An atypical principal: Jody Rich, ‘the epitome of servant leadership,’ steps down

Jody Rich and his wife, Mandy, pose with their grandchildren during a recent trip to Disneyland. In the caption of the Instagram post that went along with the photo, he wrote, "These munchkins are what life’s all about," and spending more time with family is one of the reasons he is stepping down as HHS principal, Anaheim, California, Feb. 14, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Jody Rich, St. George News

HURRICANE — He’s an institution. A local celebrity. A living legend.

Ask nearly anyone in the Hurricane Valley – young or old – who Jody Rich is and they will probably know about him. Many will know him personally.

In fact, a neighbor once did an experiment and sent a letter to him from Las Vegas with the address written simply as “Jody R. Hurricane, UT 84737” and in a town of nearly 20,000 people, it reached him.

Jody Rich poses with Hurricane High School orchestra students at the state orchestra festival last weekend, Orem, Utah, May 17-19, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Jody Rich, St. George News

He’s so well known because he’s been a positive force at Hurricane High School for 25 years, first as a counselor, then as assistant principal and for the last six years as principal – and not a typical one.

Yesterday he presided over his last graduation at HHS because this spring he decided to step down as principal to do what has been his plan for years – go back to counseling. Darin Thomas, who has served as principal of Water Canyon for the last four years, will take his place.

This go-round as counselor, however, he’ll have a little younger clientele because he’ll be a counselor at Hurricane Middle School. However, he won’t leave the high school completely. He’ll be a counselor there one day a week.

And he knows the person he’s replacing at the middle school very well. She is his daughter-in-law.

The educator

Early on, Rich was set to take over his father’s plumbing business, but decided he wanted to work with youth instead.

Rich started his education career teaching history and psychology at Bingham High School for two years, then as a counselor for three. After five years at a large school, he felt it was time to go to a smaller school so he could make more of a difference. In 1993, he interviewed at a few schools and when he interviewed with then Hurricane High Principal Rob Goulding, he felt it was the right place for him and his family and he became a major part of what has now become known as the “Tiger Army.”

When he first moved to the southwest corner of the state, he and his wife bought a home in Washington City. But two months after moving into the house, he felt he that the family should move to Hurricane, so they bought a lot and built a house in what is now Angell Heights and have been there ever since.

Rich said he came to Hurricane with no roots or ties here, but now he has plenty. To his five children – Amanda, Jordan, Anderson, Benson and Hannah – Hurricane is home and his married children’s spouses are all Hurricane natives.

The people person

To say Jody Rich is a people person is an understatement. He thrives on being part of a group, his daughter-in-law Tasha Rich said, and he loves talking to people.

While on vacation, for instance, Tasha Rich said he regularly starts talking to people next to his table at restaurants and strikes up conversations with complete strangers at hotel pools. One of his favorite things about his bike rides across the country was talking to people along the route. He would actually knock on doors to talk to people, explaining who he was while encouraging them to serve. He has whole albums of photos of him with people he’s only known for a few minutes who, by the look of the photo, might seem like people he’s known for years.

Jody Rich poses with both the Hurricane High School boys and girls water polo teams at the state meet last weekend, Oquirh Park Fitness Center, Kearns, Utah, May 18-19, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Jody Rich, St. George News

One quality many notice about him goes along with his love for people. He is seemingly omnipresent around the community and regularly attends significant events in the lives of former HHS students, from mission farewells and homecomings to weddings.

He is a fixture at high school sporting events – home and away – and he doesn’t just cater to the Tiger faithful. He’s a regular on the opposing team’s sideline, shaking hands with opposing players, coaches and fans. In fact, on one occasion he even lined up with an opposing team’s drill team.

Just last weekend he attended the state track meet at Brigham Young University to cheer on Tiger athletes, the state orchestra festival in Orem, as well as a state water polo match in Kearns.

