BOONE, N.C. — Appalachian State University alumnus Mark E. Ricks ’89 is the 2022 recipient of the university’s Distinguished Alumni Award, which recognizes individuals who have attained extraordinary distinction and success in their career field and have demonstrated exceptional and sustained leadership in their community.
Ricks found his way to App State from his home in northern Virginia and immediately knew Boone was the place for him. With a criminal justice degree, Ricks went on to head up the protective services group for Mars Inc. and now owns and operates a horse sanctuary in Virginia.
Watch this video to learn more about Ricks and why he received App State’s Distinguished Alumni Award.
Mark Ricks: How I got to Appalachian State is a really funny story because I grew up in northern Virginia. My parents were both educators: My dad was an elementary school principal, and my mom was a kindergarten teacher. I had never heard of Appalachian State in any way, shape or form. And so then we took the … you know, piled in the car and headed down. And as soon as I crossed the mountain, it was funny, they had a snowstorm. I remember crossing over the mountain and just being, like, in awe. It was just beautiful. And so we took the tour and walked around and I realized this was a great place for me. Not only was it just the right feel, but what really struck me, for me, personally, was that it was six hours away. And I knew that there was no hope that I would be going home on weekends.
MR: I couldn’t wait to get to college. I couldn’t wait to get, you know, away from home and start living life. And Boone was a dry county, which I didn’t realize when I put in my application. That was one of the things that I got a lot of grief from my friends on, like, how in the world did I end up in a place that didn’t have alcohol? But anyway, so I got there. And so it was kind of a different environment. It wasn’t anything I was used to. And it was a lot of fun. It was just … it was … I tell kids now when I meet kids, or parents who have kids who are thinking about going to school, that there is no better place in the world to go to college than Appalachian State.
MR: So when I got to App State, my thought was business. I was going to be a business major, go into marketing, sales … this is my future. And then I met Dr. Randy Edwards, and that changed my whole life because I could not get through accounting. And he had every reason and every right to send me on my way. So I realized after spending two years as a business major that I needed to do something else. So I thought, criminal justice, that’s the way. And that was actually the best decision I could have ever made. But just … it was the courses I enjoyed a lot more, not only the criminology courses, but that also got me in the political science realm, that got me in history, sociology, psychology, all those things kind of came together. And those are courses I really enjoyed.
MR: So when I decided to go into criminology, or criminal justice, originally, it was to be a lawyer. I wanted to go to law school. And as I continued my ongoing struggles to make class and to do my assignments and the academic side of college life, I realized that there was no way I was going to law school. So what’s plan B? Well, plan B for me was doing an internship with a company founded by former Secret Service agents. I met a guy playing church softball named Tom Pokusa, and I said, “Hey, Tom, you know, I know you work for a security company. Is there any chance that they would be willing to take on an intern?” So, fast-forward now, it’s late ’80s, he said, “Well, we’re in the middle of hiring some folks, so we can offer you a job at $10 an hour and you can, you know, get on the phones and work on the hiring line.” And then a month later, they offered me my first full-time job at $20,000 a year. And I thought I’d hit the lottery. It was great. And I spent 15 years there, worked my way up to managing director before I left to start my career and start a security program at Mars Incorporated, and in that process, I went on to travel the world and yeah. So I’ve run protective operations in over 80 countries, and that’s how it all started.
MR: So as I, as I’ve told people before, I was the ultimate bad alumni. I was the guy that skirted the calls … never sent … I think I sent money in one time to the Yosef Club. I think I sent $30 one time. And I was at the beach, and it was Labor Day weekend, and we’re watching App State and Tennessee, and I’m getting excited. I’m getting fired up. I’m starting to yell and scream and get loud. Unfortunately, we didn’t win, but what did come out of that was my son-in-law looked at me and he said, “I would love to go to a football game down there.” And I said, “Well, you know, I haven’t been back in …” I couldn’t even remember how long it’s been since I’ve been back. So I said, I said, well, let me reach out. I’ll make a phone call. We’ll see about getting tickets. Called, got this guy, Brian Tracy, answers the phone and he said, “Well, we’d love to host you for a game.” So I went down, I saw Texas State. We get there and again, the way the university had grown, the growth of the university, I was just blown away, I mean, I was blown away by how amazing it looked.
MR: I got to meet Doug Gillin. I loved Doug’s enthusiasm. I loved his vision. And then from Doug, I got to go up farther and was introduced to Dr. Sheri Everts and immediately meeting Sheri, I got the same passion, the vision and her vision for what she wanted Appalachian State to become. When you make an investment, you make an investment in the people. And for me, it was an easy investment between Sheri and Doug and Brian and everything that was going on. So it was just an easy, easy way to get involved, and I was fortunate enough that they welcomed me in.
MR: So when I got to meet Sheri and Doug, and I got to be involved more with the university, I got to be privy to some opportunities and they asked me to be on the board. And that was something that I never even dreamed of. I was blown away. It was an honor. I’m still … every day, I still just shake my head and can’t believe that I get to be part of that. You have all those people with all this passion and all this excitement for Appalachian, it was easy to get fired up. It was easy to be part of the team, and with the goals and what we’re doing and going forward. I was just fortunate that they let me be in the room. And one of the things that’s important to me is that each and every one of us are blessed in many different ways. I am overly blessed. I think I’ve gone to that well many, many times, and so it’s extremely important for me to give back. When you get to that point where you can help, you’ve got to help. If we don’t help each other out, we’re never going to accomplish anything, and it just feels right. And it’s just the way I’ve always been, and now I’m in a position where I’m fortunate enough that I can actually do it.
MR: So I think that the highest honor that you can receive as an alumni of Appalachian State is to receive the Distinguished Alumni Award. And the fact that I am being given that award is mind-blowing to me because obviously my path, my journey, my 19-year-old self would have never seen this moment coming. To be able to accept this award, to be able to be in the company that I’m in. When Sheri called me and said, “Congratulations, you’re the award winner this year,” I said, “You’re kidding.” I read our magazine that comes out. I read these stories of these great alumni and some of the things they’ve accomplished. And I have a passion for Appalachian State, but what I’ve done doesn’t compare. And I’m in awe of those people. I’m in awe of the predecessors that have won this award, and I’m honored to be in that club. So I will not be … I’ll be sitting in the back of the room just in awe the whole time. I am truly honored.
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About the College of Arts and Sciences
The College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) at Appalachian State University is home to 17 academic departments, two centers and one residential college. These units span the humanities and the social, mathematical and natural sciences. CAS aims to develop a distinctive identity built upon our university's strengths, traditions and unique location. The college’s values lie not only in service to the university and local community, but through inspiring, training, educating and sustaining the development of its students as global citizens. More than 6,400 student majors are enrolled in the college. As the college is also largely responsible for implementing App State’s general education curriculum, it is heavily involved in the education of all students at the university, including those pursuing majors in other colleges. Learn more at https://cas.appstate.edu.
About Appalachian State University
As the premier public undergraduate institution in the Southeast, Appalachian State University prepares students to lead purposeful lives. App State is one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina System, with a national reputation for innovative teaching and opening access to a high-quality, affordable education for all. The university enrolls more than 21,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and 80 graduate majors at its Boone and Hickory campuses and through App State Online. Learn more at https://www.appstate.edu.