Rickards' legacy lives on through 'Loyal Readers'
“That’s right, until I croak,” he told The Chronicle in 2011. “Something they can look forward to.”
Three weeks after his final blog post on Jan. 16, Rickards—more commonly known as Fact Checker or Duke Check—died due to renal failure at age 72. He lived in Monroe Township, N.J.
Rickards is best known on campus by his popular blog, which comments on Duke's affairs and administrators. Although admired by many faculty members for his ability to draw attention to controversial University topics, Rickards, Trinity '63 and Law '66 and a former Chronicle editor-in-chief, ruffled some feathers in his quest to get to the bottom of stories.
"I've always thought that he really was quite selfless about this. He had no personal gain to expect from his efforts, and his efforts were considerable, and anyone who read the blog with any care could tell that," said Thomas Pfau, Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of English, who regularly read Rickards' blog.
Although Rickards was engaged in Duke affairs through his blog, he had a varied and exciting life outside of the University. After leaving Duke, Rickards worked at CBS, NBC, ABC and the Associated Press, and was later a part-time consultant.
Blog posts were often centered on the input of a single, anonymous source—the most prominent of which was known as the "Allen Building mole." From there, Rickards would often reach out to administrators demanding answers. In "Ask the Mouthpiece" blog posts, for example, Rickards would ask Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, to comment on campus issues.
With nicknames like Mike the Mouthpiece for Schoenfeld or Uncle Dick for President Richard Brodhead, Rickards often called out administrators for perceived wrongdoings or the alleged obfuscation of facts. Rickards was known to some as a critical writer and often a thorn in some sides, largely because of his controversial posts, as well as his proliferation of emails sent to administrators, faculty and Chronicle staff writers.
Still, his Pro-Duke stance—as made apparent at the top of his blog page—and dedication to making sure the University was heading in the right direction was respected by many.
"We may have had our differences on issues, but I always admired, and never questioned, his lifelong passion and love for Duke," Schoenfeld wrote in an email Wednesday.
Although Rickards often looked for conspiracy when none existed, he did shed light on many topics, said John Burness, former vice president for public affairs and government relations and current visiting professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy.
"There were times he totally got it wrong, but there were also times he got it right," Burness said. "I'm sad he died."
After Rickards caught Douglas Knight, the University president from 1963-69, in a lie while serving as editor of The Chronicle, he formed a serious distrust of the administration, Burness said.
Despite sometimes getting facts wrong, Rickards' maintained the blog due to a love for the University and did not have malicious intentions, Burness added.
"Clearly he got quite a following, and he provided a forum for people who wanted an outlet to express concern," Burness said. "It was like the old muckrackers in journalism."
Taylor Doherty, Trinity '12 and former news editor of The Chronicle, wrote a profile of Rickards while working for The Chronicle after seeing the growing popularity of the Duke Check blog. He recalled that Rickards was originally an avid Chronicle commenter going by the name of Fact Checker and did not choose to start his own blog until August 2009.
Meeting in a hotel lobby in New Jersey, Doherty recalled him as gruff and "definitely opinionated," but added that these are not the terms he would first use to describe Rickards.
"One thing I got out of talking with him and meeting him was that he had a sense of humor about all of this," Doherty said. "He enjoyed the writing and had a sense of humor about what he was doing, and that might have been something that didn’t necessarily come across in his blogs."
Rickards is most known for his love of starting spirited dialogue and drawing attention to controversial issues.
"He loved to write and loved to be controversial," said his younger brother, Robert Rickards. "He loved to stir up a little trouble—that was him and that’s the way he lived his whole life. He was very argumentative and stuck by his guns. "
Robert Rickards added that his brother also loved to travel, with his favorite trips being to San Diego and Europe. One time, he travelled down the Nile River.
Pfau added that Rickards provided an outlet for lively dialogue during a time where there was a "vacuum of public debate."
"He struck me as a very, very good writer," Pfau said. "He was very spirited and direct and at the same time allowed the blog to be what it was—an informal kind of forum."
Some faculty members had become concerned about Rickards' well-being prior to learning of his death.
Usually updated on a daily basis, Rickards' posts halted Jan. 16, causing concern for his "Loyal Readers" after several days had passed. Pfau noted that typically, Rickards informed readers when the blog would be inactive, which he had not done that week.
Prior to passing away, Rickards asked his brother if he could be transferred to Duke Hospital or visit Durham upon his release. Although Ed Rickards never got his final trip to Duke, he will leave a legacy.
"Mr. Rickards was a valuable resource who loved Duke, was deeply concerned about Duke's moral compass, about race and gender, corporatizing, administrative bloat and secrecy," Owen Flanagan, James B. Duke Professor of philosophy and professor of neurobiology, wrote in an email Wednesday. "I hope someone takes up his noble blog. A wonderful gadfly in the Socratic tradition."