THE HILLS OF western Pennsylvania were home for Richard P. Minteer, and when they faded away in the rearview mirror four decades ago, he might have thought he’d never find a place so wonderful again.
But he did. When he opened a South Jersey law firm after getting a law degree from Rutgers-Camden, he did so on a little street in Riverside, Burlington County – a bit bigger, a bit more bustling than his native Claysville south of Pittsburgh, but blue-collar to the bone just like home.
Minteer settled in there like the tides of the nearby Delaware River, tearing off raffle tickets at the St. Casimir’s carnival, serving on the PTA for his three kids, and calling out the numbers at weekly bingo games.
In a commercial filmed for his law practice, Minteer boasted about being a one-man show. “I’m the one who meets with you when you first come into the office,” he said. Near the end of the commercial, he scooped up a little dog and held it in his arms.
The trusted small-town lawyer and doting father lost his life Saturday when he and his son Kevin were kayaking on the Oswego River in Washington Township, Burlington County. There, in the 122,880-acre Wharton State Forest deep in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, police say Minteer’s kayak struck a tree in the water and sent Minteer, 61, into the swift, rain-swollen waters.
Sgt. Adam Grossman, of the New Jersey State Police, said the accident happened just after noon. Minteer, he said, became entangled in the trees beneath the cedar-stained river. Police said “an adult son attempted to free him,” and his widow, Nho Nguyen, said Kevin Minteer was frantic, that he and other kayakers searched until they saw the lawyer’s leg near the surface.
Grossman said CPR was administered at the scene but Minteer was pronounced dead in the Pine Barrens.
‘An outstanding person’
In Riverside, Minteer lived out basketball fantasies, shooting hoops on the second floor of a beloved social club. Downstairs at the bar, he’d clean house on trivia night. His friends said he was simply good from the ground up, “even though he was a lawyer,” one joked.
That’s why yesterday, on Father’s Day, as one of Minteer’s sons stared out from the front porch of a Riverside duplex, the whole town mourned an adopted son gone too soon.
“Anybody in town that’s around, they know Rich Minteer, ’cause he was just an outstanding person. I know people say things like that in times like this, but this is something more,” said Lou Vitali, a longtime friend and basketball partner at the Riverside Turners social club. “When you were trying to make a decision on what to do in life, Rich gave you the right answer.”
“My husband was a good swimmer,” Nguyen, whom Minteer called Yanni, said yesterday outside the suburban home they shared in Westampton, Burlington County. “Kevin thought his father would pop back up, but he didn’t.”
“He’s blaming himself,” she said of Minteer’s son.
“All I can say is that he was honestly the best father anyone could ever ask for,” said another son, Matt Minteer, from the porch in Riverside.
Family friend Barry Reeves said Minteer knew how to kayak, having taken occasional trips in the ocean. He smiled yesterday, thinking of the time they kayaked into caves off the coast of Southern California, letting the waves push them back to the beach.
“A genuine heart of gold. That’s what the man had,” Reeves said.
Western Pa. molded him
That golden heart was formed in Claysville, population 724 in the 2000 census, and where Minteer’s Market still does business on Main Street.
He went to tiny Bethany College, about 12 miles away in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia, then headed east for law school at Rutgers University in Camden. Nguyen said Minteer always told her that Riverside “just felt right to him.”
“He came from a small town, and he felt comfortable in a small town,” she said.
When they married about 13 years ago, Minteer had a few more stipulations beyond the average wedding vows.
“He said, ‘Honey if you marry me, you’re marrying New Jersey, too,’ ” Nguyen said, her laugh ending with a tear.
Kevin Minteer, the lawyer’s oldest son, could not be reached for comment. A daughter said she would make a statement at a later time.
Those who knew Minteer from the Riverside Turners said he served as president and vice president, helping with just about any charity they could drum up. In the legal field, Minteer specialized in bankruptcy law and had a gift for guiding people through their worst times.
“I referred people to him all the time,” said Jeffrey Snow, a lawyer in Riverside. “People never had a complaint, never a bad word to say.”
Outside the couple’s home yesterday, a neighbor came over with a huge embrace for Nguyen, who mentioned she had coffee cake in the oven.
“It’s all so surreal for me. I’m not sure it’s sinking in yet,” Nguyen said.
Amid the sadness, Nguyen said she had made a mistake by arranging to have funeral services closer to their home in Westampton.
“I had to call and cancel all that.” Thinking of her husband, she said, “It had to be in Riverside.”