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Interview with Rick D. Niece, Ph.D., Author of ‘The Band Plays On’

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NieceRickDr. Niece is a retired educator, memory keeper, poet, and an authomythographer. A small-town newspaper boy who grew up to become a university president, he has never forgotten his roots in picturesque DeGraff, Ohio (population 900).

Enjoying a childhood filled with music, love, and laughter, young Rickie grew up surrounded by cherished family members, friends, and neighbors—a host of memorable characters who indelibly shaped him. Now, Rick reflects on his years in DeGraff with fond nostalgia, sharing his carefully-pocketed memories with humility, humor, and heartfelt gratitude.

A tribute to small-town America, his memorable Fanfare for a Hometown series is sure to delight readers from all walks of life who treasure their own recollections of home.

Tyler: Welcome back, Rick. First, I’ll remind our readers that I recently interviewed you about your first book in the Fanfare for a Hometown series. But today we’re going to talk about the second book in the series, The Band Plays On: Going Home for a Music Man’s Encore. Did you set out to write a series, or did the idea that this could be a series come with the idea to write the second book?

Rick: Over the years since I left DeGraff, I have kept a number of notes on scraps of paper about my childhood there, the various characters around town, and the customers on my paper route. Then, after I became a university president and was asked to give a variety of formal and informal speeches — literally dozens a year — I found myself incorporating stories about DeGraff. I often spoke about Bernie Jones, Miss Lizzie, Mrs. Harshbarger, Fern Burdette, and others, emphasizing the life lessons I had learned and the influence so many had on me and my career. A lot of the text from my speeches is now incorporated into the first two books in the “Fanfare for a Hometown” series.

My wife, Sherée, encouraged me to write my stories in book form, and I took her advice. I began with an outline of various characters and events, and before long, I realized that I had enough material for more than one book. At that point, I divided the outline into three sections and then organized each section into people and topics. To my pleasant surprise, I quickly realized that I had identified the primary characters and basic premise for three books: Bernie Jones for the first book, my dad for the second, and my mom the third.

The Band Plays On is about my father, and I am currently writing my mom’s book, “And We Gathered Around Her.” I think I may have enough material left over for a fourth book in the series, but I am not making any announcements yet.

Tyler: Wow, Rick. I find that really fascinating that your books evolved out of giving speeches. Telling a story orally is a lot different than writing one — did you find you prefer one way over the other?

Rick: For me, writing a speech and writing a story are very similar processes. That is because, as a university president, many of my speeches are archived. For that reason — and because of my compulsive, former-English-teacher desire for grammatical correctness — I carefully review and revise all of my writing, including speeches. In that regard, writing a speech and writing a story are the same thing.

In the speeches, I use characters from DeGraff to make a point or serve as an example. Bernie Jones, the side-yard superhero with severe cerebral palsy, taught me not to complain, and as a consequence, not to listen to complainers. Fern Burdette, the former newspaper reporter who wore a bra as her only piece of above-the-waist clothing, taught me to be myself and not to be overly concerned by what others think about me. My friend Ned Heintz taught me the essence of confidence and courage. Through their stories and the stories of others, I try to keep those values alive for my audiences in speech and book form.

Finally, I want for my speeches and books to have a verbal rhythm and flow that are pleasing to the listener. As a final step in the writing process for the chapters in my books, I read the sections aloud to be certain the sentences flow as smoothly as I want them to. If the word combinations sound awkward, I do a rewrite.

Tyler: The Band Plays On is about a music man, while the first book was about a “superhero” who had cerebral palsy. Who is this music man, and does he count as a hero too?

Rick: The Band Plays On also celebrates my hometown, but the focus is on the legacy of my father, Lewis Niece, who was the beloved music teacher and band director there for 16 years. Dad was invited back to conduct an encore performance of “Lewie’s Alumni Band” when members of his bands, over those 16 years, returned to DeGraff to perform a halftime show during the high school’s football game, march in a parade the next day, and play a concert downtown. The Band Plays On is a celebration of the soul of America’s heartland, and a tribute to friendship, community, and my father, as well as a journey of humor, heartbreak, and hope.

