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story.lead_photo.caption “I’d been distant from the foundation because my young self didn’t want to be defined by a decision my family had made. I didn’t want a tragedy to define me. But when I got closer to that photography degree, I toiled over why people wouldn’t give money to such an important thing.” - Nicholas David Leopoulos

Things do change. Nick Leopoulos has a fine arts degree in photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design. He also has a wife, Ashley, and a daughter, 15-month-old Ava.

Ask him for a family photograph and he takes out, maybe a little bit sheepishly, his iPhone.

Neither does his place of work, an operation dedicated to education in the arts, have much of his art, just one photo on the wall of his office.

That place is the Thea Foundation, on North Little Rock's Main Street in a century-old building that itself is a work of art. Of this workplace, Leopoulos is executive director, motivated by the mission of his parents, Paul and Linda, and maintaining the memory of his sister, Thea.

The photo on the wall is of a tour group at Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. There are sun and shadow, red bricks and sharp angles, and a group of people listening to a tour guide. Except for one tourist incongruously looking away.

There's one in every crowd, the photo, and Nick Leopoulos, suggest.

Of the many arts, and in an artistic family, why photography?

"Photography is a literal translation of a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional image," Leopoulos says. "That's a huge challenge."

Leopoulos did much of his early photography with a Minolta 35-millimeter camera and Ilford 100 film, black and white being his forte. "It's a challenge to find what elements of photography appeal to you and to implement them."

Now, technology makes it possible for cameras to automatically control for conditions based on algorithms on a sensor.

"Show anyone a silver print, and people are mesmerized by what photography was before the digital age," he adds.

Things do change.

So it is with Leopoulos, 33. His younger self wasn't much interested in the family foundation. Now, he's committed to advancing the foundation's determination to reverse what it calls the trend of devaluing the arts in schools.

To that end, it offers college scholarships that don't necessarily have to be used in the study of the arts, having given roughly 400 such scholarships, valued at more than $2.3 million, since 2001. This year, 36 scholarships will be awarded for competitions in visual arts, performing arts, slam poetry, creative writing, fashion design and film. And it has given more than $1.5 million in art supplies to hundreds of schools across the state.

Leopoulos hadn't always been on board. In college, getting that bachelor's degree, he was apart.

"I'd been distant from the foundation because my young self didn't want to be defined by a decision my family had made. I didn't want a tragedy to define me. But when I got closer to that photography degree, I toiled over why people wouldn't give money to such an important thing."

More about that tragedy soon.

A subsequent master's degree in arts administration, also from the Savannah College of Art and Design, led to a job back home at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. Then, from 2011 to 2019, Leopoulos served as assistant director of the Thea Foundation.

In July, he became executive director. As his father said, "we switched places."

Niki Stewart knows about the switch. She's chief learning and engagement officer at the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia and previously worked at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

"Nick is one of those rare folks who is even-tempered and excited at the same time," Stewart said. "He makes important decisions in a thorough approach but is always excited about the results."

Stewart was head of school programs at Crystal Bridges and was at a conference in North Little Rock. Someone suggested she "meet the people at Thea." Stewart walked from the Wyndham Riverfront hotel to the foundation offices. "From that moment we clicked."

"We would think and strategize about how to expand their reach," Stewart adds. "I offered insights into the northern part of the state because they work mostly in the southern part."

What the Thea Foundation and Leopoulos do is personal, Stewart says.

"Nick is interested in each and every individual. That makes him unique as an arts administrator. He's interested in the impact of the arts on individual lives. Most people in foundations are interested in broad impact and reaching as many people as possible. But for Nick, it's the individual.

"It's personal for Nick and the whole family because they saw that impact on Thea."

REMEMBERING THEA

Thea Leopoulos was 17 in 2001 when she perished in a car wreck on Interstate 630 in Little Rock.

It was Memorial Day. Paul and Nick were at the movies to see a film -- Pearl Harbor -- Thea was excited about. The Arkansas State Police called, and the family met at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

"It was a blur," Nick Leopoulos says. "You go through a cold shock that numbs your recollection. You develop a different way of thinking. You become a different person, and it's up to you to decide how those differences will affect you.

"We definitely turned inward, and loved each other," he says of the family.

He and Thea got along well as kids, Leopoulos says.

"We had our typical spats. I was an extremely introverted individual. She was extremely extroverted, popular and had lots of friends. She always carved out a place for me when her friends were around."

A photo of Thea -- bright and beautiful -- appears in the print version of the foundation's annual report. Some of her artwork hangs in the foundation's offices, most notably her blue and white painting of blues great B.B. King. A replica covers a whole wall in the conference room.

Leopoulos remembers Thea finishing that painting during the great ice storm of the winter of 2000 when thousands of homes and businesses in Central Arkansas went dark for days. Thea hung a flashlight from the ceiling to get it done, Leopoulos says.

A third sibling, oldest brother Thaddeus, is an acoustical engineer and lives with his family in Houston.

"He was a very concrete influence in Thea's life and my life," Leopoulos says. "Siblings are kind of your first friendships. He's an energetic, fun, sharp, calculated person. Thaddeus focused a lot of his attention on making sure we were OK. He was very observant of us."

Leopoulos credits both parents for the siblings' artistic leanings. Paul was a ceramicist, and Linda a lover of the natural world.

"She kept us outside a lot," Leopoulos says. "She found a way to find the details of the natural world." He particularly recalled going outside after a storm. "I carry this with me every day of my life."

