Another tall tree has fallen on the Harding campus. Last week we celebrated the life of Dr. Tony Finley, former dean of the College of Education. Now the university family has gathered once again, this time to remember a favorite math teacher.
Dean Priest was one of the first people I met when I came here for a job interview in 2003. As the provost, he helped make the decision to hire me. Except for that one critical lapse in judgment, he led a life marked by wisdom and prudence.
Dr. Priest worked at his alma mater for 52 years, serving as a professor of math, department chair and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. As provost, he helped to start Harding’s Physician Assistant Program and also developed a university-wide protocol to ensure fairness in faculty salaries.
While he excelled as an administrator — it helps to have a head for figures — his heart was always in the classroom. He loved his students, and they returned the affection (shall we say) exponentially. Students universally praised his kindness and zeal for teaching. They knew he cared about his subject and about them. Who else could make people get up for calculus at 7:30 a.m. and like it?
When the 1982 Petit Jean yearbook was dedicated to Dr. Priest, the profile quoted someone who called him “the Neale Pryor of the math department,” referencing the beloved Bible teacher. Only 14 faculty members in school history have earned the title “Distinguished Professor” by winning our Outstanding Teacher Award three times. Pryor was one, and so was Priest.
It is a bedrock principle at Harding that all subjects are taught from a Christian perspective. Dr. Priest loved for people to ask him how he saw God through mathematics. “That’s easy,” he would say with a grin. “I get to talk about infinity.” For him, the creator’s elegant design was expressed with such magnificent order and beauty in numbers.
He also saw that design in music and discovered a talent for it early in life. In high school he was part of a gospel quartet that once opened for Jerry Lee Lewis. As a Harding student he added his rich baritone voice to the a capella chorus and was selected for the Belles and Beaux, a brand-new choral group directed by “Uncle Bud”Davis.That’s right, the statuesqueman sitting by the Lily Pond. Singing remained one of Dean’s lifelong passions.
Those passions were eclectic. He published academic papers about the Fibonacci sequence. He took pride in his vegetable garden. He loved lemon candy. In his later years, he enjoyed playing Canasta. And he was a champion at racquetball. No one could touch him. The next time you run into Dr. Scott Ragsdale, ask him to tell you the score of their first game.
Which is why his illness was so hard to watch. For the last 16 years of his life, Dr. Priest battled a muscle disease that eventually left him confined to a power chair. It was debilitating, but not soul-crushing. Students who took his classes during those years were in awe of his courage. We all were blessed by his determination. At the funeral, his son-in-law shared that just a month before his passing, Dean returned from physical therapy elated that he had walked 10 steps. He accepted his diminished abilities but never lost his cheerful optimism.
For the record — Dr. Priest would want the stats right — he was 20 days short of turning 80, and two months shy of his 60th wedding anniversary. Dean always credited his wife Carolyn for leading him to Harding, and she was the love of his life. They had five children, 24 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren. Only a mathematician could have kept up with them all. But one grandchild wrote this: “He created a family culture where every child was celebrated and adored.”
Along with family, church was his great love. He served as a deacon and treasured every moment spent among fellow Christians. Warm and gracious, he went out of his way to give encouragement. So many of us have been on the receiving end of his kind words.
Dr. Priest was also a humble man. Despite his obvious academic brilliance, he always claimed he had been blessed beyond what he deserved. One of his favorite gospel songs was “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” He liked the idea that when God’s chariot comes to carry us home, it will swing low to reach those at the bottom.
Somehow, I suspect that chariot didn’t have to dip very far to pick up Dean Priest and carry him home…to the place he liked to call “infinity.”