He about broke down as he described his experience seeing the looks on the faces of the water polo team (which he admitted might feel they are not as significant because their team is not school sponsored) when they noticed that their principal had cared enough to come and support them. Their faces just lit up when they saw him. Experiences like that are one of the things he admitted he will miss the most.

Attending so many events so far from home is a sacrifice, he said.

“But those kids – they’re yours for life,” he concluded.

The best prevention for suicide, he explained, is love – making those vulnerable students feel connected and showing one cares for them.

Opposite of what most people display on their refrigerator – a calendar of things that they will attend or need to do – his daughter-in-law said he has a calendar listing events he won’t be able to attend. Tasha Rich said he truly has a case of FOMO – fear of missing out.

The atypical principal

Even before becoming principal, Jody Rich was popular among HHS students. As a counselor, the wait for an appointment to talk to him was long, partly because he loves to talk, Tasha Rich said.

His secretary at the time, Dana Leavitt, once said, “Waiting to talk to Jody Rich is like a Disneyland ride, the line is long, but the wait is worth it,” Tasha Rich noted.

Most of the time, Rich greets students not with a handshake, but with a hug.

Students call him “Jody” because, as Student Council Secretary Mara Hayes remarked, “It’s weird to hear ‘Mr. Rich.’”

Many students remark that they really know he cares about them.

“He wants to know everything about you,” Hayes said, “your name, everything about your family, favorite things, how you got where you are and where you’re going throughout the year.”

Jody Rich poses with the Hurricane High School girls track team, Hurricane, Utah, May 2018 | Photo courtesy of Jody Rich, St. George News

Each year, Rich speaks with every single student one-on-one, Hayes said, and asks things such as what is going well in their lives and what is not. He regularly expresses his love to students and always offers to help them in any way he can, Hayes noted.

Being on student council, Hayes said, she’s gotten to know her principal very well this year, including seeing his “great sense of humor you don’t see every day.”

“He’s not afraid to joke around with us and we have some funny inside jokes,” she said. “Not only is he so caring about everyone around him . . . he is so funny and fun and makes a huge effort to have a real, personal relationship with those he is in contact with.”

As an example of the “coolness factor” he brings to the job, Hayes said he rode all the rides at Lagoon during the “Senior Sneak” trip and has played a few practical jokes on some student council members, Hayes said.

One gets the impression that most students at HHS would have similar superlatives as Hayes to describe their principal – and they do.

“Jody Rich is the most influential person that I know,” said HHS senior-to-be Marie Dunn. “He has made such an impact on so many lives and I admire how he is always doing good.”

Dunn said that because of Rich, the high school enjoys a “loving family feel,” with the principal there to greet students with a hug every day.

“The thing I think makes Jody a great principal is that you know that he loves each and every one of us,” Dunn said.

The mentor

Tasha Rich, who is married to Jody Rich’s son Jordan, has been a counselor at Hurricane Middle School the last five years. Her husband’s job is taking them to the Phoenix area and while she is sad to leave, she knows that her replacement will do a good job.

Jody Rich poses with the first recipients of the PAACE Legacy Scholarship, Rachel Beagley (left) and Alma Burgos Munoz, Hurricane, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Jody Rich, St. George News

As a counselor at HMS, Rich said her father-in-law will be loved and will help change the culture of the school.

He has been a tremendous influence in her life, she said, helping her, a first-generation college graduate, get into college.

“He made it seem reachable for someone who didn’t understand any of it,” she said. “He made it seem like anyone could do it.”

Fittingly, the two of them finished practically the same educational path – a bachelor’s degree from Dixie State University and a master’s in counseling from the University of Utah.

His family aside, Rich has been a mentor to many teachers he’s worked with at the high school.

Hurricane High School biology teacher Dustin Dayley freely admits that he is one of the lives Rich has touched.

“Jody is the boss that most people will never experience in their life,” Dayley said. “I truly consider myself lucky to have been able to work with and under his leadership. He has been an incredible mentor and administrator that cares and makes it known in all his actions. I am certain that Jody’s leadership, talent and ability to touch people’s lives falls in the 1 percent of all people.”

