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Chancellor Prior memorial service draws hundreds

Hundreds gathered in the Convocation Center Monday, Feb. 6, to celebrate the life of Chancellor David. J. Prior, a man who sparked growth and development at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise while always keeping its students and their future successes at the forefront of his administration.

Chancellor Prior passed away on Feb. 2, 2012, leaving a legacy that will remain with UVa-Wise forever. Friends and colleagues from near and far praised him for his dedication to education, excitement for science, passion for fishing, and love for his wife, Merry Lu and their family.

“David was a scientist first, but he was a dreamer too,” said Teresa A. Sullivan, President of the University of Virginia. Now is the time to “share the talents, life, and remarkable achievement of this wise, warm and wonderful dreamer,” she said.

President Sullivan outlined the chancellor’s many accomplishments during his seven years at the helm of the only branch campus of the University, including record enrollment growth, improvements in buildings and grounds, the successful completion of the Fulfilling the Dream campaign, and construction of several new buildings, including the Convocation Center, a facility that gave Southwest Virginia its first large venue for events.                                                     

“I’ll add my endorsement to the faculty and student resolutions asking that this building be named for David Prior,” President Sullivan said.

UVa-Wise is prepared to carry on its important work because of the strong leadership team that Chancellor Prior put in place, President Sullivan said.

Helen Dragas, the Rector of the University of Virginia, called Chancellor Prior an extraordinary gifted leader who had a “contagious enthusiasm for the College at Wise.”

Marcia Adams Gilliam, a 1983 graduate of UVa-Wise and chair of the college board, said Chancellor Prior was “a dear friend, a mentor and a leader” who inspired her and others with his enthusiasm and vision for the college. She recalled a college-organized trip to Greece in which she spent several hours talking with him about the college as she prepared to begin her duties as head of the UVa-Wise Board. She had no paper with her for notes, so Chancellor Prior used the back of a printed email to jot them down for her. She still has the email.

“That trip will be etched in my memory forever,” she said.

Mrs. Gilliam told the crowd that everyone must continue his legacy of providing affordable access to a liberal arts education because it will help the region and its economy.

“He was the right man in the right place at the right time,” Gilliam said. “We just wish his time had been longer.”

John T. Casteen III, President Emeritus of the University of Virginia, shared snippets of email exchanges he had with Chancellor Prior over the years. Nearly all displayed his wit and his passion for UVa-Wise. He would send brief comments about the latest student to gain admission to medical school, or how Mrs. Prior led an academic discussion on a college trip abroad while he simply carried the bags.

One email announced that the UVa-Wise Cavaliers won the national college football Play of the Year, and the simple message had five exclamation marks, Casteen said as the crowd laughed. Another missive announced the appointment of UVa-Wise Senior Lecturer William Wampler, a former state senator, as head of the New College Institute. “I really admire and like this man,” Chancellor Prior wrote in the email.

Wampler said the three years he spent working at UVa-Wise were three of the happiest of his life, and that he dreaded informing Chancellor Prior that he was leaving to take the executive director position at NCI.

“David Prior was a man who meant so much to so many people,” Wampler said. “I truly believe that the relationship between the University and the College at Wise is as strong as it has ever been.”

Chancellor Prior is survived by his wife, Merry Lu, daughter Andrea and her husband, Tom, and son, Christopher and his wife, Sarah.

Photo by Tim Cox.

U.Va President Teresa A. Sullivan, John Casteen III, U.Va President Emeritus and U.Va Rector Helen Dragas