My father was a hero to many, but not in a superhuman strength manner. He was simply a teacher who genuinely cared about his students, in and out of the classroom. When I was a senior, there were 150 students in the high school. Of that number, 100 students were in his chorus and 80 in the band. Those are amazing numbers and a tribute to his influence. He also taught music appreciation courses. As a one-man music department, Dad was the whole show for hundreds of students. At age 90, he remains a hero to many.

Tyler: When did your father leave DeGraff and why, and what made him decide to return for this final encore?

thebandRick: Dad was offered a position at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, to conduct the bands and choruses at the University School, a school with an experiential learning environment based upon the educational philosophies of John Dewey and other progressives. That move to Kent, which occurred between my sophomore and junior years at Ohio State University, was difficult for all of us in the family. DeGraff was our home for 16 years and has remained my hometown for a lifetime. His return to DeGraff many years later was to allow us former students and band members to celebrate the life of our beloved music teacher from decades past.

Tyler: Did you find writing about a family member to be more difficult or easier than writing about a friend?

Rick:  Although Bernie Jones became a great friend, I actually knew him for only nine years, the years that I had a newspaper route and delivered him the paper. Within the span of a lifetime, that is a pretty small slice. Also, I usually spent a limited amount of time with Bernie on a daily basis. So, even though I felt I knew him well, there were many aspects of his life I knew little about. Our friendship and my recounting of it are from my viewpoint only and not his, if that makes any sense. There were challenges in writing about our friendship because I had to fill in some gaps and make speculations about what he was thinking and feeling.

Writing about family, however, also poses its challenges. I have spent a lifetime as my father’s son. I went through my life’s phases and maturity watching him as a role model during each stage. Most importantly, I knew he would be reading about himself through my eyes and memory. That placed a lot of pressure on both of us. Happily, he likes the book. It is my brothers who question me the most about the stories that involve them. I think that they wanted to be portrayed a bit more heroic!

Tyler: What kind of reactions you’ve received from others who know your father and have read the book, such as his students?

Rick: My most satisfying reactions are those from Dad’s former students who were also my band companions. I knew that he was a major influence on so many people, but even I am surprised by the extent and depth of that influence. He loves receiving letters and telephone calls from people who have read the book and want him to know how their lives turned out and the impact he had in who they are today. I enjoy that for him. It is rewarding to know you touched others personally and professionally.

Tyler: Rick, I was struck by the title because at first I misread it as The Band Played On but you use “Plays On” instead? Was that word choice significant?

Rick: The title of the book references an old classic song, “The Band Played On,” written in 1895. The song begins with this lyric:

Casey would waltz with a strawberry blond

And the band played on.

He’d glide ’cross the floor with the girl he adored

and the band played on.

The difference is that in this lyric, the band “played” on — a verb in the past tense. The title of my book is in the present tense, plays, to signify that this music continues on and on in hearts and memories.

One of my favorite memories involves the years we lived in Oberlin, Ohio, where my father was a student at the prestigious Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. He was able to afford Oberlin’s private college tuition because of the generosity of the GI Bill. I was born in Oberlin, and we lived there until I was four.

A very early memory of mine involves my parents and the song, “The Band Played On.” Dad is playing a battered Baldwin piano — all he could afford at that time — at night after supper, and Mom is singing. Although they had a respectable repertoire of musical selections, I remember just one song, “The Band Played On.” During my life’s quiet moments, if it is peaceful enough and I can clear my mind of its accumulated trivialities, I am able to hear my father’s perfect notes and my mother’s sweet voice. And even better, with just the right combination of concentration and imagination, I can also recapture the image of my father ascending from the piano bench, taking his wife into his arms, and the two of them waltzing to the music of their acappella voices. I never tire of replaying that magical moment from a young boy’s past.

