UVa-Wise mourns Chancellor David Prior’s death

David J. Prior, the seventh chancellor of the University of Virginia’s College’s at Wise, died unexpectedly Thursday morning following a brief illness, college officials announced.

More than 200 people gathered Thursday evening by McCraray Lake for a candlelight vigil in memory of Chancellor David Prior, after he died unexpectedly Thursday morning. Prior’s wife, Merry Lu, was in attendance. Photo by Jordan Fifer | The Highland Cavalier
More than 200 people gathered Thursday evening by McCraray Lake for a candlelight vigil in memory of Chancellor David Prior, after he died unexpectedly Thursday morning. Prior’s wife, Merry Lu, was in attendance. Photo by Jordan Fifer | The Highland Cavalier

Prior, 68, died around 3 a.m. Thursday after being taken by ambulance from his home on campus to Norton Community Hospital, said college spokeswoman Kathy Still.

It was not immediately clear how the chancellor died. He had recently canceled several classes due to illness, but college officials did not say if the two were related.

Rumors quickly circulated around campus Thursday after emergency vehicles were spotted at the chancellor’s residence, the Lila Vicars Smith House, early Thursday morning. College officials waited until later in the morning to announce Prior’s death until his family had been notified, Still said.

“It is with a heavy heart that I must announce that Chancellor Prior passed away early this morning,” said Dean of Students Jewell Worley, in an email to students just after 10 a.m. “This is a sad day for all of us.”

Still said counselors would be available on campus for students, faculty and staff, and Worley encouraged students to visit the Center for Student Development in the lower level of Cantrell Hall where counselors would be available.

SAB and SGA held a candlelight vigil on campus Thursday evening at McCraray Lake that drew more than 200 people and featured speakers and musical tributes.

Prior was hired at UVa-Wise in September 2005 and was inaugurated on April 11, 2006 as the college’s seventh chancellor.

During his time in office, he oversaw more than $110 million in construction and renovation on campus, including the newly-finished convocation center, the Gilliam Center for the Arts, the Hunter J. Smith Dining Commons, Commonwealth Hall, and the renovation of the Leonard W. Sandridge Science Center, Smiddy Hall and Crockett Hall.

He succeeded Ernest Ern, who served as chancellor for one year following the resignation of Steven Kaplan, who left UVa-Wise to become president of the University of New Haven.

Prior was perhaps best known on campus for his affable character and beaming grin. He was a shrewd fundraiser for the college, having overseen a record intake of donations from alumni and, just recently, the largest single monetary gift in the college’s history.

As news of Prior’s death spread Thursday, college officials, community leaders and others shared their memories of the administrator.

    Hundreds of students attended a candlelight vigil Thursday evening in memory of Prior. Photo courtesy of Tim Cox
Hundreds of students attended a candlelight vigil Thursday evening in memory of Prior. Photo courtesy of Tim Cox

“David seemed to have been prepared from birth to lead and love the College at Wise and the people and landscape of Southwest Virginia,” said John Casteen, president emeritus at UVa, who was president of UVa when Prior was inaugurated. “Tireless, wise and always focused on whatever would be best for the college, he brought its great promise to maturity.”

Current UVa President Teresa Sullivan sent an email to UVa-Wise employees and students Thursday afternoon mourning Prior’s death:

“He was a strong, capable leader with a clear vision for the College and its future,” Sullivan wrote. “He cared deeply about the success of the College and the people of his community, and he was a respected and much-loved figure throughout Southwest Virginia. He was a gifted scientist, scholar and administrator. But most importantly on this day, we remember that he was a warm, compassionate person whose kindheartedness and good humor touched many lives.”

On campus, Prior’s unexpected death came as a shock to many students.

Sydney Gilbert, a junior political science and communication studies major, said she first met Prior when he sat next to her at a scholarship luncheon her sophomore year.

“He took the time to get to know me as an individual,” she said. “That’s the kind of man, leader and chancellor he was. He wanted to know each student as a person.”

Facebook and Twitter were quickly flooded Thursday morning with memorial notes from students, alumni and others.

“I, along with all of my fellow seniors, were looking forward to shaking Chancellor Prior’s hand at graduation this May,” said Rachel Hensley, a senior biochemistry major. “I’m so blessed to have gotten to know him.”

