PBR: The Band Plays On is a heartfelt tribute to your father, Lewis Niece. Describe the legacy he created in DeGraff. What made him so beloved among his students? What is he doing now?
Rick Niece: My father taught music to all students, grade 1-12, in DeGraff’s one-building school district that housed all grades under the same roof. His wide range of conducting/teaching responsibilities included the concert band, marching band, chorus, and Music Appreciation courses. His success as a teacher involved one simple formula: care about your students and show them respect, and, in return, they will care about you and show you respect. When my father was the music teacher in DeGraff, the high school averaged 150 students. From that number, his bands averaged 80 players and his choruses 100 singers. Although quality was important to my father, participation and a life-long respect for music were even more important.
My mother passed away a few years ago, and my dad still mourns her loss. Now retired, he lives six months a year in Tucson, Arizona, and six months in Arkansas, renting the guest house beside the President’s Home on the University of the Ozarks’ campus in Clarksville. He still cherishes being around students.
My father continues to play the piano, and quite remarkably, he has memorized six different programs, with thirty songs per program, of music from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. His new “mission” is to play for nursing homes and retirement center residents who appreciate hearing the music of their past. Even though he is 89, Dad still plays a mean piano.
PBR: You are a lifelong educator and a university president. What lessons did you learn from your father? What influence do you hope to have on the students in your charge at the University of the Ozarks?
Rick Niece: At first, I was hesitant to become an educator because I feared I would spend my career in my father’s shadow. In time, I established my own credibility and, as an administrator, eventually took a different path than my father did.
From my father, I learned a simple, yet often forgotten lesson—students always come first. Students are the purpose for schools and education. I never, in all my different roles within this magical profession, have forgotten that.
The influence that I hope to have on students as a University President is being a servant leader. I am not embarrassed to have students see me do menial tasks: making coffee, moving chairs, picking up litter on the sidewalk, etc. In order to teach the principles and rewards of servant leadership, you have to be a servant leader yourself.
PBR: The Band Plays On is filled with so many captivating memories and stories. Which is your favorite? Why?
Rick Niece: Selecting a favorite story or memory from my book is a difficult challenge. They are all important, and that is why I have kept them carefully pocketed over the years.
On the humorous side, I like my recounting of the elementary school years and my teachers. My second-grade experience was a riot to remember, but a nightmare to live through at that tender age.
The tragic story of “Miss Hucklecindy” was the most difficult one for me to write, but I captured that day and what I felt throughout the ordeal in a meaningful, respectful way. A couple of years ago, I asked Teri, the sister of Cindy (Miss Hucklecindy), to read the chapter. I wanted to be certain she was comfortable with my personal account of that horrid day. She appreciated how I captured the events and memorialized Cindy and her father.
PBR: Twice in the book, you address the death of dear friends. How does losing a loved one change a person? How did it most affect you?
Rick Niece: Losing a friend at any age is difficult, but through the eyes of a child, it is mystifying and without logic. People are not supposed to die young. The best way to describe how the deaths affected me is to quote from the book.
“When friends die, especially when they die young, their deaths stay with you. I sometimes wonder why I was given a full lifetime and they were not. I do not have an answer, but I am grateful to live the question.”
PBR: What’s next in the Fanfare for a Hometown series? After you retire in 2013, what’s next for you and Sherée?
Rick Niece: This year is my last year in the magical profession of education. Forty-five years are enough for one career. For the first ten years I was a teacher. The past thirty-five years I have served as an administrator, with the final seventeen as a University President. I have been blessed by my career and with Sherée, my wife.
Although Sherée and I are both Ohio natives, we will retire in Arkansas. We love the friendly people, beautiful environment, and accommodating weather. We are retiring in Hot Springs Village—located about twenty minutes from historic Hot Springs—a village of 15,000 inhabitants located within 26,000 acres of forest. We are preparing the Hot Springs Village house for our arrival—a house with a 38 mile view of acres of forest and two mountain ranges.
We have already purchased one piece of furniture for our new house—in which we will move after my retirement on July 1, 2013—and that is a writing desk. The desk will sit in the middle of our sun room, a room with a big window and an even bigger view. I am looking forward to full days of writing, as opposed to my current schedule. Now, I try to steal an hour or two to write while waiting in airports, flying on planes, or while Sherée chauffeurs us to visit alumni, donors, and friends of the University of the Ozarks. Book 3 in the Fanfare for a Hometown series will be produced during my newly found, greatly appreciated retirement days.
We have two other long-dreamed about plans. We will travel more widely and more frequently, something we love to do. And when at home, we will dine alone. That will be a welcomed luxury. During our years at Ozarks, we have hosted over 40,000 guests at the President’s Home for dinners, receptions, and picnics. That is a lot of “Guess who’s coming to dinner” guests.
In our new home, we are planning to convert the dining room into a piano room. We will not own a dining room table. Our plan is to dine on two TV trays. And, on occasion, we may not even answer the door. If you want to visit us, you will need to call ahead for reservations.
Read Portland Book Review’s review of The Band Plays On