CALM, COOL AND COLLECTED

Danny Fletcher, arts director for the Little Rock School District, has known the Leopoulos family since Thaddeus and Thea were his trumpet students at Horace Mann Junior High. He's also a past president of the board of the Thea Foundation.

"I've watched Nick grow and mature," Fletcher says. "He's cool, has a very cool demeanor. He's learned a lot from Paul, who's a go-getter. The son displays all that, and more.

"Thea reminds me a lot of Nick. Very calm. She saw the connection between learning in the arts and learning in other ways."

Nick is now the "top dog," Fletcher says.

"We've been planning that for years. He makes good, strong decisions that will grow the foundation."

The foundation's outreach under Leopoulos is "growing, growing, growing. People want to give, but they don't know how to give. We help them spend their money."

Fletcher sees a bright future for the foundation under Leopoulos.

"Like James Brown used to say, no doubt about it."

To remove all doubt and solidify the foundation's finances, it has worked to build an endowment.

"If you call yourself a foundation," Leopoulos says, "you give away money. We were operating originally by asking for money and giving it away. But we don't want to do tin-cupping -- raising and giving. That's not a bad thing, but it takes a lot of energy. What you want is a perpetual way of paying out."

A fundraising expert was hired, contact was made with people interested in education and the endowment grew past $2 million.

"Arkansas is the most giving state in the union per capita," Leopoulos says. "We saw that in stark view."

For praise, he singled out the Clinton Family Foundation, John and Robyn Horne, Natalie and Win Rockefeller, and Chip and Cindy Murphy.

"People who worked hard to get where they are, they're fond of giving. Nonprofits need to dedicate themselves to helping individuals who want to help.

"It's easy when you believe in your mission," Leopoulos says.

It helps, too, that Paul Leopoulos and former President Bill Clinton grew up together in Hot Springs.

"His prominence is a definite connection to our visibility," Nick Leopoulos says. "When Paul expressed a desire to start this foundation, Bill praised the concept and said to be serious about it."

The desire to work in a foundation is a family affair. Ashley, Nick's wife, has worked for the Arkansas Children's Hospital Foundation for the past five years. "She's connected to a mission, for sure," he says, calling Ashley "an incredible storyteller."

GETTING IT STRAIGHT

Are there misconceptions about the Thea Foundation? A few, and worth mentioning.

First and foremost, Leopoulos said, is that the foundation only operates in North Little Rock. Next is that it only operates in Pulaski County. Next is that it only operates in central Arkansas.

"That's simply not true."

As an example, the foundation has awarded grants to a teacher in Springdale's Monitor Elementary School -- for ukuleles. Note also connections with schools in Fort Smith, Clarendon, White County and Cross County.

Another misconception, Leopoulos says, is this: "The arts are an ancillary, something not necessary to a student's education.

"Fighting that misconception is huge."

Engagement in the arts, he says, exposes students to new lexicons and builds their vocabularies. They also learn to defend their projects.

"There are brilliant students all over the state," Leopoulos says. "And we have to overcome the stereotype that there isn't a living to be made in the arts."

Fresh into his new job, Leopoulos has goals.

Short-term, "not to break anything, to maintain the incredible thing Paul and Linda built."

Long-term, "to educate people about our mission to get more students involved in our arts competitions. To be a different level of community player in the state. To open up new opportunities for arts education in our state."

Stewart weighs in from Philadelphia.

"The Thea Foundation is so special because it invests in people where they are, and that's so personal. It has the ability to retain that personal touch while growing to reach more people."

For the future, Stewart said, she expects Leopoulos to "up the reach and impact. I'm sure that's what he's focused on. If anyone can do that, it's him."

And an elementary student weighs in from Barling through a handwritten thank-you note.

"With your donation," she wrote, "you have allowed a new world of art to enter our school."

SELF PORTRAIT

• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: April 1, 1986, Little Rock

• BEST ADVICE I EVER GOT: Choose the tough thing to do. You'll set better standards for your future self. From Thaddeus Leopoulos.

• WORST ADVICE I EVER GOT: Habaneros aren't that hot. Look how small it is. Just eat the whole thing.

• ADVICE FOR NEW FATHERS: Gentlemen, put your ego aside. Your partner just completed one of the most difficult journeys any human is asked to undertake. Be in total service to her and your baby and give them all the love you have.

• I DRIVE A: Surprisingly nimble 2007 Honda CR-V EX-L in glacier blue.

• MY WIFE DRIVES A: 2018 Honda CR-V EX-L in gunmetal metallic. Notice a trend?

• NONPROFITS TODAY MUST: Invest what they can in incredibly passionate and talented people. Celebrate them and their successes. Allow them to grow. Hold on to them.

• NONPROFITS TODAY MUST NEVER: Be complacent. Always assess your programming to determine if you're making the biggest impact you can.

• MY EXTENDED FAMILY IS: Full of passion and stories about their loved ones.

• I LOVE NORTH LITTLE ROCK BECAUSE: It is a naturally beautiful community full of citizens concerned with the well-being of others.

• FAVORITE JUNK FOOD: The Hog as a stuffy with spicy white sauce from Damgoode Pies. Though I wouldn't call it junk. It's art.

• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Dad

Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/CARY JENKINS
“It was a blur. You go through a cold shock that numbs your recollection. You develop a different way of thinking. You become a different person, and it’s up to you to decide how those differences will affect you.” - Nicholas David Leopoulos

High Profile on 12/01/2019

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