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Friends remember an inspirational UNCC professor with a zany side

By Dannye Romine Powell
dpowell@charlotteobserver.com
riekeobit
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Dr. Robert Rieke, who wrote fight song for UNCC and was published poet and longtime teacher at UNCC

On campus and off, Robert Rieke was a man who thought outside the box, and who inspired others to take apart ideas and put them back together.

“He didn’t have a big ego, and he didn’t have to be in charge, and he put up with so much from me it’s embarrassing to reflect upon,” said UNC Charlotte history professor Dan Morrill.

Rieke, who was 90, died Saturday at Avante at Charlotte on Randolph Road. He had suffered for months from kidney disease and congestive heart failure.

Morrill met Rieke on a blustery day in January 1963, when Morrill came here from Emory University in Atlanta to interview for a position in the history department at the old Charlotte College, which later became UNCC.

“Robert Rieke interviewed me, and he offered me the job, and I took it,” Morrill said. “Whatever I’ve been able to contribute to this fair city is due directly to him.”

Morrill said Rieke was vital in his development as a human being.

“He was basically nonconfrontational, and he was very much accepting of people who were a bit off-frequency.”

Rieke received more than his share of academic honors. He graduated magna cum laude from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He received his MA and Ph.D. degrees in history from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He was awarded both a Rotary International Scholarship to the University of Zurich in Switzerland and a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany.

Before coming to Charlotte College, he taught at Emory University, The Citadel in Charleston, the University of Kentucky and Davidson College. He retired from UNCC in 1988 after 26 years.

But it was off campus, said Rieke’s only child Peter Rieke, where his dad really cut loose.

“We’d have a family outing or a party, and he would arrive in these outlandish outfits. A crazy hat. Shorts in winter. A wild-looking Hawaiian shirt. When he was in his sixties, he came to a party with a helicopter hat, and he was spinning a hoola hoop like he was 16. He was not afraid to get up in front of everybody and sing or make a speech. And he loved to dance, any kind of dance.”

Rieke’s wife Helga died in 1983, and in 1985, he and longtime family friend Daisy Shapiro married.

Shapiro saw yet another side of the history professor – the romantic.

“It was a new beginning for him, and a new beginning for me,” Shapiro said. “I certainly never was good at history, but that didn’t make any difference. We never talked about history.

“We both loved the opera and the symphony, and he enjoyed seeing me get dressed up. He surprised me with outfits he found in catalogs. He cooked for me. He cleaned. He did the gardening. I was very, very happy and very lucky, and I appreciated all his kindnesses.”

Robert Rieke was born July 31, 1923, in Albert-Lea, Minn., to Ben Rieke and Marion Johnson Rieke. His ancestors, hard-working farm families, descendants of Germans, became the subject of one of his books, “The History of the Minnesota Riekes.”

He was also the author of a collection of poems, “An Azure Sunset,” as well as a history of UNCC, “A Retrospective Vision: The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 1965-1975.”

Rieke believed every college should have an alma mater. UNCC didn’t. So he wrote one.

Michael Carmichael, a political consultant and a visiting scholar at Duke University, first met Rieke in the 1960s when he came to UNC Charlotte to study history. Rieke’s specialty at the time was intellectual history, and Carmichael took Nineteenth Century European Intellectual History and The French Revolution and Napoleon under Rieke.

As a teacher, Carmichael said Rieke was “absolutely amazing.”

“He could incubate ideas, then turn them inside out, then bisect them, then reconstruct them.

“His gift was inspiration. He could inspire people. Everyone who knew him felt inspired by him. He inspired others to explore themselves through history, through music and art.”

It was Carmichael who introduced Rieke to another student who also became a lifelong friend: Howard Winokuer of the Winokuer Center for Counseling and Healing.

“I met Robert Rieke in October 1974, under the old Atkins Library at UNCC at an International Festival. He was dressed for a polka in all his German regalia, including lederhosen (leather breeches) and a coat, and we became fast friends.”

While Winokuer was still a student, he and Rieke co-taught a course, offered only once, The History of the Mind Since 1960, which looked at five 20th century philosophers, including William Irwin Thompson and Carlos Castaneda.

And Winokeur and Rieke were two of the original board members of To Life, an organization “that talked about grief and death long before it became popular to talk about it.”

“Robert Rieke was so willing to look outside the box,” said Winokeur. “He took the best of all the religions – Christian and Jewish mainly – and incorporated them into who he was.”

“He gave everything he had to everything he did.”

A memorial service for Rieke will be at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Harry & Bryant Funeral Home, 500 Providence Road, Charlotte.

Powell: 704-358-5230
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