Chris Homer, now the principal at Hurricane Middle School but who formerly taught biology, coached football and served as assistant principal at HHS, said Rich was the first one who shook his hand and talked to him when he came to HHS 20 years ago. As the years have progressed, naturally the two have grown much closer, especially as Homer served under him as assistant principal before accepting the job at HMS.

One of the things that Homer has tried to implement since becoming principal of HMS is to cultivate a positive culture like Rich has done at Hurricane High School, albeit differently than Rich does because many will admit, “Nobody can do it like Jody does it.”

“He is phenomenal,” Homer said. “He isn’t like anyone else. He deserves any tributes he gets. He’s poured his life into that job.”

Other high school principals in the district are constantly in awe at how much he gives, Homer noted.

Homer said he is excited to have Rich on the HMS team next year and knows that he will do wonders at improving school culture and helping conflict resolution, among other things.

Homer said they both have full trust in one another.

The bike rider

An avid bicyclist, Rich rides his bike to school most days and has also ridden his bike across the country, Pacific to Atlantic, twice. In 2013, he and former Hurricane Middle School Principal Roy Hoyt, decided to start what they called PAACE – Principals Across America for Computers in Education – and bike across the country that summer. That first PAACE ride took them from San Diego to Jacksonville, Florida, and resulted in raising over $30,000 for computers for Hurricane schools. Their motto on that trip was “You Can Do Hard Things.”

Jody Rich poses with family and friends in New York at the end of his bike ride across the country last summer to raise money for a scholarship fund he started. From left to right, Jordan Rich, Tasha Rich, Atticus Rich, Mandy Rich, Jody Rich, Gene Morris, Lynette Morris, Pearce Morris and Alexis Morris, New York, New York, June 30, 2017 | Photo courtesy of Jody Rich, St. George News

In 2015, the two principals teamed up to do a similar ride, this time from the United States’ northern border to its southern border along the Washington, Oregon and California coasts. This time, they replaced the last two words in the acronym with “Caring Education” and adopted the motto, “It’s not about you.” Unfortunately, Rich couldn’t finish the trip. An accident near Big Sur, California, resulted in a broken collarbone and an early trip home. Despite the setback, he called on the Hurricane community to finish the trip for him in proxy and complete acts of service along the way.

Last summer, he did a ride across the country again, this time along a northern route – from Tillamook, Oregon to New York City – with a different riding companion, friend Gene Morris. The third time the mission was to raise money for college scholarships for Hurricane High School students, known as the PAACE Legacy Scholarship. That time around, he raised a whopping $65,000.

Not surprisingly, applicants of the $1,000 PAACE Legacy Scholarship have to write essays that encapsulate two themes – “I Can Do Hard Things” and “It’s Not About You.” He recently awarded the first two of these scholarships to HHS graduating seniors Rachel Beagley and Alma Burgos Munoz.

On all his bike rides, he made almost daily videos, most of them while riding his bike, with life lessons and shout-outs to people in the community and posted the videos on the PAACE Facebook page as a chronicle of the trip.

The PAACE rides aren’t the only motivational stunts he’s pulled while at Hurricane High. To help raise test scores, for instance, he’s spent the night in some odd places, including the school’s roof and trophy case.

He said doing those out-of-the-ordinary antics were incredible experiences that were loved by students and achieved their goals to raise test scores. When asked if he’d do another ride, he didn’t shut the door on the possibility.

One of the things he might try next? Impromptu crowd surfing, he joked.

Stepping down

When asked about stepping down as principal, he said he sincerely enjoys his job.

“I absolutely love everything I do with kids. It provides me with the opportunity to reach as many kids as I can.”

Jody Rich and his wife, Mandy, pose with their grandchildren during a recent trip to Disneyland. In the caption of the Instagram post that went along with the photo, he wrote, “These munchkins are what life’s all about,” and spending more time with family is one of the reasons he is stepping down as HHS principal, Anaheim, California, Feb. 14, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Jody Rich, St. George News

However, he felt it was time to simplify his life and go back to “helping kids full time” as a counselor. He said it’s time, in essence, to only have one full time job and enjoy more time with his family.

