A boy rooted in a family that challenged the boundaries of poverty
Harold Pryor, son of the late Hubert S. and Ethel Pryor of Overton County, Tennessee, spent his early life on the family farm with no thoughts of a life different from the one he knew. Yet, seeds of his future accomplishments were being planted by a family that was financially poor but rich in thought. From his mother’s desire to educate her children to his father’s and grandfather’s concerns for their community, Pryor learned early what mattered.
One of his childhood memories was of going with his father, grandfather, and two others – Lewis Swafford and Tom Ray, on a business trip to Nashville to meet with the former governor, John Roberts. The four set off in a 1929 A-Model Ford. Pryor sat on the edge of his seat, taking in the scenery and the conversation of the men around him. Each had his favorite phrases. His grandfather would say, “By Grab, I don’t believe what I am seeing,” and Mr. Swafford would respond, “By Giddies, that is something.” When they got to Second Avenue in Nashville, they faced the hurdle of parallel parking, which his father had never encountered. He made a run at it, and it took three tries. “By Gum,” said Mr. Swafford, “We almost didn’t make it.” Other challenges included a revolving door and elevator, both of them new to all the party.
This meeting with the former governor was Pryor’s introduction to politics and the importance of what we call today, “networking.” As a teen, he continued to be exposed to government, campaigning, holding local office through his father and grandfather who were active in their county’s Democratic Party.
As a boy Pryor worked the family farm and attended as much school as the county offered. There was no public high school, but his mother’s determination saw him enrolled at a private school, the Livingston Academy, He graduated during the heart of the Great Depression. During a period that made poverty a shared burden of most, the Pryors made the sacrifices needed to send their child to school.
After he graduated, however, it was back to the farm. Higher education wasn’t considered. Pryor’s father worked the night shift at the town’s ice plant in addition to running his farm. He was able to get a little extra sleep in the mornings when Pryor took over feeding the mules and other stock, milking the cow, and going into the fields to plant the crops. He recalled, “For me, there was no pay except plenty to eat, a few clothes, and a home in a loving family.” He settled into the hard life of a subsistence farmer.
That changed with the visit of a family friend, Mr. Luther Harris, the director of a National Youth Administration program at Pickwick, Tennessee. Similar to the WPA, the NYA was a depression-era way to provide work and opportunities for boys. Harris’ project was the building of Pickwick Dam Village. With his encouragement, Pryor applied to the program and, in early July when the crops were laid-by and there was a lull in farm life, he received notice that he had been accepted.
It was 237 miles from the farm to Pickwick and Pryor had $10 to his name. He decided to hitch hike. His first ride was with Mrs. Hubert Patterson who was going to Nashville on a shopping trip. From there he caught a lift to Franklin, where he waited for the next leg of his trip. The truck that stopped already had three men in the cab and a load of fertilizer in the back. He climbed in amongst the bags of manure and rode as far as Savannah. The last meal he’d had was breakfast back home, so he took his $10 to a diner and a boarding house for the night. The next morning he found someone who took him as far as the river and a ferry ride that cost him 5 cents. He made it to Luther Harris’ office in time for lunch at the NYA mess hall.
For the next month, Pryor worked as a “gofer” on the construction project, but then his typing and shorthand skills learned in high school led to his becoming Harris’ secretary. Pryor credited an unexpected event as the turning point in his journey toward further education. One of the NYA boys got sick in the office. Without fuss, Pryor got a bucket, a mop, and cleaned up the mess. This willingness to quietly get something taken care of led Harris to announce that Pryor was fit for better things and needed to be in college. By 1:30 p.m. the following afternoon he was on a bus headed to Clarksville and the NYA program at Austin Peay College.
A young man, facing and conquering obstacles to his future
Harold Pryor arrived in Clarksville with $13 (he’d managed to save a bit from the NYA work) and his worldly belongings in a small satchel. Not knowing any better, he headed for the office of the college president to check in. The secretary took one look at this raw-faced young man and told him to take himself to the admissions office. His life would have taken a very different direction if not for President P. P. Claxton, who heard the conversation and announced, “Send that boy in to see me.” Claxton informed Pryor that school was already two weeks into the semester and that both boys’ dorms were full. He then picked up the phone, called his wife, and told her to get the guest room ready; Pryor began his college career housed in the college president’s home. Dr. Pryor may have begun his journey in poverty, but he made every moment and encounter work for his successful future. Even after space came available in a dormitory, Pryor continued his relationship with President Claxton by becoming his part-time driver.
