President C. L. Max Nikias says that when he was selected as USC’s 11th president last spring, several people urged him to balance the grueling pace of the job with regular exercise.
“In particular, [USC trustees] Ed Roski, Pat Haden, Jeffrey Smulyan and Ron Lane urged me not to let the job get in the way of our health,” Nikias said. For most of the school year, it was tough advice to follow: For 290 days or evenings, the president and the first lady entertained and spent time with the Trojan Family.
This summer, Nikias and first lady Niki C. Nikias headed to Sun Valley, Idaho, where they own a house, for their first vacation since the president took office a year ago.
Vacation for the couple was not about sitting still. They bicycled 30 to 40 miles almost every day, as well as took brisk, two-mile walks after dinner each evening. One day they rode under light snow showers and another day for eight miles under heavy rain.
“Nothing helps reduce the stress of our job like vigorous exercise,” Nikias said. “In order to relax mentally, we need to feel physically exhausted.”
In three weeks, the couple bicycled 557 miles and walked 42 miles, for a total of 599 miles. “We decided it was OK not to push for that last mile to break 600 – 599 was just right,” he said.
Vacation also was the Nikiases’ chance to reflect and step back. “We read books, watched movies. And we really took in the natural beauty around us,” he said.
“We are so grateful to Elaine and Kenneth Leventhal for introducing us to Sun Valley – Idaho is truly the American West. When I was first named provost years ago, they invited us here and showed us such warmth and hospitality,” said Nikias of the Leventhals, longtime university supporters who named the USC Leventhal School of Accounting.
In contrast to their schedule during the school year, vacation offered the president and first lady a chance to be more solitary and take a break from dinners out. “We cooked at home most nights,” Nikias said. “Sun Valley is the kind of place where you learn to enjoy the simple things in life, like grilling at 9 p.m. on the balcony with a view of the mountains – very different from L.A.
“Chairman Roski suggested that, next year, we all bike ride together on the island of Cyprus.”
The Nikiases did relent to an indulgence or two while on vacation. To refuel during their bike rides, they stopped to eat “breakfast for lunch” at Shorty’s (shortysdiner.com/) in Hailey, Idaho. The actor Bruce Willis established this 1950s-style diner in 1996, and it changed hands a few years later. “We got to know the current owners, who are from L.A. originally,” Nikias said.
And the president raved about another Sun Valley dining hotspot in Ketchum.
“One evening we treated ourselves to a night out at Grumpy’s, known for its hamburgers,” Nikias said. “They are greasy, but they are very good!”
While at Grumpy’s, Nikias wore his USC hat. A woman spotted him and said, “ ‘Hey, there’s a Trojan. Fight on!’ as she flashed our fight call – then she realized who I was and said ‘Oh, my, it’s the president!” he said.
She turned out to be a Trojan Mom from Seattle, proud to have a son in his junior year at USC. “Trojans,” Nikias said, “are everywhere!”
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