    Merry Lu Prior, the chancellor's wife, watches as a speaker addresses the candlelight vigil Thursday evening. Photo courtesy of Tim Cox
Merry Lu Prior, the chancellor's wife, watches as a speaker addresses the candlelight vigil Thursday evening. Photo courtesy of Tim Cox

“We’ve lost a great man who cared so deeply about everyone here,” said theater major Laura Baty. “Chancellor Prior was never invisible or aloof at this school he loved so dearly and this campus grieves as a whole for such a loss.”

Travis Brannon, a 2010 graduate of the college, remembered working with Prior during the two years he served as SGA president.

“He guided the college through a great stage of transition and growth,” Brannon said. “Everyone in the UVa-Wise family must forever be thankful for the legacy and solid foundation he leaves behind.”

Prior grew up in northern Michigan and had a bachelor’s degree in biology from Olivet College, a master’s degree in animal physiology and biochemistry from Central Michigan University, a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Virginia, and was a post-doctoral fellow in neurobiology at Princeton University.

He began teaching in 1973 at the University of Kentucky, where he went on to hold dual full professorships in biological sciences and physiology and biophysics. In 1987, he left UK to become chairman of the Department of Biology at Northern Arizona University, where he was named dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 1992.

In 1995, Prior was named dean of graduate studies and research at Northern Michigan University. Three years later he took a job as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, first at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and later in 2002 at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

Still said Thursday afternoon that college officials would work to name an acting chancellor, but that it was too early to comment specifically.

Prior is survived by his wife, Merry Lu, and two adult children, Andrea and Christopher. Details of any future memorial services had not yet been set.

On the Web: Visit memorial.uvawise.edu to sign a guestbook for Prior and his family.

Jordan Fifer

Interdisciplinary studies major Jordan Fifer served as The Highland Cavalier's editor-in-chief and online editor in the 2012-2013 academic year. He previously served as staff writer, news editor and photo editor.

5 thoughts on “UVa-Wise mourns Chancellor David Prior’s death

  1. So sad to hear this news. When I finished up my doctorate in 1993, I was working at Northern Arizona Univeristy with David. Even though we worked in different colleges, he hosted my graduation party. I still have the gift he gave me on my desk. His death is a loss to us all. Our hearts go out to Merry Lu, Andrea, and Christopher.

  2. Dear D.

    I knew you since 1969 when you and my sister Merry Lu got married. We were good friends and spent lots of time at you house together mith ML. You spoke the nicest english in order for me to understand and we could spent hours the three of us talking.
    D. I love you and will always do, and I promise you that ML and me, although we live so far away (USA-Chile), will get to see each other very often.
    D. please send strength to my sister ML for it will be hard to live without you.
    ML, Chris, Sarah, Andrea & Tom…..
    God, please protect them.

  3. David was a great man who did so much for UVA Wise and especially for me and the volleyball team and helping us in our trip to nationals.I had great respect for him and his wife and they always treated the volleyball team and myself with such kindness.I was shocked to hear of his death,but know he is now one of the angels in heaven with His Saviour. Rest in peace David,u deserve it. My sympathy goes out to Mary Lu and his family.

  4. The loss of David still does not seem real. I was fortunate to know David as my department chair, dean, fellow physiologist and friend at Northern Arizona University. He was genuinely interested in the students, promoting faculty endeavors in research and teaching along with guiding a maturing university to raise the bar! No doubt his “signature” laugh, his softer, subtle chuckle and beaming grin will be missed by all at UVA-Wise and many he touched across the country. David was a gem among mentors, a rare one from whom I sought counsel long after leaving Arizona. He was so unselfish – what a sad, sad loss for Wise. David, you are missed beyond what words can convey.

  5. David Prior was a rare gem — smart, funny and sweet, possessing a keen wit and sense of humor that never seemed to fail him. We knew him as Department Chair and Dean and friend — and very amusing purveyor of Christmas missives.

    When I was grad student in history at NAU, Dean Prior would pop his head into the back of my biology-pit classroom and smile. When our history grad-student symposium needed funds, he helped us as Dean. He was generous and he was a visionary in his understanding of how a small investment in the renewable resource of undergraduate and graduate education could benefit the students, the university, the community and the nation for many life times.

    We loved his crazy old Chevy. We loved his laugh.
    We love you, David and though we hadn’t seen you for a while, we surely will miss you.

    Our hearts ache for you wonderful family, who remain in our thoughts and meditations.

    Marylou Markle

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