Rickey retires but leaves a legacy at GCU
By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Dr. Debbie Rickey chooses her office art like a true educator of four decades: a velvet hammer, made by a student.
“Velvet hammer” was a nickname that former school administrators gave her, but it’s a simile inspired by her father, David Le Shana, a former president of a Christian university.
“My dad has been the biggest influence on my leadership style. He always said, ‘Be tough on principles but gentle on persons,’” said Rickey, who retires Monday as Associate Dean of the College of Education at Grand Canyon University.
Her nine-year run left a big mark at GCU, captaining the college’s national accreditation in 2019 with a steady hand while leaving her office door open for heart to hearts, a style that endeared her to friends and colleagues who filled 30 cars in a parade to her Phoenix home for a COVID-era retirement party Thursday.
“The landscape in education over the last 10 years has not been easy in regard to national accreditation, but we were able to power through in large part due to Debbie’s leadership, her faith and perseverance,” COE Dean Dr. Kimberly LaPrade said of the Association for Advancing Quality in Educator Preparation (AAQEP) accreditation. “It will be her lasting legacy for the College of Education.
“She certainly is not a pushover. But she does everything gracefully and with such kindness and such understanding that you realize you didn’t get your way until you come out on the other side.”
It’s a honed skill from years of education, a career that started in Newberg, Ore., as a high school language arts, speech, drama and French teacher and led to the principal job. She was her son Jon Rickey’s principal, and his friends would tell him, “I got railed on by your mom, but I deserved it.” Years later, they are among former students who call her on Mother’s Day. She was like a mom to them.
“It’s always been one of the things I gleaned from her,” said Jon, who is district director of athletics for Great Hearts Academies in Phoenix. “Students need to know you care for and love them. But loving them means saying no a lot.”
Debbie Rickey joined GCU in 2011 after she had transitioned to post-secondary education at Earlham College in Indiana. A graduate of George Fox University who earned her master’s degree from Portland State and Ph.D. from Capella University, she joined her three children who settled in Arizona to begin her GCU stint in the College of Doctoral Studies.
“(Provost Dr.) Hank Radda and I started on the same day,” Rickey said.
She marveled at the rapid pace of change in the growing University and joined COE 18 months later. She had great pride in GCU’s progressive improvements, Jon Rickey said, and always had to search for her office when visiting because it so frequently moved with the changes.
His mom never lost sight of the purpose, wherever she was working.
“I just always loved the idea of helping kids learn and making a difference in people’s lives. That’s what drew me to high school; it’s such a pivotal moment in their lives and I wanted to help them make a difference,” she said. “Then, in teacher education, holy cow! If what we can instill and what we can share helps impacts all the student teachers and all the people that are teaching kids out there, that is just … wow.”
Her elated “oh golly” lingo works in concert with the eloquent quotes she loves. The staff even made a book of the quotes she liked to spread like inspirational treats around the office and classrooms.
Among the many:
- “Assume positive intentions.”
- “There’s never a rush to make a bad decision.”
- “We have to look in our rear-view mirror in order to move forward.”
“That’s the way I learn and remember things,” said Rickey, whose favorites include one she put on a plaque:
At the end of the day when you have done your best, await the results in peace.
“Even in these COVID times, God calls us to serve to the best of our abilities but also realizing we are only human,” Rickey said. “It means we give it our all but also has to be that part where we let go and let God.”
Bringing her best was on display during the national accreditation process. When the AAQEP team came to GCU, it witnessed an organized team.
“She listens to what they have to say but at the same time is not telling them what to do,” said Linda McKee, AAQEP’s Chief Operations Officer, who asked Rickey to facilitate breakout groups for AAQEP workshops. “She’s talking with other people who are members and is very appreciative of the different environments they find themselves, whether they are rural or urban, public or private.”
It’s what GCU colleagues said were among her best qualities — she’s a listener leader.
“It came from watching my dad and how he would lead,” Rickey said. “One of his strengths was how he would listen and would hire the best around him. The type of leader I prefer is one that empowers everyone around them. I don’t have to be the best at everything. I just have to be the best at finding the best.”
Building those relationships was key, she said.
“She not only listens, but she puts herself in your shoes and tries to look at everything through your perspective,” said COE Associate Dean Dr. Marjaneh Gilpatrick, who with Rickey produced several national and state presentations on cultural diversity. “We connected because of our common passion in ensuring that our teacher candidates go beyond the superficial aspects of cultural diversity when they are teaching and really delve into knowing their own biases and to be truly reflective.”
Rickey also was known to do that on a personal level.
Connie Ady, COE’s administrative assistant, said Rickey’s door was always open to all. She talked down anxious doctoral candidates and soothed colleagues having a bad day. “She would drop everything and let you pour your heart out,” said Ady. “She will surround you with love that only a family member would show you.”
When Rickey decided it was time to retire, she again recalled her father’s words: “God doesn’t call us to a place but calls us from a place.”
On a recent day, she strolled across campus, full of memories of her long career. She recalled young high school students, some approaching middle age that she sees on Facebook, and can still humbly ask herself, “Did I do my best? Did I give them my all?”
Carrying her office box, including that purple velvet hammer, she was moved.
“I started getting emotional thinking about all the time and all the growth and how much happened over the years and how much I loved being a part of it,” she said. “What I think about is all the people and all the relationships.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.