Mark Richter, KU professor who died of COVID-19, remembered as mentor to many

photo by: William Dentler contributed photo

Mark Richter

On the wall of Mark Richter’s intensive care room, where he lay sedated as he fought COVID-19, hung two pieces of paper. On one was a bulleted list of facts about his life — that he was a professor, that he had four kids, that he enjoyed a competitive match of croquet — and on the other were photos of him and his family.

What the posters could not capture was his baritone voice and its Australian accent, the bounce in his step, or why people always felt comfortable coming to him with their problems. They could not capture the hyperactive kid who found his way from a cattle yard in Australia to a biochemistry lab in Lawrence.

Richter died on Dec. 26 at the age of 69, after seven weeks of fighting COVID-19, according to his obituary.

Richter was born in Sydney in 1951 and left school at 16 to apprentice as a cattle auctioneer. He might have remained a cattleman but for an animal parasite, his interest in which started him down a road that took him to college, to the United States and ultimately to the University of Kansas.

Kim Richter, Richter’s wife of 36 years, said that when he was traveling around cattle yards in Australia he heard a man give a talk explaining how to interrupt the life cycle of the liver fluke, a parasite that infects cattle, and he became fascinated. Though about 19 and already married with a family at the time, he went back to school, paying his way through college by shoeing horses. Kim said it was an experience that seemed to stay with him, and perhaps explained why he would dedicate so much of his later life to helping others find their way.

“I think Mark always had a very soft spot for the underdog, because he followed his love and his curiosity,” she said. “And he didn’t do what was expected of him; he did what he loved.”

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The first to go to college in his family, Richter attended the University of New South Wales and completed undergraduate and doctoral degrees in biochemistry. After his divorce from his first wife, Richter came to the U.S. in 1981 with their children, Daniella and Martin. He met and married Kim in 1984, and they had two sons, Nicholas and Loren.

photo by: Contributed photo

Loren, Kim, Nick and Mark Richter are pictured in this family photograph.

Richter came to KU as an associate professor in the department now known as molecular biosciences in 1987, according to a KU news release. He conducted research on photosynthesis, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and on biosensors for GABA, serotonin, histamine and nicotine.

For the past 15 years, Richter has had his lab at KU next door to fellow molecular biosciences professor Roberto De Guzman. De Guzman said whether he was in need of lab supplies or advice, being next door to Richter “made life easy.” He described Richter as generous with his time and a person you felt good talking to.

“Every problem that I encountered in my work, I would go to Mark,” De Guzman said. “He would say, ‘Why don’t you do it like this?’ If you are burdened with something, talk to Mark, and your problems will be solved after that.”

De Guzman said Richter had the same helpful way with students, and was so approachable that even De Guzman’s own students would sometimes go to Richter for questions. Kim also said that colleagues and students often came to her husband for help on things, be it a problem with an experiment or a personal conflict.

“He understood that in his job it was more than learning or careers that were at stake; it was people’s lives and their well-being, and he would help figure it out,” she said.

In his 33 years at the university, Richter would be promoted to professor, serve as chair of the department and win various teaching awards, according to an announcement on the department website. In addition to the students he taught in the classroom, he mentored 26 graduate students, 10 postdoctoral associates and more than 70 undergraduate students in his research lab. He received the Mortar Board Outstanding Educator award, the Kemper Teaching Excellence award, the Dean’s Scholar’s Mentor award, the J. Michael Young Outstanding Graduate Advisor award and the Byron A. Alexander CLAS Graduate Mentor award.

photo by: William Dentler contributed photo

Mark Richter at work in the 1990s.

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Outside the university, Richter was part of a handful of soccer players who got together in 1988 to found a recreational league for adults in Lawrence. Kim, who also played, said that in the early days their team’s first jerseys were tie-dyed T-shirts and they held their matches on makeshift fields.

“Mark became part of the Lawrence Adult Soccer League board and just helped out in every way, from lining fields, to serving as a linesman or making decisions about the rules for the teams,” she said. “And also handling conflicts when they arose on the field.”

Today, the Lawrence Adult Soccer League has multiple divisions and about 600 players, ranging in age from teenagers to people in their 60s and representing about 25 nationalities, according to LASL Board President Andy Bentley. Bentley, who described Richter as a “downright nice guy,” said everything the league is now came from the efforts of Richter and the other founders.

“It’s all been building on what happened in the past, and I think Mark and his gang getting together and getting it started has been instrumental in what we’ve been able to achieve since then,” Bentley said.

photo by: Contributed photo

Mark and Kim Richter are pictured outside of a soccer stadium at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil in this family photo.

Loren, the youngest of Richter’s four kids, described Richter as fair and level-headed. While he said his mom would mete out punishments to him and his brother if they didn’t finish their chores, his dad was not much of a disciplinarian and would end up finishing the chores himself. Even when Loren was difficult or talked back, he said, his dad didn’t get mad.

“He was bouncy, jolly and cheerful, and he was always just this force of positive energy,” he said.

When it came to his work, he said, his dad loved research and science because he loved being a part of something bigger than himself.

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When Richter got sick with COVID-19, Kim made the two small posters for his ICU room. Richter was initially hospitalized at LMH Health, but was later moved to St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. Kim said though he was able to text with family and talk with staff for the first few days he was at LMH, once he was put on a ventilator, which required him to be intubated and sedated, he never regained consciousness. Since Richter was already on a ventilator by the time he moved to St. Luke’s, his wife said she made the posters so that he would not be so anonymous to the doctors and nurses there.

“To help them connect with him as a person, because I know that they have been working so hard and treating so many people that I wanted to give them the reward of knowing who it was,” she said.

The page listed Richter’s research topics, his love of mysteries and Sudoku, and that he was mentoring four graduate students. Another bullet noted that he became a U.S. citizen in August 2020 and voted in his first election in November. The accompanying photos included his four children, Richter in a soccer sweatshirt, Richter in a cowboy hat, and a photo of his cat Max.

photo by: contirbuted photos

Mark Richter’s wife, Kim, made a poster about Mark for his ICU room.

Though at first they could not visit, family members were able to go in one at a time to sit with him after he was no longer contagious. Loren said his father had suffered several strokes while fighting COVID-19, and though he had his eyes open during his visit, he was not responsive.

“You couldn’t really tell how much he could understand, if anything, or how present he was,” he said. “But I got to spend a day with him, which I’m really grateful for. I’d like to think that he was able to hear me or understand me in some way.”

The posters would come down without his waking up. Kim, who said she got COVID-19 a few days before her husband, decided to note in his obituary that he died after a long fight with COVID-19 to remind people of the reality of the disease. That it’s difficult to predict whose lungs will be destroyed by COVID-19, and that people need to take care of one another until everyone is protected.

“It’s really hard to know how hard COVID will hit someone,” she said. “Mark was a youthful 69 and was really sort of catching a second wind in his research career, changing his focus. He was excited about life.”

Under Richter’s obituary are comments from more than 30 people from all realms of his life — friends, colleagues, students, soccer players — with many speaking to his caring and helpful nature. De Guzman said that even after his death Richter’s research and the kindness he showed to so many would carry forward.

“Life is better with Mark around, but his legacy passes on,” De Guzman said.

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