A Hometown Hero!

August 1, 2012 | By More

Award winning author, educator, and University of the Ozarks President Rick Niece Ph.D. is the kind of person you want for a friend.

Although retiring from Ozarks at the end of the 2012- 2013 academic school year after 16 years of distinguished service, the dapper suspender-wearing President is still contagiously energetic with an ear- to-ear smile and a warm welcome. Two things people agree on are Niece’s positive attitude and his genuine interest in people.

“Dr. Niece is a big surprise in a small package,” said Carolyn Walker, Administrative Assistant of U of O’s Academic Office. He knows every student’s name and is always available and interested in everyone, said Walker, who also noted Niece’s great sense of humor.

Words are writer’s musical notes.

Sentence sounds and rhythms are literature’s melodies.

Prose is poetry in paragraph form. And that is the essence of my writing.

–Rick Niece

“He’s also good with the one-liners,” she chuckled. “Dr. Niece may not be very tall, but he will be leaving huge shoes to fill when he retires,” Walker said..

Connie Booty, Executive Assistant for the President, described Niece as a loving patriarch always ready with a sympathetic ear and helping hand; not only for students, faculty and alumni but to anyone he comes in contact with.

“Students and faculty know he (Dr. Niece) really cares about them,” said Booty. One of the first things Dr. Niece did when he became President was to open his office up to students and faculty for free refreshments, including donuts, muffins and bagels on Mondays and Fridays and during finals, and coffee, tea and hot chocolate every day of the week, she added.

Niece and his wife Sherée, whom he fondly calls “the Best First Lady Ever,” are regular fixtures at campus events and have hosted more than 40,000 students, alumni, faculty, staff and University friends at their home over the past 15 years. With no children of their own, the couple consider themselves the “proud parents” of the thousands of U of O students who have attended classes on campus. First and foremost, Niece said he is a dedicated educator.

“Education is magical. I began my professional life as a high school English teacher, and I now complete it as a university president. Every position in between those career bookends has been meaningful. Throughout the years, I have never been heard to say, ‘I am going to work.’ I always say, ‘I am going to school.’ The subtle, yet pronounced distinction between the statements speaks volumes. Sherée and I are grateful to so many for so much. These years at Ozarks and in Clarksville gave us more than we have given, taught us more than we have taught, and honored us more than we deserve,” said Niece.

Niece may be humble about his accomplishments, but under his leadership the private, Presbyterian-affiliated University has attained a high level of academic respect.

Ozarks has been ranked as a “top-tier” campus by U.S. News & World Report for 13 consecutive years and a “Best Value” by the magazine 12 times. Student enrollment has increased 19 percent, the endowment has grown by more than 200 percent, and the number of full-time faculty increased from 28 to 48. The university has also added several new facilities, including four apartment-style residence halls, the Walker Hall teacher education and communications center, the Rogers Conference Center and the Mabee Student Fitness Center.

David Rawhouser, chair of the university’s Board of Trustees and a 1969 graduate of Ozarks, said the college has reached new heights under Niece’s leadership.

“Over the past dozen years, I have had the honor to work with Dr. Niece through the Board of Trustees,” Rawhouser said. “Maintaining a high quality college program in today’s ever changing educational world is a challenge. Many positive changes have occurred on campus. Facilities have been built to meet the needs of today’s students, the campus has never looked more beautiful, our endowment has grown, technology is growing to match that of the world around us, and the education received by a student today remains at the high standards established by our founders. Much of the credit for that must go to Dr. Niece’s leadership of a highly engaged, dynamic faculty and staff.”

Niece’s tenure has also been defined by unparalleled fund-raising success and Ozarks has raised nearly $140 million over the past 15 years.

“Dr. Niece is among the most dynamic, engaging leaders our state has seen,” said Rex Nelson, president of the Arkansas Independent Colleges & Universities. “I’m not talking about just the University of the Ozarks. I’m talking about the entire state.

All Arkansans benefited when this Ohio native came here in 1997. He has not only raised millions of dollars for Ozarks, but has recruited students, recruited faculty and kept morale high while building one of the finest liberal arts institutions in the country. Those of us who have become friends with Rick and Sherée through the years consider them family,” said Nelson.

