A lover of coffee, cooking and cribbage, Richard Oliver is remembered as a gregarious man with a contagious smile — despite his struggles over the years with homelessness and chronic pain.
Employees of Beaver Street Market in Keene found him dead in the brook behind the store May 11. The N.H. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner performed an autopsy Monday and ruled his death an accidental drowning, determining he likely died sometime May 10. Oliver was 59.
“All I can think of is that, you know, if we had had a way to keep him indoors that he would still be alive right now,” said Melinda L. “Mindy” Cambiar, executive director of Hundred Nights.
Oliver stayed through the winter at the Lamson Street cold-weather shelter, which Cambiar said stayed open through April this year because of the low spring temperatures and frequent rains. Once the shelter closed for the season, though, Oliver and many others had to look for other options.
Cambiar said Hundred Nights still allows about 10 people to stay at the shelter during the late spring and summer, typically families and elderly guests.
Oliver left town for a few days, she said, and then she spotted him at Prime Roast.
“He was in so much pain. He had so many issues with his back and his neck and his legs, and the cold, damp weather just made it worse. He really shouldn’t have been outside,” Cambiar said.
Oliver was “black and blue” and had been assaulted in some confrontation, she said, so she told him to come see her at the shelter.
“And that was the last time that I saw him,” she said. “I expected him to come in.”
Cambiar said she knows it’s not her fault. But if Oliver had come back to the shelter, she would have let him stay. Or if it didn’t have to close for the season due to funding constraints, Oliver wouldn’t have left.
Compounding the tragedy, Cambiar said, is that Oliver was painfully close to getting housing through the Department of Veterans Affairs after months of red tape and paperwork.
“That’s all he wanted,” she said. “He wanted a place to be able to be indoors. … He really, really wanted his own space.”
A familiar face
Oliver had a few spots he frequented in downtown Keene and made several friends along the way.
He was a fixture at Prime Roast on Main Street, where he had coffee nearly every morning with a friend, who called Oliver one of a handful of truly good people in this world.
Nicole Melanson, a barista at Prime Roast, remembered him as “a warm, gentle spirit.”
Oliver was also a regular at Beaver Street Market, whose owner, Lisa Bearson, said she knew him as a customer for 19 years.
“He included us in a lot of his struggles, as far as trying to get housing and getting kicked out of the men’s shelter and trying to get benefits,” Bearson said.
Bearson said she and one of her employees were the ones who found Oliver’s body May 11, which she said made the news much harder on her staff.
In the warmer months, Oliver stopped by the market nearly every day, Bearson said. He would sit for more than half an hour at a time, people-watching and chatting with employees and customers.
“Everybody on the staff enjoyed spending time and talking to him,” she said, adding that even her part-time employees have been emotional about the loss. “… He was always pleasant. He definitely will be missed.”
During Friday’s lunch in the Hundred Nights resource center, no one was short on kind words about Oliver, though most didn’t feel comfortable having their names published.
But Marc Bourgeois said he knew him for about a year and a half after meeting at the men’s shelter on Roxbury Street. The two were about the same age, Bourgeois said, only three weeks apart.
Bourgeois said Oliver had served in the Navy, operating sonar equipment, and had lived in Colorado and San Diego before moving to New England, where he spent the bulk of his life.
Oliver was a carpenter by trade before his retirement, and a talented one, according to most people. He loved to cook, too, and worked for a while at Keene State College’s cafeteria.
Bourgeois and Oliver bonded in the kitchen, he said.
“Me and him would team up, and we’d do meals here (at Hundred Nights), sometimes during the week,” he said. “… We made a beautiful turkey soup here back in the fall, around Thanksgiving.”
Oliver’s other hobby didn’t interest his friend nearly as much.
“He loved to play cribbage. He kept trying to teach me, and I kept telling him, ‘I don’t wanna; I don’t like to play cards,’ ” Bourgeois said, laughing.
Experiencing homelessness and living in shelters, he said, “we’re all pretty tight around here, because we know we’re all struggling.” Bourgeois knew about Oliver’s difficulties with getting financial assistance and affordable housing, and said it’s tragic to imagine how close he came to landing his own place.
“It breaks my heart.”
Shelter administrator Jess Nass said he worked closely with Oliver during his stays at Hundred Nights. Oliver volunteered at the shelter and resource center, both cooking and cleaning, and Nass said he always lightened the mood in a room and played games with kids who came by — especially cribbage.
“He must’ve taught at least half of my volunteers and the children. He wasn’t great at it, but he had a good time. He never complained about losing — always a smile,” Nass said.
“That’s how most people are gonna remember him: He always had a smile.”