Nils Richards loved books, art and music. He was working toward a Ph.D. in philosophy. Then he became addicted to heroin.
Brilliant, passionate, provocative, funny, stubborn, intense — that’s how friends and family describe Richards.
“Nils lived a life devoid of half-measures,” said close friend Heather Sims of St. Louis.
“Nils was someone for whom a boundary was the first line he would march across,” said longtime girlfriend Angel Lastine of Pipestone.
Richards died, apparently of an overdose, at a friend’s house on Feb. 8. He was 41.
He grew up in Minneapolis. He loved family life but even as a child, he held strong opinions and “could be a little difficult,” said his mother, Winnie Visco of Minneapolis.
“You couldn’t tell him what to do, that’s for sure,” she said.
He attended Southwest High School, took classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and graduated from the University of St. Thomas with a double major in philosophy and classical languages.
He could be fun, livening up a party, contemplating “the absurdities of the world,” Visco said. But he struggled with depression and possibly bipolar disorder, though never diagnosed, said his mother and Lastine, who started dating Richards in 2006.
“His senior year at St. Thomas is the first year I really started to see it,” Lastine said. Occasionally he would be verbally abusive and controlling. “He would have these switches and just out of nowhere lash out.”
He worked as a security guard at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, bookstore clerk, library assistant, liquor store clerk and substitute teacher. He dreamed of becoming a philosophy professor, Visco said.
Richards went to graduate school at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where Sims was a classmate.
“Nils was a romantic, in a true sense of the word,” said Sims, whose last name was then Werner.
Sims and Richards had a custom when visiting each other. The host would present a perfect pineapple, to be consumed in an elaborate ritual. Eventually Sims realized “this ritual was never really about the pineapple.”
“It was about taking, getting, making, molding, crafting the very best thing you had, and offering to someone you love with no expectation of getting anything in return.”
Richards earned a master’s degree in philosophy and moved back to Minneapolis. He amassed thousands of books, primarily literature and philosophy. He was accepted into the philosophy Ph.D. program at the University of Iowa.
In 2017, his younger brother Harry died of cancer at 29. Overcome with grief, Richards dropped out of the Ph.D. program and returned to Minneapolis.
He seemed to suffer survivor’s guilt, Visco said. “Nils felt like you couldn’t just go on with your life like nothing happened, you had to pay for it somehow.”
“He couldn’t forgive himself,” Lastine said. “If Harry couldn’t be happy, nobody else should be allowed to be happy.”
Richards had dabbled with heroin in the past but now started using more heavily and became addicted, as did Lastine. For a time, they were homeless, living in Lastine’s car.
Richards overdosed so frequently that Lastine carried naloxone treatment kits with her. They made multiple trips to the emergency room. Though afraid to leave him alone, Lastine eventually moved in with her parents to get clean. Richards moved in with his own parents, who urged him, futilely, to seek treatment.
“We had so many talks about it,” Visco said. “But he just wouldn’t do it.”
In addition to his mother, survivors include his father, Steve Richards of Minneapolis, and siblings Malcolm of Sacramento, Calif., Willie of Port Townsend, Wash., and Claire Richards of Minneapolis. Services have been held.
Katy Read writes for the Star Tribune’s Inspired section. She previously covered Carver County and western Hennepin County as well as aging, workplace issues and other topics since she began at the paper in 2011. Prior to that, she was a reporter at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, La., and the Duluth News-Tribune and spent 15 years as a freelance writer for national and regional magazines.
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