KUT host/producer Stephen Rice died suddenly over the weekend from complications after an accident he suffered while on vacation in Colorado. He was 46.
Stephen’s earnest on-air delivery was kind, calming and uniquely Austin – a presence he carried with him off-air and into the lives of those who knew him.
“Stephen was more than an announcer and employee – he was a friend, colleague and a fan,” said KUT General Manager Stewart Vanderwilt. “You could hear a smile in his voice and his love for his role in guiding listeners through KUT’s programs.”
That smile was present the day he was born, according to his sister DeDe Conner, who was 9 when she met him for the first time.
"I brought my whole Brownie Troop in to see him right after he got there; mother was not very happy about that," she told KUT's Jimmy Maas. "He had an infectious smile, and he laughed a lot and was always glad to see you. He had just a sunny disposition from day one. He was a very happy guy."
Stephen was the youngest of five. "He was the clown and the peacemaker of the family. That was his role," his sister Vivian Fowler said.
"I was the fixer-enforcer, so we didn’t always get along," she laughed.
The thing about Stephen that stands out most for Fowler was that he wouldn't let her get away with just saying "good" when he asked how she was doing.
"He’d say, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ And he would never let me get away with being vague; he wanted to really know,” she said.
Melanie McLeroy, who has known Stephen for 23 years, echoed that sentiment. "He was the type of person who made everyone he interacted with feel like they were the only person in the universe," she said.
Stephen grew up in Tyler and moved to the area to attend what was then-Southwest Texas State in San Marcos. He made the move up I-35 to Austin after college.
His radio career got into gear nine years ago when he began hosting OutCast, a beloved outlet for LGBTQ voices in Central Texas, on KOOP Radio. He was a volunteer on the show while managing his own printing company.
Along with his husband Mark Erwin, Stephen was a stalwart leader in Austin’s LGBTQ community. He supported and volunteered for AIDS Services of Austin, the Octopus Club, the Hill Country Ride for AIDS and Zach Scott Theatre. He was also a board member for Equality Texas.
“I think hundreds of events and a cumulative millions of dollars were raised thanks to Stephen Rice’s insight, his enthusiasm," his friend Lance Avery Morgan said. "And, him just being on any committee or hosting, you knew it operated at a high level.”
Another friend, Mike Scheshuk, said Stephen could control a crowd with incredible amounts of laughter.
"That laughter was compounded and backed up by an extremely generous heart," he said. "He was so involved in so many charitable organizations here in Austin that it’s enviable."
Stephen came to KUT in August 2013 as a part-time host/producer after some urging from friends.
“He was getting frustrated with his business," said McLeroy. "His best friend from high school, Billy, kept saying, ‘What’s your dream, dude? What’s your dream?’ And pushing him to pursue that dream. And out of the blue, Stephen said, ‘Oh, I want to be a deejay on NPR.’"
"It was life changing for him and it was truly what he was meant to do," she said.
Stephen became full time in March 2015, working weeknights and on Sunday mornings. His passion was producing the station's Sonic IDs – the short vignettes of Austin life used to identify the station every day. Stephen was committed to giving listeners the chance to tell their stories on their terms – no matter how weird they got.
We're asking you to record any stories, memories or thoughts you have about Stephen and send them to SonicID@kut.org. His neighbor, Madison Inselmann, sent us this memory from January:
Texas Standard's Laura Rice remembers most listeners would think she and Stephen were related, but that, above all, she'll remember his ability to make someone feel special.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Thursday at Episcopal Church of the Resurrection. A reception at his favorite bar Rain on West Fourth Street will follow.
Below is a collection of reaction on social media to his death.
Austin has lost a vital LGBT leader in Stephen Rice. Diane & I send our condolences to his husband Mark Erwin & all his friends & family. https://t.co/1S17CEoKa1
— Mayor Adler (@MayorAdler) July 17, 2017