Every town has at least a couple of those people. You know the ones. They quietly stand out and work behind the scenes helping to make their little part of the world a better place. No small town is complete without them. Well Tuesday, my town sadly lost one of those people. I can honestly say without exaggeration, that in some ways, he was one of the greatest men I have ever known. I was not alone in this feeling. In fact, if Facebook comments are any indication, he was one of the greatest men that many in our town had ever known.
Tony Rico and his wife Mary, were well known in our community and especially in our school district. Mary, for as long as I can remember worked in the school cafeterias, and her lunches were legendary. Tony worked around the schools and was always doing amazing things for both the district and the kids, however, Tony's presence in Mulvane started long before his days working at USD 263.
While his kids were growing up, Tony worked on the railroad, served as a law enforcement officer in Mulvane and finally in 1957 he went to work for the Mulvane school district, where he stayed until his retirement. During his time in the district he held many positions including bus driver and resident artist (a non-official title I am sure). At the time, all of the school buses were numbered and it was difficult for the younger kids to remember or recognize their particular bus numbers, so Tony painted each bus with a different cartoon character. Where kids might have trouble remembering they were on bus 9, they could always remember they were on the Mickey Mouse bus. For years, Mulvane was known to other towns around, as the town with the cartoon character buses and trust me, the kids loved those buses.
Tony was a phenomenal artist and his artistic skills were not just bus worthy. His talent adorned school megaphones, year book covers, murals, prom backdrops, our school mascot and an amazing picture of Iwo Jima that hung for years in the entryway of the old high school. It was said, that from time to time, Tony would gift a student with one of his works of art. Rumor has it that many of those recipients still cherish those gifts to this day. Aside from the schools, Tony's artwork also found it's way into homes, Mulvane businesses and also St. Michael's church. He was a very talented man and he was wonderful about sharing his God given talent with others. Because of this, his work still lives on today.
After word of Tony's death was made public, someone on FB asked people to post their favorite memory of Tony. As you can imagine, there were many many comments, however, the common memories that seemed to pop up were his amazing artistic skill, his kindness, the passing out of bubble gum to the grade school kids and his love of music.
For many years, he was a fixture at the grade school and was well known by all the kids. I believe he worked as janitor and pretty much a jack of all trades around the old building. All the kids knew Tony and he went out of his way to make each and every child in his building feel special. One thing he was especially known for, was always carrying bubble gum. A kid considered himself very special if Tony walked up to him on the playground and gave him a piece of bubble gum. It could absolutely make a good afternoon.....a great afternoon! It was these little moments of kindness and generosity that made this man so special to our community.
While the town adored him, Tony's devotion went beyond the town and schools. He was also very devoted to his church. I was blessed to be able to attend weekly mass with Tony and his wonderful family for many years. In fact, if not for Tony and Mary and a few other families from Mulvane, my church, St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, might not be here today. The story that I remember hearing from Mary many years ago, was that the nearest Catholic church was about 6-10 miles away and these families felt that Mulvane needed it's own Catholic church. They petitioned the diocese to allow a church to be built in Mulvane and after much effort, it was finally okayed, so in 1948, the Rico's and the other families built the original church from the ground up. Once the church was built, Tony, Mary and their kids, were always very active in it. St. Michael's was very special to them and everything they did for the church was done with great love.
I have found, that for every person that remembers Tony, there is a personal story attached. My Tony story is two fold and happened years apart. The first part was about 29 years ago, when I found myself pregnant and unmarried. Back then, it was a much bigger deal socially, than it is now. My mother was humiliated and she felt that it was much better that I "stay in" out of the public eye, which included not going to church while I was showing. Once my son was born though, Mom was fine with me going back to church. I on the other hand was a little nervous as no one had seen me in months and now I was going to church with my newborn. I was pretty sure... people were going to talk! On my first Sunday back, I remember trying to make myself and my son as tiny and unnoticeable as possible as I sat there in the pew and I am sure I looked as nervous as I felt. Suddenly though, I felt a hand on my shoulder and I looked behind me to see Tony. He had the kindest look in his eyes, that I had ever seen. He smiled at me and said, "Welcome Back and God Bless that little one." I immediately teared up and all I could do was smile through the tears. That tiny act of kindness, put my heart at ease and made me feel like I was home. I doubt Tony ever knew what that meant to me, but it truly meant the world.
The second part came 17 years later after I had just lost my mother. To be honest Mom's funeral was a blur to me. I am sure that Tony and Mary were there as they seemed to be at most of the parish funerals but to say definitely.....I can't. However, the following Sunday after Mass as I was walking to my car with the kids in tow and still reeling from losing Mom, Tony and Mary caught up with me. Mary hugged me with tears in her eyes and then Tony took my hand and said, "She is with God and she is happy." Then without another word, they walked away. I almost cried because it was as if he knew what I needed to hear at that moment. Such a random act of kindness that again, meant more to me than I am sure he ever knew.
Yes, Tony was one of those people. He helped to give this town art, music, a church, kindness and the feeling that when you were in his presence, you were with a truly good man. He was a man of great humor and a man of great faith and he lived that faith daily. Someone said that there was just no adjective good enough to describe Tony and I have to say, that I agree. He was a one of a kind man, and Mulvane was very blessed to have him.
Tony died on Tuesday after being ill for some time. Since he had lost his beloved Mary, two years earlier, he had gradually gone down hill. He was 92 and he left behind his 6 kids, 28 grand children, 15 great grand children and he had 2 more on the way.
Tony Rico was never rich and he never had the trappings of what we think of great men having, but everyday, he quietly went about life, loving God, taking care of his family, his church and his town. It simply was who he was and with his kind ways and generous spirit, he made Mulvane and the world.....a much better place to live.
Thank you Tony. RIP
A very special thank you to Ody Rico for permission to use the above photos.