The Side-Yard Superhero

In my travels across Arkansas, I constantly am encouraged by the number and variety of the talented people I meet. There are artists, musicians, writers, photographers and craftsmen of all types. And sometimes you find them in the most unlikely places.

That brings me to Dr. Rick Niece, the president of the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville. I already knew that Dr. Niece was an exceptional college administrator. I had been on his campus several times during my years of work in the governor’s office.

What I didn’t know was that Rick Niece is also a talented writer; that was until he gave me his book, “The Side-Yard Superhero,” a wonderful story of growing up in the tiny town of DeGraff, Ohio.

Dr. Niece says of his writing: “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. I think that sensation began subconsciously when I was very young. I was born in Oberlin, Ohio, where my father was a music major at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. From birth to age four, the years before we moved to DeGraff, I was exposed daily to the wonders of music performed by the conservatory’s orchestra and chorus, as well as within our small rented house from my father’s piano playing and my mother’s singing. I sponged the sounds.

“When I was four, my family moved to DeGraff, Ohio, a town of 900 citizens and a fraternal twin to Lake Wobegone. Life was good for a boy growing up in DeGraff, and my memories of the positive influence the citizens of DeGraff had on me are even better.”

The book was released in February and already is in its second printing. It’s the first in a trilogy Dr. Niece has planned. A second book, “Echoes Can Make No Mistakes,” will recall more of his childhood memories. Additional information on Dr. Niece and his books can be found at www.rickniece.com.

As a boy, Dr. Niece had a 72-customer newspaper route. Along that route, he met Bernie Jones, who was a decade older and confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy. Dr. Niece’s mother called him six years ago to tell him that she had tracked down Bernie Jones, who was living in a nursing home. Dr. Niece went to visit him and then began writing his book.

“It took me stepping back from him for several years to realize what an influence he’d had on my life,” the Ozarks president told an interviewer earlier this year. “He never complained about anything. So, consequently, I disregard all complainers. We all have superheroes in our lives.”

Dr. Niece began his career as a high school English teacher. He later became an assistant principal and a curriculum director. Since entering higher education, he has been a professor, an academic dean, a vice president and now a college president. He even writes poems. Like most good writers, he’s a voracious reader.

“As a reader, I enjoy America’s classic writers: Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Twain,” he says. “The poetry and other writings of William Carlos Williams have also shaped my writing and insights. But I have been influenced the most, interestingly enough, by James Herriot and his books about the small, rural town of Darrowby.  My style and thematic structures are similar to his.”

If you grew up in small-town Arkansas, you’ll likely find many similarities between your hometown and DeGraff, Ohio. You can order the book online from Amazon, Borders and Barnes & Noble. And if you were to drop by the Ozarks campus with the book one day, I bet Rick Niece would offer you a good cup of cofee and sign it for you.

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