One day he drove President Claxton and Dr. James D. Hoskins to Knoxville for a testimonial dinner for the latter. Claxton had served under three presidents as U. S. Commissioner of Education. Hoskins was the retired president of the University of Tennessee. Pryor took to heart the words that Claxton said in the back of that car to his friend and fellow college president: “One last word. You and I are not old. As men, we are not primarily of the body. We are of the mind, intellect, imagination, ideas, purposes and will. These are dateless, ever young.” The future president of Columbia State Community College took those words so to heart that he was able to repeat them sixty years later in a reflection on his earlier years.
Pryor worked hard to handle the financial struggle of being a college student during the Great Depression. He had classes every morning and worked every afternoon. He and other NYA students ate in the college cafeteria where they were allowed 22 cents a meal. He worked construction on one of the new college buildings, Calvin Hall. With President Claxton’s help, Pryor got the job of janitor in the Castle building while still driving him on the weekends. The struggle to support himself led him to wait tables at Maw Green’s Boarding House, work as a short order cook at the Ferall Brothers’ Hamburger Joint, serve as part-time secretary for the Montgomery County Draft Board, deliver laundry and dry-cleaning throughout the boys’ dorms, and create a snack shop with donuts, apples and candy for late night students.
World War II interrupted his third year of college. Having a high draft number, Pryor tried to join the Air Corps and then the Navy. He was turned down by both due to his being color blind. He remembered, “Finally, I volunteered for the Army. I was warm and they took me.” Pryor served as a medic with the rank of Technical Sergeant attached to Patton’s 3rd Army in England, France and Germany. After the war, about which he doesn’t often speak but included his presence at D-Day and in the liberation and clean-up of a concentration camp he did not name, Pryor returned to Austin Peay and completed his B. S. degree in 1946. He married LaRue Vaughn of Buchanan, Tennessee, and together they began what would become a lifetime of travel, often for Dr. Pryor to serve as an educational consultant for foreign governments. In later years, a shared appreciation for art and music led them to repeated travel in Europe as well as the Far East, the South Pacific, South America and Africa. The boy who had hitchhiked across the state of Tennessee had matured into a world traveler. Everywhere he went, Pryor was interested in the impact of education on that culture. It was during his trip to study the schools in Moscow that he met and chatted with Eleanor Roosevelt who was there to write an article for Look magazine.
His travels did not keep him from his focus on education. Pryor received a Master’s (1947) from George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University and later a doctorate (1951) from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He had begun his studies in the fields of geology and geography and was the youngest faculty in those disciplines at East Tennessee State University. However, his engrained interest in others led to a change in direction. Pryor returned to Austin Peay, eventually becoming head of the school’s Department of Education. In this capacity, he also served as a consultant for the Tennessee Board of Regents and the Tennessee State Board of Education.
As a young associate professor at Austin Peay, Pryor followed in his father and grandfather’s political footsteps and was active in the gubernatorial campaigns of Frank Clement and, later, Buford Ellington. Both were part of the state Democratic Party’s conservative arm and, while Pryor didn’t always agree with them, he admired the way they got things done. Right before the elections, the campaign would organize a bus tour that drove from small rural store to small rural store. At each stop, the campaigners would play country music and encourage everybody to go buy something from the store. They would roll out a platform that resembled a real stump, and Pryor would get up on it to give a speech for the candidate.
The idea of a Tennessee community college system was introduced by Governor Clement and came to fruition under Governor Ellington. The Commissioner of Education, John Howard Warf, (who was from Hohenwald and had plans to become the first community college’s president) pushed for the school to be in Columbia. After several people not in favor of Warf’s plan encouraged Dr. Pryor to take the presidency of Columbia State, he contacted one of his father’s old friends, Clyde York, head of the Farm Bureau and a resident of Columbia. The two met and approved of each other. It was York’s mention of Pryor to the governor, who remembered him from the campaign and also knew of his work in education, that led to his appointment. Pryor always maintained that every college presidency is, at heart, a political placement. In his case, everything he had done since leaving Livingston for Pickwick culminated in his appointment.
A new role, president of the state’s first community college
In 1968, Howard Pryor became the founding president of the Tennessee’s flagship community college. He would later reflect on that move and his motivations for taking on such a demanding position: “I came to Columbia State to pioneer a new approach to education that I believed in wholeheartedly. My philosophy has always urged me to do the best for those who may not have a history of access to the best. The community college provided opportunities to many who had never had a chance to improve their lives through education. I had been fortunate enough to have had that education as well as an ability to play the political game (a necessary skill for any college president).”
