Friday, February 23, 2024

Richard Albert Thibodeau (1935-2023), Beloved Coronado Local

Richard Albert Thibodeau

Dick Thibodeau, “one of the good guys,” as old friends often described him.
“And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
In the spring,
Let them smile, as I do now,
At the old forsaken bough
Where I cling.”

-The Last Leaf

Indeed, Oliver Wendell Homes Sr. never met Richard Albert Thibodeau, never had the pleasure. But, certainly, with the passing of Dr. Thibodeau, the last leaf has fallen. He represented an age when laughter came quickly and anger slowly. He was a loving, kind, hard-working and generous man.

Dick Thibodeau, devoted husband, proud father, career naval dentist, sportsman, professional tennis referee and columnist, died June 3 in his sleep. He was 87.

It’s not often one can suggest someone passed as they lived. But Dick did just that. He had just finished eating his favorite meal and watching his beloved San Diego Padres play. He died with his Padres hat on, comfortable with the full life he had lived, in the home he made safe for his family and their friends.

One minute he was there, wire-rimmed glasses perched on his nose, an all-knowing smile on his face. And then, he wasn’t …

Dick, at age three. French would be the only language he knew until entering elementary school.

Dick was born and raised in Manchester, New Hampshire. French was the only language he spoke until he entered elementary school.

Born to Arthur Ernest Thibodeau and Laurette Beliveau, Dick’s family traced its roots from Nova Scotia. Both parents came to New Hampshire in their teens to work in the cotton mills. Eventually, his father went on to be an alderman, actively involved in local politics. He was also the town’s honorary fire chief. He was, some might say, a tough act to follow.

Dick was an only child, an odd situation in his family. Dick boasted 21 aunts and uncles; all French Canadian, and living in the area surrounding Quebec. Dick was born in Manchester and was raised in a mill town. He never complained, never shucked his responsibilities, but deep down, all he could think of was seeing the world.

The collegiate years.

Generations of Thibodeaus had mostly worked in cotton mills, eventually making their way from Canada to New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

A tall and strapping youth, Dick quickly took to sports. He played hockey, basketball and tennis, and was successful in all sports.

His uncle had a clay tennis court and, in the winter, he flooded it. In the freezing New Hampshire winters, it didn’t take long for the tennis court to turn into a hockey rink. While everyone else was enjoying New Hampshire ski season, Dick spent all his time playing hockey.

Dick wanted to see the world that, heretofore, he had only read about in books. To do that, he knew he was going to need an education. After high school he attended St. Anselm College, a Benedictine school. He received his Bachelors in Pre-Med and entered Tuft University School of Dental Medicine.

He received scholarships and financial aid to allow him to pursue his education. In the summers, he worked as a deliveryman, going door to door selling bread, cakes and pastries for Cushman’s Bakery.

Dick, celebrating his 25th birthday with his parents. Within a year, the US Navy would have transferred him to Japan.

In college, he was in the Army Reserve. At dental school he switched to the Navy Reserve and fulfilled his required duty while finishing up dental school with a Doctor of Medical Dentistry degree.

Upon graduation from dental school, Dick began his active duty career in the Navy as a young lieutenant specializing in endodontics, the branch of dentistry concerned with diseases and injuries of the soft tissues inside the tooth (the dental pulp).

Lt. Thibodeau enjoying rare leisure time ashore in Vietnam, 1971.

On his Navy “dream sheet,” Dick wrote his destination preference as, “As far away from New Hampshire as possible.” The Navy sent him to Japan.

His first duty station was at the dental clinic at US Navy Base Yokosuka, Japan. He arrived there in the summer of 1961 at 26 years of age. He always said tennis opened many doors for him. Dick had a big serve, solid ground strokes, a vicious net game, and played tennis like a chess game – one calculated move at a time. Being a very good tennis player made him extremely popular with fellow tennis players, and Japan was no exception.

After 60 years, their love for one another was stronger than ever — Dick & Tippy Thibodeau.

About that time, his wife-to-be (Linda “Tippy” Gary) also arrived in Japan as the oldest daughter of a Navy family. Before long she and Dick met at the Navy tennis courts, and the magic between them was evident within six weeks. They were married in August of 1962 at the US Navy Chapel, Yokohama, Japan. Two years later they had their first of five children.

In 1964, Dick was transferred to a dental clinic at NAS Pensacola, FL, where tennis remained his constant pastime.

“Our first ten years of marriage, we moved seven times,” recalled Tippy. Dick deployed on the hospital ship, “USS Sanctuary,” which operated just offshore of Vietnam to treat the wounded who were helicoptered to the ship. The large, white vessel, had a giant red cross on its hull, which theoretically marked it as a non-target for enemies.

In his capacity as a dentist, Dick was often asked to assist in medical situations outside of his specialty.

Other stateside duty stations included Naval Air Station Pensacola, FL, Washington, D.C., where he did graduate training, serving at Bethesda Naval Hospital and an additional year at the Naval Yard. From there the Thibodeau family came to Coronado (1971).

The Thibodeau family pyramid from top, left to right, first-born, Marc, Felice, Aimee, Maury, Tippy, Dick, and youngest, Michele.

He was assigned another tour of Saigon (one year) and then worked at a variety of locations in San Diego, using Coronado as his base of operations. Coronado was where his family had settled, quickly fitting into this island community hailed in the 1950s as, “The safest place to raise your children.” They purchased a house on Coronado Avenue and blended right in with the community, schools and lifestyle. The family still resides at this residence.

Dick served 22 years in the US Navy, retiring in October 1983 as a captain. His last duty station was Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twenty-Nine Palms, CA.

After his retirement from the Navy, Dick had a dental practice in Coronado for three years. Then, he was a contract dentist at the Coronado Naval Amphibious Base. Dick retired after 38 years as a practicing dentist.

