Vire Finds Passion, Purpose After Unexpected Turn
August 17, 2016
Editor's Note: This is one of a series of profiles about alumni of the College of Education and Health Professions.
By Lori Foster, communications assistant
Sometimes in life the unexpected disruption turns out to be a blessing in disguise. A terrible thing happening at the worst possible time led to the course-direction change that put Keith Vire on the path to a career with purpose.
The Vietnam War derailed his plans to make good on a scholarship to study math at nearby College of the Ozarks (now University of the Ozarks) in Clarksville. His draft number was coming up so, after his first semester of college, Vire joined the Navy to stay out of the Army. As a signal man during a two-year stint on an aircraft carrier just off the coast of Vietnam, he had a lot of time to think, read, and talk with a couple of close friends. During that time, he decided he wanted to spend his life doing something he believed was important and chose the special education field.
When he returned from the service, Vire had more educational options thanks to the GI Bill.
“So I went to the University of Arkansas, which is where I would have liked to have gone initially anyway,” he said. “I’m from Arkansas and it’s THE place to be in Arkansas. I’ve always been a U of A fan and I don’t just mean sports – I’m a fan of the University of Arkansas.”
Vire completed a B.S.E. in special education in 1975.
His next step was obtaining a master’s degree in special education learning disabilities from Missouri State University, which he was able to do while working as a resource teacher.
Even though he very much enjoyed his special education teaching position in Springfield Public Schools, he could not resist an opportunity to move back to Northwest Arkansas and run a nonprofit in 1977.
And that is what he has been doing ever since. Only now he is Dr. Keith Vire, CEO of Arkansas Support Network, where he has been since 1990.
When asked what prompted him to return to school for a doctorate in rehabilitation 28 years into his career, Vire quickly blamed Rick Roessler, professor emeritus. They had come to know each other working cooperatively in their field and Vire admired him, “Obviously, as everyone does who knows him.”
Vire had thoughts of earning a Ph.D. ever since he finished his master’s, but he loved his work too much to give it up for any length of time. When Roessler called to encourage him to apply for the Walton Distinguished Doctoral Fellowship, it was the perfect opportunity because it allowed him to continue working while earning the degree. It was a win-win, as Roessler and associate professor Brent Thomas Williams wanted to bring someone into the cohort who had many years of experience in the field to have a positive influence on the younger students.
Add motivated and efficient to the list of descriptors for Vire, because he completed his rehabilitation doctoral degree from the University of Arkansas in 2005, taking only two years to do so. His certification area was program evaluation, which he claims has been a particularly beneficial tool. The ability to evaluate the work they are doing at Arkansas Support Network and, when applying for grants, be able to say they have documented experience in terms of program evaluation, has been a boon in bringing programs to the organization.
As part of the doctoral fellowship, Vire had a number of duties related to helping in Williams’ research and noted they worked well together. He counts Williams as a good friend and colleague and is appreciative of what he continues to do to build the rehabilitation graduate programs at the University of Arkansas.
Vire describes Roessler as that rare combination of great teacher and great researcher. As Vire now teaches part time in the rehabilitation graduate programs, he is aware that most current students have not had the opportunity to meet Roessler, but they all know about him since it is impossible to write a paper on vocational rehabilitation without citing his articles.
Sometime during Vire’s first 13 years in the nonprofit world, he had what he describes as a Damascus road experience and found that Arkansas Support Network was the perfect fit for him when he was ready to move away from facility-based organizations.
ASN serves 1,500 people every year, through 12 programs. It provides support to make it possible for clients to live in their own apartments instead of segregated housing. It offers supported employment and is philosophically opposed to sub-minimum wage workshops. The types of support provided are primarily for people who have developmental disabilities.
As CEO, Vire’s efforts are divided between raising support and advocating for change, not just for ASN but advocacy for people across the state.
“We have to change the landscape for people with disabilities and it gets very frustrating sometimes.”
Referring to one of his heroes, Justin Dart, the father of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Vire poses the question:
“What if he had been a person who didn’t have a disability? Would he have accomplished so much? I think the answer is no and one of the things I have failed at doing is finding the right person who can move the needle in this struggle, someone who is passionate and willing to speak out and also has a disability.”
The organization continues to add to its programs to benefit people with disabilities, because Vire believes it is the right thing to do. That leaves ASN with a never-ending need for more financial support. ASN lives on a razor-thin margin, and it’s Vire’s desire to build an endowment so that his eventual successor “will be able to sleep at night.”
When the day comes for Vire to hand over the reins to his successor, he imagines himself still playing a role in policy work but also having more time to devote to another passion, guitar making. Until then, Vire remains satisfied with that early career-change decision.
“I thought I couldn’t do better in terms of a livelihood – I could make more money but couldn’t do any better in terms of being fulfilled.”