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Just in Case: WSU first gentleman tends to the growth of students and gardens

Carla Eckels
WSU first gentleman Rick Case stands near garden entryway where he welcomes guests to the president’s residence.

For this edition of In The Mix, Carla Eckels talks with Rick Case about his daily schedule as Wichita State’s first gentleman.

The first day of classes at Wichita State University is Monday, August 21 and Rick Case, the husband of WSU President Rick Muma, is gearing up to welcome an onslaught of students. Case is dedicated to the pupils — and to his landscaping, which has transformed the president's residence on campus. It's a lot ... and he embraces it all.

On a sizzling summer morning, Case is already working in the garden at the couple's residence. A black and yellow sign bearing the WuShock mascot greets you at the gate with the words "Welcome Shockers."

"One of the reasons I wanted all these plants is to make this like you're coming into the backyard; I want all the students, the donors, people we host here to feel welcome when they come in," Case says.

Wearing a WSU Fine Arts t-shirt and black shorts, Case squints like actor Clint Eastwood as he looks down to lift a large bucket of water to pour on the outdoor plants.

"This helps me with my workout", he chuckles. "Okay. What I've tried to do is like [plant] the perennials over here, close to the tree, and then we'll fill in with annuals in the front and this is really its first year. So, what you're seeing is a work in progress. We have lantana ... back here some sage and some hibiscus. And the hibiscus aren't as big as I'd like them, but we're getting there."

Case, who has roots in farming in Clay County, retired in 2021 as district director for the Farm Service Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It's a passion for him to plant the garden — that was once only rocks.

"These are like freshman plants," Case says. "They start out as freshmen and all the potential is there; and then as they develop and grow through their university experience, you see them when they walk across that stage and they're in full bloom and their whole time here at Wichita State has been a time for them to grow."

First gentleman Rick Case tends to hibiscus bush on the south patio at the presidential residence.
Carla Eckels
First gentleman Rick Case tends to hibiscus bush on the south patio at the presidential residence.

Recently, former WSU President Don Beggs and first lady Shirley Beggs returned to visit the presidential residence.

"They just love the landscaping and the welcoming of the house," Case says. "The thing that Shirley and Don said to us is that they really feel Rick [Muma] and I have taken the seeds that have been planted across the university — that they had a role in; the Bardos had a role in — and that we are just taking those [seeds] on to fruition. They are really excited about the direction of the university."

So, what role does Case play in the direction of WSU? What does a day in the life of this first gentleman look like?

"Well, that depends on the day," Case said. "Of course, during school it's much busier than it is during the summer. We generally are up at 4 a.m. Rick and I will run across campus and when we do that, we're usually out the door [by] 4:30 ... back by 5:30 or 6. But we generally stop and pull weeds somewhere and so if we see something that's maybe been overlooked, or a stray weed here and there, we just stop and we'll pull 'em ourselves."

Case admits it may not be what you typically think about in the life of a university president and first gentleman.

"Yes, we're probably a little unique in that, but again, it's both our passions," Case says. "If we have lunches, I host all those and take the kids through the house. And then we have a lot of events."

There are plenty of events during the school year happening every week.

"Probably seven or eight events a lot of those are in the evenings. Our weekends are generally always full. And then of course, we prioritize the students. We try to support as many of the various colleges and their events that we can get to."

Case says the role of WSU's first gentleman can be as expansive or as narrow as the person wants to make it. He says at some universities the first spouse isn't as active.

"Sometimes they don't even live where the president resides," he says. "But [the role] can be expansive. My masters is in adult education, so I've kind of come home. I didn't teach during my career, but I've kind of come full circle from when I was in college and doing my student teaching. But you can be as involved as you want to be, and we want to be."

Case is not only involved in hosting and attending events, but also maintains an equity scholarship that he and Muma started.

"Back in, I believe about 2011, our oldest son came out to us," Case says. "At the same time [in New York], [there was] a young man [who] had ... felt like he would lose family support if they knew that he was gay and he died by suicide. We wanted to help express support to students in the LGBTQ+ community.

"So, we set up this scholarship: The Richard D. Muma and Rick A. Case Equality Scholarship. [We] had lots of contributions ... people from our church; various churches; communities. So, it wasn't just Rick and I funding the scholarship, but it has grown and this past year we awarded two scholarships. It can be [awarded] to LGBTQ+ [students] or allies or people who are just supportive. We're really excited about that and trying to express and show all the students here that across the campus, we're supporting you and we'll help you if we can."

L-R First gentleman Rick Case, Corinne Nielsen, Susan Johnson and Anne-Marie Brown go over details regarding an upcoming fundraiser at the presidential residence
Carla Eckels
L-R First gentleman Rick Case, Corinne Nielsen, Susan Johnson and Anne-Marie Brown go over details regarding an upcoming fundraiser at the presidential residence

As a first gentleman, Case also understands the role donors play in financially supporting an institution.

"If we want people to give to these students, they need to see that the funds that they're giving are going towards worthy causes," he says. "Not just the students, but a lot of people give to the maintenance of various things: Construction of buildings on the university, scholarship programs for athletics, all of that sort of thing. We want them to see that it's being well spent."

Case says the south patio is one of his favorite places to be in the mornings because it's generally pretty quiet.

"It's real peaceful. You can hear the birds and, it's really become a welcoming space and I want people to feel like this is partially theirs as well. Rick and I are just tenants here for a time and we want this to be welcoming and for future presidents whenever that occurs."

He ponders the idea of how students benefit the most from President Muma at the helm and the first gentleman by his side.

"I think they benefit from the fact that he and I work really well together. We can't always be at every event the two of us. I think that they benefit from us as a team in that we're both fully committed to their success and that one of us can't be there, the other one's going to try."

Case continues to carry out many activities across campus with students in mind — even pausing once to show them how to change a tire.

"It's kind of funny because we have these really, really smart kids and they just needed a parent there and several of them had never attempted to change a tire and so, it was a teachable moment," he says. "And I always say, we raised two boys ... and [now] we have 17,000 more kids. So that's the message we want to send here at the university. We want parents to feel like when they bring their student here, not only are they getting a great education, but they're well cared for."

Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.