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Bellmore-Merrick alumni start scholarship for late teacher Jack Rice

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For a group of six Wellington C. Mepham High School alumni, Jack Rice was much more than a teacher. In school, he was a mentor, a guide and, perhaps most of all, a friend — a presence in their lives long after they stopped roaming the high school’s halls.

Rice introduced his students to so much of the world, the friends said. He made them realize the convenience of living near a train that travels to the heart of Manhattan, where Rice and the group often found themselves during adventures. Rice shared with them his appreciation for the arts, which included a deep understanding of films and music. He was a major influence on the close-knit friends’ lives, they said.

Years later, the graduates, who left Mepham in 1984, remained close with Rice and his wife, Jeanine Brogan.

When Rice died of prostate cancer in August 2016, at age 67, his former students — which include Michael Bianco, Nicholas Licata, Patrick Marzano, Gregg Penny, Mario Tesoriero and Ed Thompson — knew they had to honor his legacy.

In 2019, after a Christmas dinner with Brogan, the group gave her a written proposal to form the Jack Rice Memorial Scholarship Fund, which would annually award a graduating senior a $1,000 scholarship. The program had already been approved by the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District.

The scholarship is awarded to a senior who intends to major in journalism, education, theater or humanities. It was given out for the first time last year to graduating senior Casey Fahrer. Applications are now open on the Jack Rice Memorial Scholarship Fund website, www.jackricemsf.org, where donations can also be made.

Besides being their English teacher, Rice led the group in several roles that not only highlighted his appreciation for the school’s offerings, but also formed the basis for the sought-after qualities of the scholarship recipients.

Rice was the adviser for the school newspaper, which he revamped and re-energized with the team. “There was dead silence in the homerooms [after a new issue’s premiere] because students were so into it,” Marzano said.

He had the group construct sets and work backstage for some of Mepham’s various plays. After class and even after graduation, Rice was “still a teacher,” Bianco said, by consistently sharing his guidance and wisdom.

“He was much more to us than just a teacher,” Marzano said. “After we graduated, he was just one of the gang. . . He was one of the first adults outside of our own family members who valued our opinions — it was always an exchange of information between peers. He felt he could learn just as much from us as we could from him.”

Even Rice’s style was unusual compared to the often professionally dressed teachers back then. Rather than drive, he preferred to ride his skateboard to school, and he typically wore jeans with a flannel shirt and — “begrudgingly,” Marzano said — a tie under his full beard and long hair.

For students walking into a teacher’s class, “the respect you have for them is theirs to lose,” Licata said. “He always got the respect he was due by respecting his students.”

Working on backstage sets after school was the group’s bridge to hanging out with Rice in the evenings, Penny said. They would often stop by Newbridge Inn for slices of pizza.

In the city, which still had “graffiti-soaked subways,” Tesoriero said, the group would spend time in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. The trips eventually inspired Tesoriero to pursue a career in architecture, he said.

“It opened my eyes,” Tesoriero said. “There’s a lot to learn just by going down the street.”

Thompson, too, was inspired to attend New York University as a business major through his trips. He is convinced Rice’s recommendation letter helped him secure a seat at the school, he said.

After leaving the district in 2003, Rice stayed involved in the community through the Merrick Life, where he was employed. His role extended beyond the typical writer and editor when his affable nature helped him sell advertisements, according to Brogan.

When donations towards the scholarship were opened, it became clear how far of a reach Rice’s influence had. “Our long-term relationship with Jack was unique,” Thompson said, “but in the end we found out it really wasn’t.”

Thousands in donations from past students, peers and neighbors came pouring in, sustaining the future of the scholarship for years to come. The group is considering expanding the number of recipients.

In addition to the funds, scholarship recipients will also receive a book of poetry or prose from Rice’s personal collection. Many have his name signed at the front of the book.

“He continues to hold us together,” Marzano said. “He’s not the last person with those qualities — maybe the scholarship can surface others.”