Blue Devil of the Week: The Design of Leadership

Theatre background helps Richard Riddell set the stage for university’s senior leadership to thrive

Vice president and university secretary Richard Riddell helps create the conditions for Duke's senior leadership to get things done.
Vice president and university secretary Richard Riddell helps create the conditions for Duke's senior leadership to get things done.

Richard Riddell

Vice president and university secretary

Years at Duke: 25

What I do at Duke:

Riddell’s role is crucial yet varied. Much of his job is focused on building and maintaining the relationship between the university president, trustees, administrators, students and faculty.

“I function as the chief of staff for the president, so that means I do what will help the president advance his priorities in terms of projects and collaboration with senior leadership,” he said. “That kind of feeds into the work I do with the Board of Trustees. The work with the board is to oversee the relationship of the university – the administration, the faculty and the students – to the board and help the chair of the board develop the meeting agendas and the work of the board.

“… There’s a lot of listening, understanding what the situation is, the problem to be solved and mobilizing the resources to advance to a solution.”

What he loves about Duke:

With April sunshine pouring through the window of his Allen Building office, Riddell had two answers.

“… I don’t think the campus has ever looked any more beautiful.

“… The other thing that comes to mind is the quality of the people at Duke, both their sense of purpose and their sense of friendship.”

A memorable day at work:

“I do remember the first day that Dick (Brodhead) was in the office. ... He was standing in the hall just sort of looking around and ready to go. The most recent day like that was the day we announced Vince Price as the new president last December. That was an exciting day, the culmination of a search and a real sense of the university building upon success and moving into a new era.”

A special object/memorabilia in his office:

Prior to assuming his post at the university, Riddell’s career was in theatre. After earning a Ph.D at Stanford, he was a lighting designer on Broadway and held high-ranking positions in theatre programs at the University of California San Diego, Harvard and Duke.

A nod to that part of his journey can be found on his office wall where he has show posters, including one for Big River, the Broadway production that earned Riddell a Tony Award for lighting design. Also on the wall hangs a poster from the English National Opera’s 1989 production of The Return of Ulysses, for which Riddell designed the lighting.

The Return of Ulysses was a very memorable production,” he said. “Every once in a while, when I was in the theatre working, you’d have those productions that were just a memorable synthesis of different elements. In that case, that was one of beautiful renaissance music and visual design.”

First ever job:

At 14, Riddell worked at a snack bar in his hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri.

 “I served people that wanted hamburgers and french fries and Cokes,” Riddell said. “… It was my first paycheck. I can still see it on my social security statement. There it is, the first time I earned money.”

Best advice ever received:

One piece of advice that’s stuck with Riddell came from his unflappable cousin Betsy.

“I remember visiting her once when she had, at the time, some young children,” he said. “It was just a chaotic environment. I said ‘Betsy, how do you stay so calm with these kids running around and all the different demands on you?’ And she said ‘Well, I just get up every day and I know that something I don’t expect, will happen. So when it does, it’s not a surprise.’

“I’ve always thought that was a good way to approach a day. Something’s going to happen, I don’t know what it is, but it won’t upset me if it does happen.”

Something most people don’t know about him:

Riddell worked as a disc jockey for St. Joseph radio station KKJO when he was 17. “I worked my way up to the drive time slot, which was the coveted slot,” he said. “… I thought this was the greatest life in the world.” 

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