‘You think you have so much time’

Alpena grad saddened by missed opportunities after Notre Dame burned

Courtesy Photo Alpena High School graduate Stuart Richardson poses by the Notre Dame cathedral during his graduate studies in Paris. A Paris-by-bike tour guide, he never made it up the cathedral’s towers before the historical landmark burned Monday.

ALPENA — An Alpena graduate who walked past the Notre Dame cathedral every day on his way to grad school classes in Paris reminisced about lost opportunities after Monday’s devastating fire that destroyed most of the historic building.

Stuart Richardson, who graduated from Alpena High School in 2012, spent two years in Paris earning his master’s degree after completing undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan. During those Paris years, Richardson said, he passed the cathedral daily, listening to podcasts and ignoring both the jostles of the passing tourists and the ancient building at which they gaped.

“It just became another building,” Richardson said, part of the background of the city that faded into the distance.

In the summer of 2018, to earn money before returning to the U.S., Richardson took a job leading bicycle tours of the city. He’d spend up to eight hours a day on a bike, leading groups around the magnificent city and rediscovering, through their eyes, the beauty and significance of the landmarks and pieces of history by which he was surrounded.

The cathedral was one of Richardson’s stops as a tour guide, and he was able to see parts of it, but he didn’t think about it much one way or the other. In a story he wrote for USA Today this week, Richardson described telling tourists to skip the wait in line to go up the towers, a climb he never made himself.

“You can go up the tower the next time you’re in town,” he would say.

After all, he told them, Notre Dame will always be here.

“You think you have so much time,” Richardson said. “I’m pretty young, and I just assumed some day I would be back in the city to do all the touristy things.”

Richardson, who was editor-in-chief of a graduate newspaper in Paris, marks the beginning of his journalism career to days of writing letters to the editor of The Alpena News during high school. He credits his high school social study teacher, Tom Stoppa, for inspiring an interest in history and culture that led Richardson to pursue studies in Paris.

Now in New York, working as a freelance writer, he keeps in touch with friends back in Paris. They share his sentiments at the loss of the cathedral, Richardson said, regretting missed opportunities to explore the historical giant while it still stood.

A renowned city of soaring cathedrals and rich history, where art movements are rooted and culture is defined, can become invisible to the inhabitants who travel its crowded streets every day. Not so in a town like Alpena, Richardson said.

“When you’re from a place that’s small, you sort of cherish everything about it,” he said.

The Apena grad brags about his hometown to his New York friends, telling them of the glass-bottom boats, the “quirky and amazing” laser tag facility, and the deep sense of pride the city seems to feel. Instead of forgetting to notice its significant features, Alpena is rediscovering itself, Richardson said, realizing what it has to offer through its history and its uniqueness.

Alpena is coming to terms with its identity, Richardson said, while Paris forgets to notice itself until tragedy strikes, causing people to have to come together to rediscover “their sense of solidarity, of meaning and community. Those are things I don’t think small towns lose very often.”

As for Notre Dame, Richardson has heard that they’ve already raised a billion dollars for its restoration. When it’s repaired, Richardson said, he will be sure to go up the towers.

French leaders have pledged to rebuild Notre Dame within five years, though some architectural experts say it could take three times that to fully restore the 850-year-old structure.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com.