Named the university’s 24th president in 1997, only the presidencies of F.R. Earle (1858-1891) and Dr. Wiley Lin Hurie (1923-1949) lasted longer in the university’s 178-year history.

“I have been blessed with a long, productive, and distinguished career in education,” Niece said.

The University has announced that its Board of Trustees has formed a search committee composed of trustees, alumni, faculty, staff and students to select Niece’s successor. The committee, which is led by trustee Chris Allen of Clarksville, will review candidates and recommend finalists to the trustees. The committee hopes to have the finalists on campus by November and a new president chosen by January.

In retirement, Niece said he plans to “step back” from academic life and focus on writing.

“I may possibly go in the direction of writing young-adult and children’s books,” said Niece, who has already written the first two books in his “Fanfare for a Hometown” series.

His popular first book, Side-Yard Superhero, was published in 2009 and reprinted in 2012 by a new publisher, Five Star Publications. The second book, The Band Plays On, came out in July 2012.

Niece already has a publisher’s deadline for the third book in the series, so his upcoming retirement is quickly filling up with projects.

“I’m not going to have any trouble with retirement. My identity is not my career. I have always fought not to make what I do, who I am.”

However he chooses to think of himself, Niece’s personal and professional accomplishments speaks volumes about a life well-lived and holds promise for an even better retirement.

Telling The Story

Some writers are natural born storytellers, and Rick Niece is one of those people. No, he doesn’t tell graphic tales of horror or suspense, and he doesn’t write romance novels. Niece’s nonfiction books are simple stories about good people living small town lives, yet each memory hides universal truths about human nature and the lasting impact of those who help us grow.

His first book of award winning memoirs and poems, Side-Yard Superhero is about Niece’s childhood friend, Bernie Jones, a young man with cerebral palsy on Niece’s paper route. The book was published last year, won rave reviews, and got him an interview on National Public Radio.

His second book, The Band Plays On— Going Home for a Music Man’s Encore is a tribute to his father, Lewis Niece, a high school band director. This book came out in July 2012.

Both books tell stories from Niece’s hometown of DeGraff, Ohio, a small “Lake Wobegon” like town of 900 residents. The town is small and the stories short, but they connect the reader to his or her own stories; whether that past is rural, small town or big city.

As a lifetime educator, Niece has honed his craft to near perfection.

“The perfect word in the perfect sentence with the perfect sound and rhythm are my goals in writing. As a writer, word combinations, rhythms and their resonant sounds are important to me,” said Niece, who has been known to make up his own words. In fact, Niece sums up his writing with a word he coined, “automythography.”

Automythography, as Niece defines it, is a “work of nonfiction that looks reflectively at what we think we remember and how we think we remember. It is an iridescent memory based on the author’s truth and personal narrative. For example, a soap

bubble is iridescent. As it floats away, it changes colors and shapes, but it is still the same soap bubble,” said Niece.

Niece credits his writing chops to his early years. Raised on his father’s piano playing and his mother’s singing, Niece said he was exposed daily to the wonders of music.

“I sponged the music.” said Niece, who played the baritone horn through elementary and secondary school.

His second book, The Band Plays On, tells stories as seen through the eyes of a bright and sometimes mischievous boy and memories understood from an adult viewpoint. The book ends with the heartwarming story of an all-alumni high school marching band reunion called “Lewie’s Alumni Band,” whose mainly middle-aged members came together from 12 states and two countries to play the half-time show at a high school football game.

With a third book in the works, Niece’s career as a writer is “looking snappy and cool”. In September 2012 Niece will be honored in DeGraff as Grand Marshall of a parade and weekend festival, The DeGraff Country Fair, in his honor.

To order books ($15.95) contact the publisher, Five Star Publications Inc. at Five Star Publications.com or call (480) 940-8182. Or, simply go to Amazon. com and type in Rick Niece. Books are available through major book stores and Amazon.com. Autographed copies can be purchased through Niece’s website, RickNieceBooks.com. The books are also available as ebooks to be downloaded on Kindle and other electronic book readers. Side-Yard Superhero is available as an MP3 audiobook recorded by noted actor, Alex Cord.

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