steven Carl, Dallas, and four grandchildren. One granddaughter, Racheal died in 1999 at the age of 12.

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  • Dana Williamson