Northeast Johnson County residents this week are mourning the loss of Rich Nitsch, the former FBI investigator who devoted himself to volunteering in local schools, introducing students to the sport of wrestling and advocating on behalf of the state’s K-12 education system.
Nitsch died unexpectedly Thursday at the age of 64.
After retiring from the FBI, Nitsch — who started his career as a high school wrestling coach — and his wife Susan became pillars of their school communities, serving in key roles in the Belinder Elementary and Indian Hills PTAs and the Shawnee Mission East Band Booster Club.
Nitsch was also one of the founders of the group that became GameOn for Kansas schools, the advocacy organization that now plays a significant role in efforts to promote a strong public education system across the state.
Eric Mikkelson, the former Prairie Village city councilman, recalls that it was Nitsch who convened the first meeting of the GameOn group.
“He was a ‘zero-to-one’ creator,” Mikkelson said.
Among his volunteer contributions, Nitsch helped build the Indian Hills wrestling program and served as its coach. The team won this year’s district championship.
“Rich was an incredible man and role model not only students at Indian Hills but also the adults that he touched,” said Indian Hills principal Scott Sherman.
As one of the leaders of the Kansas City Wrestling Club, Nitsch organized summer camps that featured Olympian Melvin Douglas, who Nitsch had coached as a high schooler.
“The only reason those camps happened is because Rich coached Melvin in high school,” said Marc Erickson, a friend and fellow KCWC coach. “Rich organized the camps himself and paid for everything so that all kids could go for free.”
Stories such generosity are abundant. With his daughter Natalie involved in SM East’s band, Nitsch has been a key volunteer for the program during director Alex Toepfer’s first years in the job. Toepfer said he saw Nitsch step up to help kids in need time and again.
“Rich’s impact on at-risk kids was huge,” Toepfer said. “I knew of one kid whose lunch account Rich would donate $50 to, anonymously, just to make sure he was eating enough. He did stuff like that all the time.”
He was also a positive presence who had the ability to brighten the day of everyone he encountered.
“He was so connected, so adored by everyone. No matter what was happening in your day, just a few short minutes with him left you smiling,” said Belinder Elementary principal Steve Yeoman. “He really went out of his way to build relationships with students and families and always believed in the good in everyone.”
His family is organizing a celebration of life. Details to come.