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Lifelong Student Invests in Next Generation

Dr. Harold Pryor

Dr. Harold Pryor (UTK '51) has established a charitable gift annuity for teacher education at the University of Tennessee. Photos: Steven Bridges

At 92, Dr. Harold Pryor (UTK '51) is still being schooled.

His return to the classroom of life starts at his favorite mom-and-pop restaurant in Columbia, Tenn. He sits with a handful of other gray cohorts and enjoys a cup of joe. After much pontificating and solving the problems of the world, Harold drives back to his quaint apartment for another lesson.

"When you send an email where does it go?" he asks rhetorically, with his iPad perched in front of him on the kitchen table.

"The answer is in understanding quantum physics," Harold says. He offers an overview of The Physics of the Microscopic World, one of his many DVDs from The Great Courses, a catalog of college-level courses from academia's best lecturers.

"Studying microscopic levels of matter and energy reveals how the world works," he says. "It's purely fascinating."

"After all, if you aren't learning, then you simply aren't living," he says. Harold's unending pursuit of knowledge is part of his very being; it always has been.

A year after receiving his bachelor's degree from Austin Peay State College in 1946, he received a master's degree from George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. He still wanted more, so he came to Knoxville. At UT, Harold split his doctoral studies between higher education administration and geology and geography. He graduated in 1951.

His awe for learning led him to turn down a lucrative sales job early in his career to become the youngest faculty member to teach geography and geology at East Tennessee State University. He went on to teach at Austin Peay, where he became a professor and director of teacher education.

In 1968, he was part of an education movement as Tennessee's first community college president at Columbia State.

"At Columbia State, about 90 percent of the students were from families who had not had the opportunity to go to college," Harold says.

He could relate "because I had already walked in their shoes," he says. "My parents didn't go to college. My father was a farmer and a small businessman. My early school days included tending to our farm."

The dark cloud of the Great Depression hovered over his high school graduation "and college just wasn't in the picture," he says.

In the early 1940s, he worked as a construction worker at Pickwick Dam Village through the National Youth Administration, a New Deal program. On the days he was in the office, his typing skills were noticed and "I was told that I should go to college," he recalls.

He headed to Clarksville, Tenn., where he divided his days between classes at Austin Peay and working with other students to construct a boys' dorm.

"After the dorm was completed, I worked as a janitor, clerk ... whatever part-time jobs I could get, I worked, so I could stay in school," he says.

His hard work paid off not only in the classroom, but also in matters of the heart. He met the late LaRue Vaughn at Austin Peay. She shared his passion for teaching, and the two were married after Harold's military stint.

During his senior year of college, the "patriotic bug" caught hold of him. "I enlisted in the Army. During World War II, I was attached to General Patton's 3rd Army.

"I learned the meaning of service," he says. He carried those military lessons while campaigning for better education as president of Columbia State.

"You either have a laissez-faire attitude and let things happen or you make things happen," he says.

"In the beginning of my presidency, I had to make things happen because we were facing so many major issues. From getting the school and its programs accredited to building new buildings to hiring faculty to getting the college on a sound financial footing, it was all imperative to moving forward as an institution."

The world became his classroom. "I sought out effective educational systems nationally and internationally," he says of his globetrotting travels that took him from the Far East to South America. "Whenever I traveled, I studied two things: the impact of religion and education on that culture."

On an educational jaunt to study the schools of Moscow, he met Eleanor Roosevelt. "I recognized her and introduced myself. We had a delightful conversation," he says. "She was in Russia writing for Look magazine."

By Harold's 17th year at Columbia State, thousands of students had passed through the hallways of new buildings. "The faculty was the best of the best," he says. "We had long been accredited and we were on firm financial ground. I had done all I could do."

He officially retired at 63, but has never stopped serving the cause of education. "I still do some fundraising for Columbia State," Harold says.

"I have benefited much, so I continue to give back."

Along with Columbia State, he continues to invest in education at his alma maters. At UT, he has established a charitable gift annuity for teacher education.

"I began with no money to go to college, but I was fortunate enough to have many who believed and invested in me," he says. "It's my turn to prepare the next generation for tomorrow's challenges."

Harold uses a stylus pen to load his jazz playlist on his iPad before he checks the Apple stock on CNN. "This gadget embodies more information than I have time to get to," he says with a hearty laugh.

"I'll just keep on scratching the surface and learn what little I can."

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