Richard best Profile
Pig & Pickle, an off-beat, locally-owned restaurant in Scottsdale, hosted a celebration on Saturday of the life of its most unique customer and friend, and it was a community event to be remembered.
Richard P. Best was a patriot in the highest sense, and the kind of guy you would love to have a… martini with. Something of a real-life, Yankee James Bond, much of his story may never be told publicly, but he lived a life that touched more people every day than many do in a year.
Best passed away on August 26, 2017, at the age of 92. At least 50 people gathered to remember him at his favorite Friday happy hour haunt, where he left yet another indelible imprint on his community, as he’d done his whole life.
“Time and a pleasant smile" was all Best ever claimed to want from people, and he wrested some of both from even those most resistant to his unorthodox charm. He also hurled George Carlin-like insults and one-liners, indiscriminately dubbing anyone he pleased monikers like “Bonehead,” “Short Stuff,” and much worse.
“He had names for everyone and everything,” said his son, Mike.
And when he’d had his fun, he’d give you the warmest hug you ever felt, and leave you waiting to see him again. Sometimes he’d pull you down close to him to deliver a few quiet words of personal encouragement that you’d never forget.
Best and Pig & Pickle found each other at just the right time. In 2012, The newly-opened, chef-driven gastropub with a soulful vibe was trying to find a foothold in South Scottsdale, and tap into a new community of local drinkers, foodies, and good-hearted miscreants. Best qualified as all three, although he would undoubtedly have challenged such slander–possibly excepting ‘drinker.’
“We were just starting and so wet behind the ears, and he’s looking at us like, these are good souls and they’re doing a good thing, and I want to support it. And he did till the end. I mean he had his wake here,” said Pig & Pickle owner Clayton MacGregor of Gilbert.
For his part, Best was recently devastated by the sudden December 2011 loss of his beloved wife of 55 years, Hanni.
“I truly thought that her death would be the death of him. But, in true R.P. fashion, he began to rebuild his world,” said Best’s daughter, Nancy. She and her two brothers, Mike and Steve “counselled him that the only way to get back to a normal life was to create a routine and stick to it. So, he went about creating a routine for himself.”
To its great benefit, Pig & Pickle became a regular part of that routine.
“He kind of signifies for us what we set out to create, a place that, you know, you could come and have a good time no matter what age you were. You have a 90-year-old guy sitting at the bar, joking with 25-year-old girls, next to a 30-year-old bartender. And still so young, relating to current affairs, and they were into what he’s into,” MacGregor said.
“The thing that I liked most about Richard is the way that as soon as he walked in the door–albeit, slowly– how the whole place just changed and everybody was just in a good mood and wanted to go talk to him, and his infectious smile. He could look at ya and smile, he’d just make you melt,” remembered former bar manager Dustin “Skot” Boettcher, now living outside of Denver.
Still, as much as the owners, staff, and regulars loved Best, most only had bits or pieces of his history, which only served to grow the legend of “King Richard.”
Best was born in Paris, Illinois, on September 7, 1924. At 19-years-old, he enlisted in the Army in the last year of World War Two and trained for clandestine operations at Stanford. When the war ended, he was sent, along with only twelve other soldiers, to another Paris–this time at an invitation to Sorbonne by President Charles de Gaulle.
His stint in France would be but one of many official and unofficial postings in the post-War and Cold War periods, and well beyond. He worked as an intelligence officer in the Army until 1968, when he returned to the U.S. and went to work with the highly-secretive Air Force Foreign Technology Division (FTD).
“The technology that was being developed for use in the Air Force arsenal with their secrets secured by the FTD, would lead Dad to another place, Los Alamos New Mexico,” said his son Steve. Best remained “part of the L.A. family for almost 30 years.”
Across an immense career, Best traveled the world, from divided Berlin, where he met young Miss Johanna “Hanni” Schwaighofer; to Austria, which he and Hanni both visited annually until they were unable to; to Greece where their children were raised for some time.
“Dad worked in an innocuous office near downtown Athens, none of us had any idea what he was doing,” Steve said. “Oddly and coincidentally, the government of Greece in the mid-60s, was being swayed by the influences of the Soviet Union, and with swift and thorough secret action on the part of Dad and his colleagues, that government fell apart in a coup, and our stay in Athens ended a year later.”
After his work at Los Alamos, Best Went on to hold roles with Pentagon counterintelligence leadership, and didn’t retire until 2007 when he was a spry 82-years-old. All told, Best put in roughly six decades of service at the highest levels of counterintelligence.
“Even though Dad thought that any temperature above 75 was incredibly uncivilized, they made the decision to move to Arizona. That May, my parents moved to Scottsdale and began to embrace desert living,” Nancy said.
So it came about that, half-way through his retirement to the Valley of the Sun, Best stopped in to check out a hip new bar in the neighborhood. Bond rarely took his martini alone.
Through the duration of Best’s patronage, most of the incredible revelations of his life and career didn’t become common knowledge at Pig & Pickle until his passing, but it seemed to explain quite a bit.
Knowledgeable on almost every subject, and incredibly well-read, he recommended books in the restaurant constantly, and was delighted when his tips were taken up.
He once made sure that a cook received a copy of Kevin Powers’ poetic, jarring rumination on war and its consequences, “The Yellow Birds.” The young man was a veteran who had witnessed his brother’s death at the hands of an IED in Afghanistan, was injured himself, and struggled with PTSD and depression. He was imminently grateful to be so understood and connected to by someone who barely knew him.
Skot Boettcher–at a large six feet–recalled being man-handled by the never-tall nonagenarian.
“I’ll never forget, I was shaking his hand when he was driving home once, and he almost pulled me right in to his Chevy window. You know, like that guy still had it, and we all loved him and it was great having him around. Yeah, he was a great one,” Boetcher said.
Many–perhaps most–of Best’s quotes aren’t quite fit for print, just like much, if not most of his work isn’t easily talked about. He was a man alive on so many levels that he seemed to have one to match any individual, and yet those who met him usually got a notion they couldn’t quite match his.
“Every time I saw him, he put a smile on my face because, not only was he genuinely caring in his soul, but I mean, he really enjoyed his time with us. Nancy said we added years to his life and we didn’t even know it, and it just seemed like he gave just as much back to us,” MacGregor said.
Best sent a letter to more than 300 people every Christmas, and kept a birthday calendar with a card to be sent for almost every day of the year. When he passed, his son Mike found 30 of them waiting to be mailed in his desk.
Someone who spends so long doing such important work, hidden from the world it is shaping, tends to speak to, and move people with force. At the end of “King” Richard Best’s life, that force was one of sheer willful love, and it was simply overwhelming.