Obituary of Rodney M. Richards
Rodney M. Richards
November 20, 1951 – September 19, 2023
A devoted partner, friend, father and family member, Rodney Mark Richards was born in Denver, Colorado, on November 20, 1951. The beloved son of Jacqueline and Lawrence Richards, he grew up with his two siblings, Dan and Margie, in the Athmar Park neighborhood of the Mile High City.
Rodney’s passion for knowledge, curiosity, and his many talents manifested early in life. He excelled as a young student: brilliant in math, calculus in particular, he had exceptional academic ability in the hard sciences. He also loved gymnastics and rose through the ranks to become an All-American athlete in 1973. His specialty was vaulting. Rod’s top grades in high school and his prowess in gymnastics earned him a full tuition scholarship to the University of Denver in 1969, where graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry in 1973 and a Master of Science in 1977. He then received a scholarship to the University of Colorado Boulder where he completed a PhD in Organic Chemistry in 1982.
Rodney was part of the initial team of scientists that launched a startup known today as Amgen, one of the world’s leading biotechnology companies. In the early 1980s, the company, founded by David Rasnick, was located in a garage in Boulder, Colorado, which lacked running water. The young Dr. Richards was enthused by Rasnick’s vision and hired as employee #17, to expand upon a methodology developed in the labs of University of Colorado Professor Marvin Caruthers, Rod’s doctoral supervisor. In the 1980s and ‘90s Rodney was on the front lines of research on HIV/AIDS and the Hepatitis C virus (HCV). During those crucial early years of investigation into these pathogens, Rodney patented various diagnostic tests that became the gold standard in the field, some of which are still in use today. He was the lead scientist on the team that developed the drug Interferon, used to treat HCV. His inquisitive and critical mind led him to question much received knowledge as he strove to back his work with hard data, insight and brilliant acumen. While at Amgen, he developed new protocols to synthesize DNA oligonucleotides, an unconventional approach in those days but which has since become common procedure.
His passion for learning fueled his life. After retiring from Amgen, Rodney continued to work on HIV and HCV as an independent scientist, following in particular the developments of the HIV/AIDS epidemics and related politics in South Africa. He collaborated with well-known investigative journalists on the front lines of Prime Minister Thabo Mbeki’s efforts to improve public health and health communication.
In the 1970s, Rodney joined Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a lay Buddhist organization. It was a life-transforming encounter that set him on a solidly humanistic path. As a scientist and a humanist, Rodney knew life is eternal. He believed with all his heart that death is not the end of life, but rather the departure to our next existence—another step in the ongoing drama of life. As his life mentor, Dr. Daisaku Ikeda, philosopher and honorary president of SGI, emphasizes: “Life to life ties forged in this existence are not severed or extinguished by death. Though they may be invisible, like radio waves, these connections endure eternally.” Rodney firmly believed this: love is what matters, and love transcends time and space. During the 1990s–2000s, he served as a district leader in the local SGI organization and was active at the national level with the cultural department of SGI.
Rod was well traveled, and he made friends and was respected wherever he went. He often visited Italy, as a “hippie bum,” he used to say, in the 1970s, and then to spend time with his Italian family — his wife, Cinzia, and stepson Leo are from Italy. Rodney’s extended family in Italy includes his “elected brother” Paolo Cicino, Leo’s biological father, and Paolo’s family. The two men were best friends and enjoyed doing household projects together, cooking, and mentoring young Leo. Rodney appreciated the good food, beautiful art and rich traditions of Italy. He was loved by his late father-in-law Colombo, with whom he would stay up late, drinking wine, eating tarallucci, and playing cards; and his sister-in-law Loredana and her husband, Alessandro. Rodney’s Italian may have needed improvement, but a person who has only goodness in his heart finds a home anywhere he goes.
Rod’s interests and accomplishments were eclectic. He was artful in many ways: an excellent baker, as a young boy he delighted his mother and her friends with his pastry-making in 1950s Denver, while later, his homemade pizza crust impressed all who enjoyed it. He was a skillful photographer: his passion for colors and forms, and for the aesthetics of objects and composition, helped him earn money to attend the University of Denver. He was also an accomplished carpenter, another pursuit that funded his way through college. He could do wonders with his hands, just like his late father Larry. His last project in spring 2023, assisted by his “brother” Paolo visiting from Italy, was to remodel the master bathroom with new tiles and cabinets, re-do the backyard fence, and build an Italian-style cantina in the basement. In his last months of life, he was perfecting the art of making Italian liqueurs, including Limoncello and Genepì. His Limoncello was very popular with neighbors who sampled it. Rodney was also a savvy businessman, able to quickly put together a spreadsheet and interpret data from multiple points of view. His perspective on problems was always refreshing, and his entire family often sought the benefit of his advice, finding him ever caring and insightful.
Rod parented his stepson, Leonardo (Leo) Cicino (now age 27), for 25 years, teaching him to become a hardworking, capable and compassionate young man -- a business owner himself now -- and an active, contributing member of society. Rod had a special gift of encouragement: helping many to believe in themselves by soliciting their inner capability to think creatively and not be overwhelmed in the face of difficulties. He would often say to his wife, “I have seen you overcome many obstacles, you will overcome this as well.” She holds this close to her heart, as she overcomes the obstacle of his loss.
Rodney was a pillar of strength, love, hope and possibility for his family, who also cherished his role as their best friend. He was an exceptional son, brother, uncle, great uncle, and great-great uncle, honoring his late father in offering extraordinary loving care to his mother and the incredible family home his parents built while they were teens. The projects, fun events and countless memories shared are too many to list, leaving enduring beauty and energy held dear by those Rod loved, and who love him.
Because of Rodney’s example, we carry the torch forward and look with positivity into the future. As the Buddhist philosophy of life encourages, we will summon the courage and energy to live life to the fullest not only for ourselves, but for Rodney. Sometime last summer, in a text to a friend written to encourage her while she was going through a tough time, Rodney wrote, “You are like a rainbow. We are not sad when it goes away, but rather joyful to have encountered it in the first place.” This perspective perfectly captures Rod’s spirit and compassion, encouraging us all to move confidently into the next chapter of this eternal drama of life. At one point, on September 19, 2023, the evening when he transitioned to the state of “Ku,” or Latency, Rod’s family doctor and friend, Dr. Leif Redal, who had been at Rod’s bedside every day, at one point said to those in the room, “Let’s go outside and watch the stars!” It was 7:00 PM, too early to see any star. What we saw instead was even more wonderous and auspicious. An expansive double rainbow appeared in front of the hospital where Rod was staying: the skies were greeting him, taking him in, in a sign of peace and alliance.
The world has truly been fortunate to have seen rainbow-Rod: beautiful, eclectic, full of colors and shimmering shades, always striving to create connections and forge meaningful relations. Although we are sad not to appreciate him in his physical form anymore, we find joy as he remains in our hearts. Therefore, as Dr. Ikeda encourages, we will move forward not as mere “survivors” but as “successors” who will share and carry Rodney’s ambitions and dreams into the future.
Rodney leaves behind his wife, Cinzia, and his much-cherished son Leo. He was a loving brother to Dan and wife Debbie, and to his sister Margie; he was a dedicated uncle to his nieces and nephew (Kim, Jill, Kris and Katie) and his grandnephews (Jaymie, Cole, Chase and great-grandniece Jillee). He was preceded in death by his father Larry, mother Jackie, and niece Katie.
A Memorial to honor Rod’s life will be held on October 15th at 1:00 P.M. at the Soka Gakkai International Culture Center, 2020 Wadsworth Blvd, in Lakewood, Colorado.