From The Olio

411 Rolling Lane,
Louisville 7, Kentucky,
Psi Upsilon
Deceased April 1, 2016

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In Memory

His funeral was perfect.

His wife, Mirielle, the former ballerina, dressed in her Guatemalan formal skirt and jacket, danced into the church, hands above her head, to the music of a Dixieland Jazz Band playing "Just a Closer Walk with Thee". Ahead of her, the priest pushed a wheelchair carrying the box with Rice's ashes. Their surviving children dressed in cowboy hats and boots, their granddaughter, Alyse, daughter-in-law, his brother "Brownie" and his wife danced in behind her. Hundreds more sang along with the priest and the choirmaster. Earlier they had stood in line for hours to pay their respects. Nurses, assistants, clerks from the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department. Associates from throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Friends from the Public Health Service. Classmates from Medical School. Patients. They shared stories and hugged and cried and laughed together: white faces, brown faces, black faces, yellow faces. They heard a mass given in English and Spanish, and sang beautiful hymns in those languages. A close friend from the Public Health Service began his moving eulogy by donning a formal Public Health Service Officer's hat that he quickly exchanged for the clown hat Rice sometimes wore in his office.

The celebration ended as it began. To a raucous Dixieland version of "When the Saints go Marching In", the family danced their way out pushing the ashes on the wheelchair while the mourners swayed and sang with their arms up to wave goodbye to a unique man who bore his sorrows with a warmth and openness that made our own feel lighter, who made us laugh and cry, who made us all better than we thought we could be.

Born in Lexington, KY, raised in Louisville, he arrived at Amherst as a tall, skinny kid with a funny accent and a camera around his neck. He tried out for football as a freshman, but after the first practice, chose prudence over pride to become the ever-present photographer for the Student. He was an active member of Psi U fraternity, where he contributed four kegs each year to an annual Kentucky Derby weekend celebration. In 1987 he received an honorary degree from the college, at which time President Pouncey read,

"…on this 25th anniversary of your graduation from Amherst, your College wishes to recognize your career of dedication to the wellbeing of thousands of our most neglected citizens, American Indians."

A congratulatory letter from then President Ronald Reagan read in part: "How greatly our Nation benefits by the generous contributions from men like you...I salute you..."

In a correspondence with President Pouncey published in the Amherst Alumni magazine that summarized his remarks at dinner with his classmates on the occasion of his honorary degree, Rice explained:

"I had been one of the 'anchor men’ of our class. Since I had not been a good student, couldn't sing, and was not a good athlete, I found little to reinforce my strengths during the time I attended Amherst. There was very little positive reinforcement in the Dean's Office for delivering the newspapers, taking photographs for The Student, running a laundry business, working on the college radio station, and doing dishes at Valentine.

"A large number of my classmates or their wives said that failing to achieve recognition for academic performance and the lack of recognition for other positive characteristics sent a large number of us out doubting our self worth…Most made it through but many thought they could have done better had there been more effort to … find out why excellent recruits were doing poorly and look for ways to help them find themselves, identify individual strengths and reinforce all positive attributes, not just the ability to be an excellent student.

"…Amherst College can graduate seniors who are both citizens and scholars if more emphasis is placed on the citizen part."

In the Leach family Christmas letter written by "Dexter the Dog" in 2015, the author summarized Rice's life after college.

"He graduated (from) medical school in 1966 and joined the US Public Health Service. Four months into his internship he was diagnosed with a melanoma and became a career officer—27 years and 2 months to be exact. Mireille followed him through 15 houses, 13 moving vans, and 23 jobs that ranged from general medical officer to chief of staff to the Surgeon General. They lived on Indian Reservations, in big cities like Boston and New Orleans, and a lot of smaller places like Ada, Oklahoma and Aberdeen, South Dakota. Along the way they had George in 1966, Mary in 1970 and John in 1972. John was the first baby born to a staff physician in the Indian Hospital in Sells, Arizona. Rice was director and was out of town when Mireille went into labor. She would have no part of being sent to Tucson so she waited until there was no time to travel, walked to the hospital and had John. In doing that she endeared herself to the staff and really raised the spirits of the place because it had been years since a physician's wife had delivered there. She has done things like that for as long as they have been married.

