(An adaptation of remarks delivered at the April 28 on-campus service of remembrance and celebration for President Emeritus William O. Rieke, who died April 22 after a courageous battle with cancer.)
William O. Rieke lived a remarkable life. Seventy-four years so rich and full that his time cannot be adequately captured in a few words or with a few photographs. Here we offer only a brief glimpse of the man and his time, a glimpse that surely sparks our memories of one who fully engaged the world twice, leaving it changed for the better each time.
In 1975, Bill, Joanne and family were living in Kansas. Bill was in his fourth year as vice chancellor for health affairs and professor of anatomy at Kansas Medical Center. His appointment there in 1971 brought him to the very top of his field in medical education, capping a distinguished and meteoric career. It began with graduation summa cum laude from PLU in 1953, and a University of Washington medical degree with honors in 1958. Award winning teaching, cutting edge research and administrative success followed. It is truly an amazing record, a resume of pride for all Lutes.
Also in 1975, PLU was searching for a new president. Bill Rieke was obviously ready and qualified for such a position, but his great success in his chosen field of medical education rendered him a highly unlikely candidate. Indeed, Phil Nordquist, in PLU’s centennial history, “Educating for Lives of Service,” writes that a medical school colleague of Bill’s observed, “I do not understand why he would … move from the position he holds … to become president of such a small university.” But Bill – and no doubt Joanne as well – saw it differently, “I would consider being president,” Bill wrote at the time, “because [PLU] gave me a quality education … and a sense of direction for my life.”
Bill Rieke did not choose PLU. PLU chose Bill Rieke, and perhaps because of the very sense of direction and life purpose refined in this place, Bill and Joanne and their family were on their way to Tacoma. Pacific Lutheran University would never be the same. In the world’s eyes, it wasn’t the obvious decision because it was a matter of call, it was driven by the opportunity to serve and make a difference for good. It was a decision of the heart as well as the head, of faith as well as reason, and the calculus of success that most often drives our world has difficulty understanding such choices, because the world cannot account for God’s presence in our lives at such moments.
So the Rieke years began at PLU. PLU had become a university in 1960, only 15 years earlier, so when Bill and Joanne arrived the “to do list” was long. There were relationships to be built, new academic programs to be developed, first rank faculty to be hired, money to be raised, buildings to be repaired and others to be built, and, most important, students to be mentored. Rapid in both gait and speech, and keen of wit and humor, Bill’s energy and dedication to the presidential task was infectious, his oratory energized and inspired, his visions and dreams for PLU were many and bold. Phil Nordquist writes that, as a result, “Virtually all aspects of university life seemed to gather speed after 1975.” And, as a result, PLU rapidly emerged as a first-rank comprehensive university with an ever stronger faculty, and a breadth and scope of academic program and quality that is the foundation of PLU today.
It is so very fitting, I believe, that the Rieke years at PLU would culminate at the time of the university’s centennial, a grand celebration of PLU’s first 100 years that gave voice to “educating for lives of service” as a shorthand for our collective mission and call.
Fitting, I believe, because it was right here in this place, and on this campus, and by the PLU faculty, that Bill was educated for such a life. Here he was educated for a life that would take him and his family to great heights, to unexpected places and around surprising corners, and then right back to PLU.
Here, he and Joanne would live out their vocation and, in the process, become a living representation of the mission we claim. In so doing, Bill and Joanne brought the gift of authenticity, integrity and reality to the vocation of this Lutheran university. And now, 30 years later, we continue to build our mission on that model—it is a great legacy and a huge gift, and I pray we tend it well for the future.
As we remember and celebrate Bill’s remarkable journey on this earth, we will have missed the largest message of his life if we do not take the time to stop, to listen, and to hear the larger truth—that God is calling each of us, choosing us, appointing us, expecting fruit. I urge us to do so even though our search after the vocational life can be risky, it may lead us to all measure of surprising tasks, to all sorts of unexpected places.
But, in the final analysis, the vocation-led life promises us a sense of fulfillment, knowing that we have done our best to live a life of faith and service, on God’s behalf. And that, my friends, is a life truly worthy of celebration. So it was for Bill, may it also be for us.
The Ben B. Cheney Foundation recently contributed $50,000 to the university’s Rieke Leadership Fund, establishing it as a named endowment. The gift was in recognition of William O. Rieke’s leadership, both at PLU and later as executive director of the foundation. Gifts to the fund, which provides scholarships for students who demonstrate leadership in promoting a multi-ethnic culture at PLU, may be made by calling the Office of Development at 800-826-0035.