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Nils Riess was Chair of ONU Communication and Theatre Arts

UPDATED December 1, 2023

Nils Riess, age 75, of Ada, Ohio, retired professor and Chair of the Communication and Theatre Arts Department of Ohio Northern University, passed away on Saturday, November 11, 2023.  

He was born on April 15, 1948, in Augsburg, Germany, to his Estonian mother who instilled in him a love for his Estonian heritage and Republic of Estonia.

On August 4, 1973, Nils married Susan (Cokinda) Riess who survives in Ada.  Also surviving are his daughters Amanda Riess and Stephanie (Royce) Van Atta, both of Ada, and his two beloved grandchildren, Nilsson Van Atta and Pepin Van Atta.  Surviving are also many of his relatives in Estonia.  

He graduated from Martin Luther High School, Maspeth, Queens, New York City, New York, in 1965 and Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana, in 1969 with a major in Theatre Arts.  Nils served in the United States Coast Guard as a Quartermaster in Alaska, Grand Isle, Louisiana, and Governors Island, New York.  Nils went on to receive a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University.  

He pursued doctoral level work at New York University and Bowling Green State University and in 2014 received an Honorary Doctor of Arts and Humane Letters Degree from Ohio Northern University.

Throughout his career at Ohio Northern University, he directed and produced hundreds of shows, including the Ohio Northern University Holiday Spectacular, hired international and celebrity guest artists, expanded the theatre program to include a dance minor, a BFA in musical theatre, a guest artist program and an international studies program. He founded the International Play Festival, has hosted numerous international artists and facilitated student study programs and internships throughout the world.  He directed the Gala Opening of the Lima Civic Center, featuring Phyllis Diller and Hugh Downs, both natives of Lima.  In retirement, he pursued acting and appeared in numerous films as well as directing in his beloved Estonia.

For his work in the arts, he received many awards, including the Arts in Education Award from the Ohio Arts Council and the Governor’s Award for the Arts in Ohio in 2005.  Nils served as chair of the international judging committee at the 2012 Estonian Theater Drama and Baltic Theatre Festival.  In 2014, his contributions to the arts were recognized with the dedication of the main stage in the Freed Center at Ohio Northern university as, “The Nils and Susan Riess Stage.”

In 2017, Nils was recognized by the Republic of Estonia when he received the Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana as a producer and promoter of Estonian theater by then President of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid.

Nils was incredibly honest, giving, and had a tremendous sense of humor.  He was trusting of the world and always saw the good in humanity.  He had a love of reading and films, a passion for travel both domestically and internationally, and enjoyed quiet times camping with his loved ones.  His family was the most important thing to him and he treasured every moment with them from travelling, quiet times at home, watching his grandson’s soccer games, and sharing uplifting conversations.  He was a wonderful and devoted son and a loyal husband who treasured his wife.

Nils was loved by many, a friend to all, and never met a stranger.

A funeral mass will begin at 11:00 a.m. on December 5, 2023, at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, 300 East Highland Avenue, Ada, Ohio, with Father Daniel Millisor officiating, where Nils was a member. The family will receive visitors from 10:00-11:00 a.m.

In lieu of flowers, the family request memorial contributions be made in memory of Nils to his grandchildren's scholarship fund (make checks payable to his wife, Susan Riess).