Dick and Tippy.

Dick was about as solid a person as one could ever hope to meet. That applied to his role as husband (married 60 years) and as a father. When he made up his mind, there was no negotiating, said his daughters with a wink and a smile. Being a father to teenage boys and girls, you can imagine how they tested their parents’ patience.

No matter what the situation, Dick would say to his children, “Just wave and smile, wave and smile.” This watered down many situations, from road rage to mild irritations with people they came in contact with. His children remember proudly how calm he was, no matter what the situation.

He raised five solid children. He infused them early with a love for sports, all sports. He taught them right from wrong. He was adamant that shortcuts contributed nothing to the final result. For Dick Thibodeau, leaving the tennis court gracefully, as a loser, was preferred to winning with arrogance. Today, his children look back at his lessons in life and quietly smile, knowing they had a pretty darned good father.

There were so many facets to Dick Thibodeau’s life, and tennis was right up there towards the top. He met the great Rod “Rocket” Laver while refereeing World Team Tennis for the San Diego Friars. Laver was the captain of the team. He and Dick became friends, and are seen here at Laver’s book signing, years later.

All five children agreed their dad was intelligent, witty, silly, gentle, a good listener, and supportive of them all. He was engaging, no matter who he was talking with.

He adored his loving wife, and doted over his children even as adults. He earned numerous nicknames over his long life, many given him by his children and friends. He was known as “Bud,” “Doctor T,” “Dicksan” (when in Japan), “Pepere’” and “Captain-Doctor-Mister-Sir.”

Dick Thibodeau loved his career as a Navy dentist. He was dedicated to dentistry and, even after retirement, he continued to keep abreast of his craft through reading, studying and taking dental courses. For him, retirement certainly wasn’t going to be an excuse to slow down. He continued to work and stay busy.

There were many special moments like this in the long life of Dick Thibodeau. Here, he is seen reading, “Night Before Christmas,” to grandson, Ronin.

Dick clung to old habits throughout his long life. He liked his toast burnt, and usually the sign it was done was the kitchen smoke alarm going off. He read the newspaper each morning, a physical, newsprint newspaper. He enjoyed the feel of paper and the smell of fresh ink, as did so many of his generation.

Sometimes a “good meal” was ice cream and potato chips. He considered doughnuts a delicacy. He had many idiosyncrasies, and was beloved for all of them.

At 72, heart issues caused him to give up playing the game of tennis. But he continued to go to the tennis courts daily, and coached Coronado High School tennis players for several years.

Posing here with a 10-foot longboard, Dick swears this was the closest he ever came to surfing.

His love of tennis never waned. During the era of World Team Tennis (1974), he became a trained and respected on-court referee, working all San Diego Friars home games. He had a column in two different tennis magazines, where he openly discussed the state of the game, challenges to refereeing the game of professional tennis, and evaluating the state of the sport.

Linesmen working WTT would stand adjacent to the service line, call the serve if it was out, and if it was in, they would then quickly run to the baseline to call any long balls.

It took some getting used to, but the crowd loved it. Once, the fiery Romanian player, Ilie “Nasty” Nastase, started screaming at Dick, saying he made a bad call on a baseline ball Nastase thought was long. Known for his loud (and rude) antics on the court, eventually he calmed down and returned to receive the next point.

Celebrating his 85th birthday.

Dick, meanwhile, politely insisted the ball was good, smiled, and waved. Again, the crowd loved it. Mister Nastase? Meet Mister Thibodeau.

Dick played tennis locally on a tournament level, competing both at the Glorietta Tennis Courts and the Hotel del Coronado tennis courts, and in competitions at Morley Field and La Jolla. He was a tough competitor, often taking home trophies in doubles. At times, Dick manned the umpire chair to call final round games in local tournaments.

Through a dear friend, he discovered the writings of author Patrick O’Brian. Dick was an avid reader. He preferred historical characters, like Winston Churchill, but as a young man, he read and re-read the tales of Horatio Hornblower by C.S. Forester.

If he were here today, Dick Thibodeau would probably be the first to confess his weakness for all the wrong foods. And yet, he enjoyed food, family, and tennis to the max during his long life.

O’Brian’s character was Captain Jack Aubrey — far more innovated and complicated a character than Hornblower. Dick could never get enough of those adventures at sea, in the days of wooden ships and iron men, historical fiction at its finest.

Dick was active in the Catholic church and remained close to the Lord throughout his long life. He is survived by his loving wife Tippy, children Marc (Amy), Cary, NC; Felice Beaulieu (Dave), Aurora, CO; Aimee Richards (Tony), Coronado; Maury, Overland Park, KS; Michelle Loesch (Michael), Alexandria, VA; and 12 grandchildren.

Services will be held at Sacred Heart Church, Coronado, 11 am, August 1, 2023. Instead of flowers, the family requests that donations be made, “In Loving Memory of Dr. Richard Thibodeau,” to the Disabled American Veterans, P.O. Box 14301, Cincinnati, OH 45250-0301; or Sacred Heart Parish School, 655 C Avenue, Coronado, CA 92118.

The family continues to grow, an incredible legacy to the great and wonderful Dick Thibodeau, who was an only child.

Joe Ditler
Joe Ditler
Joe Ditler is a professional writer, publicist and Coronado historian. Formerly a writer with the Los Angeles Times, he has been published in magazines and newspapers throughout North America and Europe. He also owns Part-Time PR (a subsidiary of Schooner or Later Promotions), specializing in helping Coronado businesses reach larger audiences with well-placed public relations throughout the greater San Diego County. He writes obituaries and living-obituaries under the cover "Coronado Storyteller." To find out more, write or call [email protected], or (619) 742-1034.

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