Obituary of Chancellor David J. Prior

David J. Prior, chancellor of The University of Virginia’s College at Wise, passed away suddenly on Feb. 2, 2012 at the age of 68.

Born in Anniston, Ala., on Dec. 13, 1943, Mr. Prior, a scientist, researcher, passionate educator and avid fisherman, is survived by his wife, Merry Lu, daughter, Andrea, and her husband, Tom, and son, Christopher, and his wife, Sarah. He is also survived by two sisters, Nancy Phillips and her husband, Les, and Carol Younger and her husband, Scott, and several nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his parents, James Earl Prior and Harriet Louisa Prior.

A memorial service is set for Feb. 6 in the UVa-Wise Convocation Center. Visitation begins at noon and the service follows at 2 p.m.

During Mr. Prior’s seven years as Chancellor, UVa-Wise experienced remarkable growth in both student enrollment and the campus in general. It was during his administration that UVa-Wise reached an important milestone as it celebrated the success of its seven-year “Fulfilling the Dream” campaign, which exceeded its goal of $50 million. The campaign created 77 new student scholarship funds and provided funding for academic programs, faculty support, athletics, student life enhancement and several initiatives such as the Marching Highland Cavaliers Band.

“David was a gifted administrator and scientist, and he cared deeply about U.Va.'s College at Wise and the people of his community,” U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said. “With his wife, Merry Lu, he worked hard to build relationships with students, alumni, donors and elected officials.”

U.Va. President Emeritus John T. Casteen III added, “David seemed to have been prepared from birth to lead and love the College at Wise and the people and landscape of Southwest Virginia, Tireless, wise and always focused on whatever would be best for the College, he brought its great promise to maturity.” 

Mr. Prior helped develop the software engineering, computer science, management information systems, biochemistry and music majors at UVa-Wise.

He was at the college’s helm during construction of many buildings, including the Hunter J. Smith Dining Commons, the Gilliam Center for the Arts and two residence halls, as well as the renovation of the Leonard W. Sandridge Science Center. Mr. Prior was extremely proud of the construction of the college’s $30 million Convocation Center, a facility that was funded by the Virginia General Assembly and gave Southwest Virginia its first major venue for hosting conventions, sporting competitions, concerts and other events.

Mr. Prior understood the value of higher education and its role in economic development. He worked closely to develop a STEM initiative to encourage more students to enter the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. He cultivated strategic corporate relations with the region’s corporations and established the Office of Economic Development at the college.

His motto was student success and service to the region. Mr. Prior loved interacting with and teaching students. He taught freshman biology classes and was teaching a neurobiology special topics course this semester. He had just opened a research laboratory in the Sandridge Science Center to work with students.

Mr. Prior also took the time to listen to students and their concerns. He enjoyed the annual tradition of trading places with a student for a day. The chancellor would attend the student’s classes and take careful notes while the student spent the day meeting with the college’s senior staff to discuss campus business. The Chancellor was a fan of Cavalier sports teams; he and his wife were always in the stands to cheer on the players.

Mr. Prior earned a Ph.D. in neurophysiology from the University of Virginia in 1972. Before that, he earned an A.B. in biology from Olivet College in Michigan in 1965 and a master's in animal physiology and biochemistry from Central Michigan University in 1968. He was also a post-doctoral fellow in neurobiology at Princeton University from 1972 to 1973.

He began his teaching career in 1973 at the University of Kentucky, where he eventually held dual full professorships in biological sciences and physiology and biophysics. He left in 1987 to become chairman of the Department of Biology at Northern Arizona University and was named dean of the College of Arts and Sciences there in 1992. He served as dean of the graduate school of Northern Michigan University.

For seven years, he served as a provost in the University of Wisconsin system.

As a researcher, he had more than 20 years of continuous funding and is credited with more than 100 research publications, symposium presentations, review articles and book chapters.

In his leisure time, in addition to fishing, he enjoyed fly-tying, kayaking, snowshoeing, skiing, and rollerblade hockey in his driveway.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the David J. Prior Scholarship Fund, UVa-Wise Foundation, The University of Virginia’s College at Wise, 1 College Avenue, Wise, Va. 24293.