Tyler: Is there a message or feeling you hope readers will come away with after reading The Band Plays On?

Rick: Yes, there is a message. First, I believe the memoir is heartwarming, humorous, and reflective and that my stories provide an entertaining, inspirational, and nostalgic glimpse into lives richly lived. The book allows me to share this with my readers.

Second, music is an essential part of my life, especially classical music. I was raised in a house where classical music was ubiquitous. I firmly believe that the music we are exposed to as infants, and then raised with, becomes our predilection for life. I want for readers to understand and appreciate the importance of music — especially band and chorus — in the lives of young people.

Finally, there is a message of hope, optimism, and the joy of small-town living. In this age of economic, political, and social disarray, I want for The Band Plays On to provide a respite of temporary relief and the opportunity to smile and remember.

Tyler: I’m a lover of the old songs from the Great American Songbook myself, so I’m wondering if in your quest to instill lessons and nostalgia through your books, whether you have opinions of music. Do we need more Gershwins or Louis Armstrongs today or do you think it makes a difference what kind of music the kids are listening to today that will affect whom they become and their outlooks on life?

Rick: Yes, I think the music we listen to has an effect on who we are, our moods, and perceptions. My musical preference is quite narrow — I primarily enjoy classical music. That is the music I was raised with, and that is the music that continues to entertain me. Although my preference for composers and compositions shifts periodically, the genre remains the same.

One of the values I learned from my father was to respect all types of music. Through the years I have managed that by showing the proper respect, but not necessarily any admiration, for various phases of music. Although I have lived through different eras, from rock to country to blues to heavy metal to rap, I simply never connected with them. I wish, however, that I had a better understanding of opera and jazz.

Tyler: Are there any people in this second book who were in the first book so that readers get to meet old friends?

Rick: This book is a companion piece to the first. I like the concept of companion piece as opposed to sequel. Sequels occur chronologically. My stories are not chronological nor are they in any particular sequence. I like that format because even I would be hard-pressed to affix an accurate timeline to each story and incident.

I also like this style because someone who died in Book 1 can magically reappear in Book 2. A number of the characters who were featured in Book 1 are in Book 2. The same will be true for Book 3. A few who were merely mentioned in the first book receive full treatment in the second.

Tyler: Rick, can you tell us a little about the history of DeGraff: when it was founded and why and what people do there? Do you feel in some way you are acting as a town historian?

Rick: DeGraff, population 900, is a one traffic light town located between Dayton and Toledo in west central Ohio. When I was a kid, I figured about the same number of people died or moved away each year as were born because I don’t recall that number ever changing. It’s no joke that travelers, unless they needed a tank of gas or a restroom stop, usually passed through without even noticing our town. That was okay, and none of us minded.

We cared about one another and looked out for one another — sometimes to a fault. Typical of small towns, there were no secrets in DeGraff. When I was growing up, it seemed as though everyone knew something about everyone else. At least we thought we did. I felt like people found out before I did whether I’d had a good time on a date. I suspect there was some truth in that.

DeGraff took root in 1850 on the banks of the Great Miami River in the heart of Shawnee territory. The Shawnees were a fearsome tribe, led by their legendary chief, Tecumseh. While a gentleman by the name of William Boggs founded DeGraff, the village was named to honor Colonel Andrew DeGraff, a civil engineer who laid out the settlement. I’m glad we were named after Colonel DeGraff. To say I grew up in Boggs doesn’t sound nearly as appealing.

I am not certain what the major occupations are today for DeGraff’s citizens. When I was growing up there, it seemed like the parents of my friends either ran small farms or worked for businesses and factories in the larger towns around us.

I do not think of myself as the town historian. I am a memory keeper who writes about the town characters as I remember them. In that regard, I suppose I should be considered more of a Wikipedia source as opposed to the authentic encyclopedia.

