Students and faculty of the McWhorter School of Building Science say they lost more than a professor this week – they lost a friend and mentor who went the extra mile to see the program provide both career and personal development. Roger Rice, who was a senior lecturer in the School of Building Science, recently died after testing positive for COVID-19, according to Auburn University.
Members of the Auburn Family in the school shared how he left an impact on its program and their lives.
“We’re a very tight group of faculty,” said Richard Burt, McWhorter Endowed Chair and head of the school. “We tend to get on really, really well, so Roger was part of the family. He was seen as a father figure.”
Rice, an Auburn native, began teaching at the University in 2017 as an adjunct professor before becoming a senior lecturer. Alan Bugg, assistant professor in the School of Building Science, often jokes with students that it’s “all my fault” Rice was hired into the position after meeting him at that spring’s building science awards banquet.
“Roger was seated at my table with his wife, Amanda, and we got to talking,” Bugg said. “He asked what I did, and I told him how much I love teaching at Auburn. I think he had already decided that he wanted to maybe teach, but I know after that conversation [for sure].”
Almost immediately, Rice gained a positive reputation as a welcoming and congenial instructor who sought to develop connections with students, frequently attending social and athletic events, Burt said.
“The classes he taught were [for] freshmen and sophomore year, and one he taught was 'structures,' which is heavily math and physics-based,” Burt said. “A lot of students struggle with that, and out of his own volition, he did extra hour study sessions for them.”
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Ashley Kingrey, senior in building science, said she remembers these study sessions fondly because of the way they differed from those of other classes.
“He genuinely wanted us all to succeed, and so before big tests, he and his wife would go out and buy pizza from Domino’s, dessert, drinks, the whole nine yards and would have a full test review,” she said. “It was extremely kind and definitely something that set him apart from any other professor you might come across on campus.”
Burt and others in the School of Building Science echoed sentiments that being a lecturer wasn’t just about the job for Rice. As an Auburn graduate, he had returned to see the next generation of students thrive in the construction industry.
“He had expressed from day one that he was an alum of our program,” said Brandon Clarke, lead administrative assistant for the School of Building Science. “He always desired to come back and teach in our program. It was his ‘bucket list item,’ he called it, and it was his heart’s desire to give back. He really credited Auburn and the program to his success.”
Rice didn’t only “give back” academically, however; he also gave back financially. During his time as an Auburn professor, he and his wife created the AGC Student Chapter Scholarship to support students in the program in need of financial assistance, Clarke said.
“Scholarships had helped him gain his education,” she said. “That always will still be awarded. We’ve spoken to his wife, and we’re working on renaming that scholarship. It will say ‘in memory of Roger Rice’ so his legacy will continue for many years to come. It gives all a little joy to know his heart’s desire will continue into students who never got to actually meet him.”
Josh Reid, a 2019 graduate in building science and a close friend to Rice, was one recipient of the scholarship. He said he believes Rice “went out of his way” in selecting students he independently felt were deserving of the award.
“He loved supporting students who he felt like needed help or earned it,” Reid said. “I don’t know of any other teacher that invested personally back into the school, not like he did. A lot of donors don’t know the students they’re supporting, but he liked to meet them.”
The late professor met many students both in and out of the classroom. Gabby Murphree, a 2019 graduate in building science, said not all students, including herself, were in his courses, yet they still mattered to him all the same.
“I was at [the Gorrie Center] a lot this past semester because I was completing a thesis and always ended up meeting him in the elevator,” Murphree said. “It was pouring down rain one day, and he had the biggest smile on his face. He would always manage to turn around, put his hand out and say, ‘I’m Roger Rice, it’s nice to meet you.’ He introduced himself to me probably three times.”
Josh Williams, a graduate student in building science who also had no classes with Rice, said he always had room in his schedule to help students with the small things.
“One of my projects I was working on late at night in the office, and he saw me going through the process,” Williams said. “He saw me struggle with printing, so he let me use his flash drive. That was when I was first introduced to him.”
Williams said every time after, Rice remembered him by the sound of his voice, which he feels exemplified the professor’s individual interest in every student he encountered.
“He would always tell me, ‘Josh, you have a really distinct voice – I know who you are before I even have to see you,’” Williams said. “He would be somebody you could talk to about anything, just life in general. I could kind of confide with him in that aspect.”
Reid shared similar thoughts about a day he once spent with Rice and considered him to be a great conversationalist and consistently optimistic.
“One time I had to pick him up from somewhere because he had a flat tire,” he said. “We just started talking about life, and I was going through some personal issues. I had just bought a motorcycle, and he had been a big motorcycle enthusiast in his younger days. It was a conversation like that that helped me through that time.”
Sometimes the small things Rice helped with involved the School of Building Science’s career fairs, which Ashley Kingrey said stuck with her because his assistance led to her receiving many interviews during these events.
“Every career fair, he would come dressed to the T, and somehow he always knew when you were a little bit too nervous to approach the big person you were psyching yourself up for that day,” she said. “He would go around to every student, grab them by the shoulder and introduce them to a company. He would talk you up so much, make you feel like you were on top of the world.”
Kingrey said this extra consideration went a long way for something that was unrequired of him. It was just another example of Rice’s constant encouragement for those in the program, she said. One faculty member who especially recalls this quality is Mike Hosey, field lab manager and senior lecturer for the School of Building Science, who shared an office space with the professor.
“Our office almost always had a stream of students coming in to talk to Roger as he advised them on subjects in his course, took an avid interest in what was going on in their lives and really got to know each one of them,” Hosey said. “In 2019, Roger was offered a position as senior lecturer. I had to answer one question about what was a negative thing in hiring Roger, and my answer was we would never be able to get him to tone down his enthusiasm about teaching.”
This enthusiasm carried beyond courses, where Rice taught students practical experience in construction as he worked on projects outside instruction. Josh Reid worked with him on some of these projects, which were a continuation of a construction company he owned before returning to Auburn.
“He had a home, his house, out in Tallapoosa, Alabama,” Reid said. “We were remodeling the flooring of that house, and we’d do odd jobs like that. He didn’t have a company, but he liked to still be hands-on in fixing up houses.”
But above all, Reid said if it wasn’t for Rice, he wouldn’t be the employee he is today.
“I was waiting for the elevator, and I had gotten an internship with a company in Montgomery, Alabama, so I was excited and was telling him about it,” he said. “Right as we were leaving, he handed me a business card for a company called Cloud Construction. He said, ‘I think you’ll like them. You’ll fit in with them.’”
Today, Reid works as an estimator for Cloud Construction and said that one encounter guided him down the right path.
To many, Rice transcended the title of professor. Though his time teaching at the School of Building Science was brief, some say he became the face of the program and will be a lifelong inspiration to them.
“If you visited the building, Roger was going to talk to you,” Hosey said. “If he was at a function, he always introduced himself to everyone possible. He was the most awesome ambassador building science could ever hope for.”
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