A familiar figure is back in the Friends University Fine Arts Division.
When the the chair of Friends’ Fine Arts Division left suddenly over the summer, the university made a call to the man its fine arts building was named after.
Cecil Riney, who retired from the university in 2005 after 45 years of directing the Singing Quakers, is serving as interim chair of the Fine Arts Division this year.
Stephen Eaves, the previous chair, left Friends in June to take a similar position at Belmont University in Nashville. The 84-year-old Riney is now tasked with overseeing the division he spent decades building to national prominence.
On campus and in the greater Wichita community, Riney is “an institution,” as jazz faculty member Lisa Hittle put it.
Under Riney, Friends’ Singing Quakers choir became known as a top small-college choir, often performing across the country and overseas. The choir has performed at the White House (for a Christmas Tree lighting ceremony with President Nixon), Carnegie Hall, Europe (East and West Berlin), Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Mexico, among others.
Shortly after Riney retired in 2005, the university renamed its fine arts building – then known as Whittier Fine Arts Center – after Riney.
Cecil Riney directed the Singing Quakers for 45 years. Under Riney’s direction, the choir rose to prominence as one of the top small-college choirs in the nation.
A large portrait of Riney hangs prominently in the main hallway by Sebits Auditorium (which Riney said he “generally avoids” walking past).
A Friends fine arts student raised his eyebrows when asked by an Eagle reporter for directions to Riney’s personal office.
“We don’t go in there,” the student said, joking about the magnitude of Riney’s presence in the hall.
Despite his lofty reputation as a pillar of Friends’ Fine Arts Division, Riney is almost loath to talk about himself.
Instead, Riney spent the first 15 minutes of a recent interview talking about the school’s faculty and staff and about the generosity of donors to the Fine Arts Division. Faculty members say that’s characteristic of Riney.
“He is very, very humble, and one of the first things that he said to us as a group was, ‘I’m not here to be your boss – I’m just here to help you and support you in any way that I possibly can,’” Hittle said.
In his new(ish) role, Riney said he works less directly with students than he did when he directed the Singing Quakers, “but I still have, hopefully, a good relationship with the students here.”
“They know, I hope, that I support their efforts a great deal – whether its jazz, or choral, or whatever, I’m here to support them, as well as the faculty,” he said. “I enjoy it very, very much.”
They know, I hope, that I support their efforts a great deal – whether its jazz, or choral, or whatever, I’m here to support them, as well as the faculty.
Cecil Riney, on his relationship with current Friends students
Riney works Mondays to Thursdays part-time, though he often comes to concerts at the school on weeknights. He is responsible for fundraising, coordinating events in the Fine Arts Division, and helping promote the department.
Riney kept busy in his years of retirement, conducting Friends’ Singing Quaker Alumni Choir and serving as a music minister at Chapel Hill United Methodist Church. He also enjoys near-daily workouts with his wife at the North YMCA.
Over the summer, Riney retired from his position at Chapel Hill, “thinking I’d take it a little easier,” he said.
Within two weeks, he got the call requesting he return to Friends for a year until a new permanent chair is hired. Riney, being Riney, obliged.
Hittle, director of the jazz program at Friends, said it is “indescribably wonderful” working with Riney again. Riney originally hired her at Friends 28 years ago, she said.
“We didn’t know what we were going to do this year, and I think he’s really doing us a huge favor,” she said. “I can tell you that our morale in the department is just great. Everybody is just so happy to have him back, even though it’s temporary. It’s just a good feeling.”
Riney’s son, Doug, took after his father – directing Wichita East High School’s choirs for many years. Doug Riney now works part-time directing choirs at the Wichita Classical School and conducts musicals at Christian Youth Theater.
Doug Riney said his father is “just a real stabilizing force in the fine arts center at Friends.”
“People just enjoy having his presence there – and he enjoys it a lot,” Doug Riney said. “It just kind of keeps his endorphins kicking.”
Friends University will begin its search for a new chair of the Fine Arts Division this fall.