Do you ever to listen to a story about a person’s life and feel yourself left awestruck?
As a reporter over the years I have had the privilege of learning many life stories of those who call Imperial Valley home, and I’ve had the honor of sharing those stories with readers. And on so many occasions, I have heard stories that do, in fact, leave me with a sense of — wow!
The story of Eric Rice’s life is one such example.
Maybe it’s because he built a small wooden house for his mother and siblings in what 50 years ago was a remote area of the Valley — and he did it at age 13.
Maybe it’s because as a pilot, he flew himself to Los Angeles each week to study for his PhD. in education at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Maybe it’s because the 81-year-old father and grandfather has devoted 43 years of his life to education.
Then again, maybe it’s simply because, according to friends and family, he’s the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back if you were cold, would give you his last $20 if you were broke or help you find a job. And he would do it quietly, never seeking attention.
For Rice’s lifelong commitment to the Valley, his endless desire to help his community and his years as an educator, Rice has been chosen as this edition’s Man of Distinction.
A HISTORY OF SERVICE
If there’s one common theme among the men featured in these articles it is that they all care deeply for their community — and not just the immediate city or area in which they live but the entire Imperial Valley.
This is a way of life that holds true for Rice.
“He puts himself out there for other people almost daily,” says his wife of 21 years, Frances Rice. “It seems that most every day he is helping someone.”
Frances recalls one specific story when the home of a church pastor in Mexicali was destroyed in a blaze. Rice, who was raised in the Imperial Valley but educated in Mexicali, has held ties to the city across the border his whole life, and he was quick to help the pastor.
“He went out immediately to see what he could do to help,” Frances says. “He provided moral support, money … anything he could. He even had our church, Sts. Peter and Paul Episcopal Church in El Centro, donate clothing, bedding and other needs to help the pastor’s family.”
Frances adds her husband has always been a great deal of help to her.
“If I am a chairman of a committee or am serving on some committee, I know I don’t have to ask him for help. He will do anything he can to help, from getting the chairs, to helping with the food to washing dishes,” she says.
His desire to serve his community has led him to serve in such organizations as the Calexico Rotary Club, the Masonic Lodge and Native Sons.
“He’s a very loyal Rotary member who is always there to help out,” says Gil Perez, a fellow Calexico Rotary member. “He is a man who cares about his community and who wants to make a difference.”
He also serves his church, providing maintenance whenever needed.
Even though he has undergone a hip replacement and had both knees replaced, Rice was up on the roof of the Sts. Peter and Paul Episcopal Church repairing roofing for the recently held Fall Festival. He also cleaned the septic system and worked on cleaning drains.
“He will do anything that he sees needs to be done to help those he cares about,” Frances says.
CARING AS AN EDUCATOR AND MENTOR
Just as he has been an involved and active member of the Imperial Valley community, he showed his caring spirit through his work as an educator for 43 years — until his retirement in 1997.
During that time, he first served as an elementary school teacher in Seeley. He went on to teach at the college level at San Diego State University and in Los Angeles.
He eventually finished his career as an educator by teaching high school math, science and work experience at Calexico High School.
His students meant a great deal to him, says Frances, herself a longtime educator who taught first grade at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in El Centro.
“He was always helping students to achieve more than they thought they could,” Frances adds.
One of those students he inspired was local attorney Mercedes Wheeler.
Wheeler, who began her professional career as an educator, was a student of Rice’s when he taught at SDSU. At one point in her life, when she was faced with a decision of whether to continue teaching or consider law school, she turned to Rice for guidance.
“I wanted to make sure that I would be able to pass the bar, and I knew Eric would tell me if he thought I could. He encouraged me, telling me that if it’s something I want to do, that I should do it. He told me he thought I would have no problem passing the bar.”
Wheeler says she trusted Rice because she knew him to be an honest person. Today, they continue to be friends, and Wheeler adds that Rice still is one of those people who believes in doing for others and providing a service to his community.
As a teacher, Rice was also active in helping to guide students down the right path through a program called Friday Night Live, which helps students avoid pitfalls in life by showing them positive activities.
Rice was a Friday Night Live leader for Calexico High School, and Frances describes how he devoted hours to his team each day by meeting with students and organizing activities. He took them on field trips, retreats and conferences, all on his own time.
Wheeler says of Rice: “He encouraged many students to further their education and reach beyond their boundaries.”
HIS PATH TO SUCCESS
Born in Salinas but raised in the Imperial Valley, Rice had the unique opportunity thanks to his parents of going to school in Mexicali. He attended school there through the sixth grade, becoming fluent in Spanish.
It was during this time in his life that he taught himself construction and built a small wooden house for his mother and siblings when he was only 13. He would later go on to build her a house made of concrete, a project he did over the years as money became available.
Rice went on to serve in the U.S. Marines, and after returning from his service, he enrolled in college at St. Mary’s University in Northern California. From there he would earn his bachelor’s degree in education. He then went on to earn a master’s and, eventually, earned his PhD.
By this time he was a pilot, and he would fly himself to Los Angeles to attend doctorate courses at UCLA.
No story of Rice’s history would be complete without telling of how he met his wife Frances. They had dated back in their early college years but then went down their separate paths. Each had been married before — Rice’s first wife Pauline had passed away after they had been married for 20 years. Both Rice and Frances had their own children.
They had not been in touch for 32 years until Rice decided to contact Frances one day in 1988 using an old telephone number he had for her. He wasn’t sure the number was still correct, but as luck would have it — it was.
At that time, he started to court her in what was a bit of a long distance relationship as she was living in Washington state. After a year, they were married, and Frances moved to the Valley.
Today, they live in the home Rice built for his mother, and between their active involvement in their community and their shared interest in the arts (they never miss a musical held in the Valley), they find time to devote themselves to their children and grandchildren.
And of the Valley, Frances says her husband loves his home.
“He’s very proud of the Valley and of the people in the Valley,” she says, adding that when outsiders visit the Valley, he makes sure to take them on the “Rice” tour to see the crops and harvesting, so people can understand just how special the Valley is.
“To him, this is God’s country,” she says.