The person who stands to gain the most from his decision to step down is definitely his wife, Mandy, who has grown accustomed to him being gone frequently. He said it is time to start receiving fewer phone calls saying that the grandkids are over at his house and he is somewhere else.

“I’m just happy for him,” Tasha Rich said of her father-in-law’s decision to step back and spend more time with his family.

This summer, in fact, Tash Rich said he plans to go to a place within driving distance with a different one of his children each month. The soon-to-be-former principal said he wants to take it easy this summer, stay in Utah and see places he’s never seen within his home state.

It’s not about you

An outsider looking in might think that Jody Rich is self-absorbed. Anyone who knows him well will say that he most definitely is not.

In fact, one of his mottos, which is emblazoned on the top of his Instagram page is: “Life’s not about you . . . it’s about what you do for others.”

“He’s so genuine,” Tasha Rich said. “He’s the same everywhere,” noting that his persona doesn’t change from school to home.

“He acts like he loves everybody and it’s true. Nobody could fake what he does. He gives a lot and he gets a lot back.”

Homer concurred.

“It’s not a show,” Homer said. “It’s who he is.”

Homer tells the story of going to meetings at the district office with Rich and watching as he shook hands with nearly everyone at the meeting and asked how they were doing. Some at the district got the wrong impression, thinking that the principal was a butt-kisser aiming for the district office.

“The district office would be his nightmare,” Homer said, adding that each time Rich was at those meetings, he felt bad that he was not at school helping students every minute of the day as he always does.

Homer also spoke of Rich’s humility and honesty.

“As good as he is, he is always talking about his weaknesses,” Homer said.

HHS math, science and physics teacher Nathan Johnson sums up Rich’s style as “the epitome of servant leadership.”

“Everywhere you go in this community you find Jody there,” Johnson said. “You finish a conversation with Jody and realize that you have done almost all of the talking. His ability to listen and love is superhuman.”

To Rich, life has five main ingredients: get up, show up, find purpose, work hard and never quit.

“Half of my job is showing up,” he said. “If you want to make a difference with kids – show up.”

Most would say, the other half of the job Rich has done at HHS is love everyone for who they are, unconditionally, and reach out to those in need.

He has personally attended to community members, staff and students when they have experienced devastating personal loss,” Johnson said. “His legacy is embodied in his familiar slogans:

“It’s not about me.”

“I can do hard things.”

“I love you all.”

Tributes to Jody Rich from Hurricane High School administration and faculty

Daniel McKeehan, assistant principal

“God gave Jody a gift. Touching lives is that gift. As a colleague, I have always felt that he cared about us before policy and rules. Jody is always interested in doing what’s right for others. He walks the walk and lifts others to do the same. I don’t know that I have ever met a better human being.”

Jon Homer, counselor

“I love everything about Jody. He is such a great mentor and friend. I think the thing I have learned most from Jody is unconditional love. He has true care and concern for everyone. He shows this through his actions. He doesn’t just talk about how much he cares, he shows how much he cares by being there for everyone, in every instance. He’s always willing to sacrifice his own time to be there for other people.”

Content Marshall, special education teacher

“He (is) a friend – a friend that made sure that my mental needs were taken care of. He knew my family and my extended family. When my daughter got sick he made sure that the school needs were taken care of and then organized fundraisers to help with expenses. My children were all touched by him in some way. He will always be a confidante and friend.”

Richard Hill, drama teacher

“Jody has made going to high school just what it should be: an adventure in love and discovery for students and staff. With him at the helm, people on board know they matter. One of my favorite stories about him repeated itself every time there was a schoolwide crisis of conscience or bad behavior – bullying, social media scandal, vandalism, rumor – no matter what the issue, (Jody) reminded us that we were family and that we could do hard things and get up off the mat by caring about each other.”

Email: rwadsworth@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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