Tyler: Rick, have you found much of a readership outside of DeGraff, and why do you believe the books should appeal to people who may have never visited your hometown? In other words, who is your target audience?

Rick: Yes, I have a readership that seems to be pretty much nationwide and without geographic boundaries. I receive emails and Facebook postings from all over, and that is quite a kick for me. However, as I was a university president for seventeen years, my connections and friendships extend quite broadly, and that has increased my reader base geographically.

I think the same readers who enjoyed Side-Yard Superhero will also like The Band Plays On. The writing is vivid and flows easily, and the characters are endearing, interesting, and unique. Within the humor and the life lessons, there is also a sad, heartfelt reality that comes through because of the deaths of two close friends. Although the target audience is primarily Baby Boomers, one reviewer remarked that the book is appropriate for anyone age 10-110.

My books are universally appealing, I believe, because readers like a story with descriptive writing, strong narrative, and appealing storylines and characters. I think that readers also enjoy stepping back in time to an age they either lived themselves or wish they had experienced. Also, and I think this is very important, my books are ones that grandparents can pass down to their grandchildren, and grandchildren can share with their grandparents. The language and memories are clean!

The Band Plays On will definitely be enjoyed by anyone who has been a member of a marching band or who has played a musical instrument. We have a shared camaraderie that comes through loud and clear — and in tune — throughout the book.

Tyler: One dollar for each book sold of Side-Yard Superhero goes to help people with cerebral palsy. I understand you have a similar charitable plan for The Band Plays On?

Rick: Students attending schools that lack the funds to obtain much-needed musical instruments are the benefactors of the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation. I am donating $1 for every copy sold to it. It does an amazing service by donating new and refurbished instruments to school music programs lacking the resources to purchase them. Headed by Felice Mancini, daughter of Henry Mancini, the Foundation was inspired by the acclaimed motion picture Mr. Holland’s Opus, the story of the profound effect a dedicated music teacher had on generations of students. I hope that because of my commitment, as well as the commitment of other supporters who understand the importance of music education in today’s schools, future generations of students will have the opportunity to reap the benefits of playing and listening to many different forms of music.

Tyler: Rick, will you give us a preview of what the third book in the series will be and when we can expect it to be published?

Rick: Book 3 in the Fanfare for a Hometown series has the working title, “And We Gathered Around Her.” It will deal with the last four days of my mother’s life, and as might be expected, this one is proving to be a bit more emotional for me to write. My mother was a true character, and that is why she fit in so perfectly with DeGraff’s other characters. In addition to writing about those difficult final days in her life, I will also drift back to DeGraff for more nostalgic memories and take my readers with me on that journey. I am hoping that the book will be ready for publication late in 2014. So is my publisher!

Tyler: Will you tell us again about your website?

Rick: I invite readers to visit my website, to learn more about me, my books, and to view book trailers. Also, I enjoy hearing from others through Facebook at RickNieceLifeLessons. Both books are available through my website, the publisher Five Star Publications, Inc., Amazon.com, any traditional bookstore, and through book distributors Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Midpoint. They can also be purchased in eBook form through Amazon.com and eStarPublish.com for Kindle, Sony Readers, Kobo, NOOK, Google eBook, and Apple iBook.

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About Tyler R. Tichelaar

Tyler R. Tichelaar, 7th generation Marquette resident, spent thousands of hours researching and writing The Marquette Trilogy: Iron Pioneers, The Queen City, and Superior Heritage. Tyler has a Ph.D. in Literature from Western Michigan University, and Bachelor and Master’s Degrees from Northern Michigan University. He has lectured on writing and literature at Clemson University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of London. Tyler is the regular guest host of Authors Access Internet Radio and the President of the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association. He is the owner of Marquette Fiction and Superior Book Productions, a professional book review, editing, and proofreading service. Tyler lives in Marquette, Michigan where the roar of Lake Superior, mountains of snow, and sandstone architecture inspire his writing.