They lost Mary to breast cancer in 2007 but she gave the world Nick and Alyse. They both remind them of Mary—especially Alyse because she has all of Mary's determination, stubbornness and passion. Nick is studying chemistry at Western Washington University in Bellingham and Alyse is on her own in San Antonio. Both of them will be here for the anniversary.

After an internship that included rotations through Charity Hospital in New Orleans he became the 'field health officer' at Tuba City, Arizona (Navajo Country). There were 10,000 people in his district and 800 on the Tb register and 100 in his monthly Tb clinic. He found a case of kwashiorkor in a little girl and admitted a case of bubonic plague one night. Over the years he worked with many tribes in Arizona, the Dakotas, and Oklahoma and he came away with several "keeper" concepts. He frequently reminds people "There is no such thing as your side of the canoe is leaking." He says it is a management concept that focuses on working together to fix the problem instead of trying to find out who caused it. He learned from the Papago (Tohono O'odham) tribe "We need to live in harmony with nature." In health he says we need to find ways for people to be well no matter what condition they may have. His personal sense of well is not the same as it was when he was 30 but knows that there is still a way to be well. This same tribe showed him that "Adults are here to launch the next generation. They are expected to give them roots so they know where they came from and wings so they can get where they are going." He says that we seem to be forgetting this when we let children be homeless and hungry and when suicide, homicide, mental illness and substance abuse are damaging so many of our young. He has had big jobs and little jobs. He says he likes being a county health officer best because that is where the action is. It is where real people live and it is where epidemiology, communicable disease control, health education and environmental health can make things better for people where you live. He especially likes being able to share what he learned going up the ladder with those who are working closer to he base of the pyramid."

In a recent class email conversation about race, Rice explained:

"I have 50 years of living among and serving lots of different kinds of peoples in various public health settings starting in Guatemala in 1964. I have observed that the Almighty put great people, average people and total losers among us in a variety of appearances.

...I grew up in a clearly segregated city in Kentucky and was raised in part by two or three African American women who, in retrospect, had a lot to do (positive values) with who I am.

…I never saw an American Indian until my late teens, never met anyone who spoke Spanish until I was in my twenties.

In the last 50 years I have married a Guatemalan lady, have accepted and been accepted into the values of her family, learned the Spanish language and joined her church. My mother said to me when I told her that I was marrying Mireille "You know you are marrying a foreign Catholic." I said that is right but Mireille's mother's only daughter is marrying a foreign heathen."

I have learned that all women appreciate relief of pain when in labor no matter what the folk lore says about stoicism and that all internal organs look pretty much he same under general anesthesia and that the blood units labeled "Negroid" in Louisiana until the early 70's worked on anyone that needed it...including me."

In another recent class email string, he wrote is in retrospect a fitting epitaph:

"(Throughout my career)…I frequently have to make business and pubic health decisions on minimal information much of which has not been verified. The epidemiologists and scientists among us go absolutely nuts when I do that but the public seems to appreciate someone in government who will make a decision and who will admit it if he was wrong. There are risks in that kind of behavior (23 jobs and 15 hoses in 50 years but only 4 employers) but for me it beats standing around waiting to be overtaken by events for lack of a decision ." (emphasis ours).

Shortly before his death, Rice was honored by his colleagues at the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department in a ceremony that Rice joined from his hospice bed. He was named their 2016 Public Health Hero and the award was renamed in his honor to be given annually thereafter. His response was quintessential Rice Leach:

“When your peers recognize you, there's nothing like it… And when your peers you love recognize you, it's got to be the best."

Tom Hanford '62 and
Dave Lawrence '62

From early 2011, Rice and Mireille hard at work