By Paul A. Anthony, Editor in Chief
Jack Rich is a big man – who rides a unicycle. Not only is he executive vice president of the university and one of the men responsible for pushing ACU away from the financial edge 10 years ago, but Rich also stands 6 foot, 4 inches tall, 250 pounds.
Despite his position and demeanor, Rich also is known for making each year’s enrollment luncheon-at which the administration reveals the official fall enrollment figures to the faculty and staff-into a fun event. He rode a unicycle once, played Regis Philbin another time and hosted Wheel of Fortune this year.
“Every year he’s done the funnest things,” said Michelle Morris, director of Marketing and Public Relations. “He’s serious and he’s challenging, but he’s fun.”
Colleagues say that frequently about Rich: he’s serious, he’s smart, he’s dedicated-and he’s fun.
“He’s willing to try almost anything,” said Dr. Royce Money, university president and the only man in the administration to whom Rich answers. “He has the confidence to laugh at himself; it’s a quality that comes from strength, not from weakness.”
Money, in 1991, was looking to replace outgoing vice president of finance Bill Hilton. Rich was president of Morton Companies, a development firm in San Antonio and had been considering a move to ACU when Money approached him.
“Jack thought we were asking for a gift,” Money said. “When we finished our dinner, I told him, ‘I ask people, in my job, for one of three things: Your kids, your money or your life. And I’m here asking for your life.’
“They were completely surprised.”
Rich said he’d always thought he would return to the university from which he graduated, and when Money asked him, he felt the time had come.
“I really feel like I was called to the job,” Rich said, “and that’s why I came.”
Money said Rich was just what ACU needed during what some could call a “financial crisis” in 1991: enrollment was down so drastically that two residence halls were completely empty, the campus itself sorely needed attention and fund-raising had declined significantly.
Ten years later, overcrowding is a more frequent problem, the campus is green and the university is financially secure. Rich said the turnaround is one of his proudest accomplishments, but he’s quick to say that he wasn’t alone.
“We’ve had some really great things happen under Royce’s leadership,” Rich said. “We’ve had a lot of good people. One of the keys to the success the university has enjoyed the past 10 years is that Royce has built a team that’s stayed in place.”
That team, which includes Rich, provost Dwayne VanRheenen and vice president of development John Tyson, has led the President’s Cabinet in developing a long-term strategic plan for the university that’s taken it from financial uncertainty in the 1990s to financial strength as the school nears its centennial.
“I think we’ve changed substantially in that 10-year period,” Rich said.
Rich’s job description has changed, as well. He is in charge of all physical and financial operations at the university, a position that places him over a host of areas that affect students every day-from the recent reallocation process to the Bean. By his estimation, more than 150 people work in the various areas that ultimately answer to him.
But the vastness of Rich’s job doesn’t phase the literal big man on campus, who said the variety his work brings keeps him happy.
“I might use the word interesting,” he said with a chuckle. “I can be working on construction or designing a new building, financing a debt, dealing with financial issues, talking about enrollment-it’s just a wide variety of issues, very stimulating.”
Rich’s approach to this work is earnest and unselfish, leading Money to call him a “great team player,” but that fun streak does exist as well.
Rich’s laid-back style could be confused as lackadaisical, conducting in-terviews with hands behind his head and feet propped on a chair. He talks about his plan for the future of Abilene’s largest university with a light Texas drawl and an ever-smiling face.
And although he won’t tell you how smart he is, his words reveal an intelligent administrator who knows his job, his field and his workers.
“I’m not all that smart,” Rich said. “There are a lot of people a lot smarter than I. I’ve just seen a lot in a short amount of time.”
His record says differently: In 1976, Rich graduated from ACU with a degree in accounting-summa cum laude in just three years. But he has to look at his diploma to make sure and has trouble remembering if summa or magna is the highest honor a graduate can receive. It’s summa.
After graduating Rich went on to work for Dr. Jack Griggs, who would later become dean of the College of Business Administration, while he earned a master’s degree in finance in just two years.
All that adds up to a big man with some big accomplishments-and a big reputation.
“Jack is not afraid to ask the difficult questions,” Money said. “People who are high achievers love working for Jack because he empowers them.”
Rich said he lets those under him work freely because he realizes he cannot do everything himself.
“Sometimes you feel like, ‘Gee whiz, it’s just overwhelming,'” he said. “You gotta learn you can’t do it all.”
He may not be able to do it all, or solve every problem, but Rich said he has fun trying, a trait passed on from his math-minded family.
That math influence probably led to his love for problem-solving, including the challenges that face him almost daily at the university management level.
“I’ve always enjoyed math,” he said. “But I wanted to be a marine biologist.”
Rich’s childhood dream of marine biology fizzled when he found out how much science it involved. But it does speak to another side of his personality: curiosity about other places and other cultures.
Rich is a certified scuba diver and still dives when he gets a chance, and he travels as often as he can, trying to exhaust his list of places to go. But it’s nowhere near done. An early study abroad trip at ACU helped to spur his love of international travel when he studied in Europe and the Soviet Union.
“It made me really appreciate both the differences and the similarities in other cultures,” Rich said. He added that studying in Moscow and Leningrad was unusual-not many American students could visit the heart of communism in 1974.
Rich also met his wife at ACU. He and Karen have four children, Their twin sons now attend the university, along with Rich’s twin nieces. They join his parents and all three of his siblings in having at one time or another attended the school.
Money said he admires how Rich has made sure to spend time with his wife, even as he works such a demanding and wide-ranging job.
“They have a solid marriage,” Money said. “Jack always reserves time every year for the two of them. I think he’s a very good husband and a very good father.”
Although he balances the demands of family and executive vice presidency, Rich still finds the time to have a little fun.
Money laughs about the jokes he and Rich have endured regarding their last names, while Rich in turn jokes about his size and its relation to his hatred for vegetables.
“I try to laugh,” he said. “I can certainly be serious, but I try to keep a good sense of humor.”
And, sometimes, he treats the university to the sight of a big man balancing on a unicycle.