His early days at Columbia State did not run smoothly. The school had already been in operation for a year and a half without a president (Commissioner Warf had been keeping the office open for himself, a plan that was undercut by Pryor’s appointment). In his Notes from the Founding President, Pryor recollected the most immediate problem: that no one had made sure the college was accredited. Before they graduated the first class of students, Pryor had to request emergency accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. As he discovered further errors and oversights; he became quite unpopular with some faculty and staff members. Classes were being offered that belonged to the junior/senior year of college study although Columbia State only covered the freshman/sophomore years. Professors were teaching in areas for which they were unqualified. The entire Nursing Program had to be overhauled.
In addition to academic matters, facilities were needed yet funds were not easy to come by. Pryor’s years of adapting to a situation and making connections were key to the college’s growth. A company specializing in building outdoor tracks contacted him about selling the college a track for its sports program. Pryor engineered an agreement that the company would build the track with no cost to the school. Columbia State would furnish the land, prepare the site and install an internal drainage system. At that time, the economy was at low ebb and Pryor was able to arrange with two out of work highway building contractors to prepare the site as an in-kind gift to the college. Through his contacts with the State Department of Transportation, he arranged to “borrow” a Civil Engineer to supervise this project. It was determined that the drainage system would cost approximately $24,000. In less than a month Dr. Pryor put together a committee of interested citizens to raise the money. The project was completed in four months, and the company, with the school’s approval, used the track for its regional sales program.
One of his earliest interactions with the student body occurred in April 1968, mere months after he arrived in Columbia. Pryor recalled that a staff member burst into his office to say that Martin Luther King had been assassinated and the students were rioting. Pryor quickly determined that no one was rioting, but the students were upset and he moved to speak to the issue right away. He found that the African American students wanted to honor Dr. King with a memorial service around the college’s flagpole. He also learned that some of the white students were prepared to drive in circles around the gathering and display confederate flags from their vehicles. Pryor suggested a larger gathering to honor Dr. King in the school’s gym and called for all professors to allow their students to leave class to attend. In this 1960’s environment, he received a backlash from several white faculty members who boycotted the assembly. However, Dr. Pryor managed to circumvent a potentially dangerous event, while honoring the slain civil rights leader and placing Columbia State firmly in the spotlight as an opponent of racism.
After nearly 17 years, Pryor retired and became president emeritus. He continued his association with the school by offering, but never imposing, guidance to the following presidents, creating and adding to scholarship funds for students and endowing the school’s LaRue V. Pryor Art Gallery. His most recent gift was the creation of an emergency fund for students needing monetary assistance to stay in school. His college years of financial struggle had made him especially sympathetic to the obstacles students may face.
In retirement he would come to the campus often for official ceremonies, but one visit he especially enjoyed was a secretive, nighttime adventure to the administration building, the Pryor Administration building, in fact. A security guard let him in, and Dr. Pryor went straight to the commissioned oil painting of himself as president of the college. He had never cared for it, so he took the painting out of its frame and replaced it with an Olan Mills photograph that had been taken for his church directory. Pryor figured that nobody would notice the difference.
Beyond the academic, a man of
business and the community and, above all else, a man of deep faith and generosity
Throughout his academic career and into his retirement, Dr. Harold Pryor was also active in the business world. In Overton County, he and his father bought two farms and, later, he worked with a cousin in the logging business: Pryor would buy the acreage and the cousin would harvest the timber. In Clarksville, Pryor joined with a county judge and an accountant to build subdivisions and then apartment complexes. He was one of the founders of the Cumberland Real Estate Trust and was active with the Camden Building Supply Corp. Coupled with his consulting work for the Benton County Board of Education, he made contacts needed to build schools and gymnasiums. His interest in and skill at the stock market persisted throughout his life. On his arrival in Columbia, he was asked to serve on the First Farmers and Merchants Bank Board, specifically on the Trust Department’s board because of his understanding of stocks and bonds.
Always active in his community, Dr. Pryor served as president of the Clarksville Kiwanis Club and the Montgomery County Mental Health Association; he chaired the Montgomery County’s Cancer Society and Heart Association. In Columbia he was on the Board of Directors of the Chamber of Commerce, the Farmers and Merchants Corporation, the Board of Public Utilities, and the United Givers Fund (the United Way). He established and was president of the Columbia State Community College Foundation and was an elder of First Presbyterian Church. On the state level, Pryor served on the Board of Directors of the Frank G. Clement Foundation and was president of the Tennessee College Association.
Even before his retirement from Columbia State, Pryor’s generosity extended to all the schools he had attended. At Austin Peay, he established a music scholarship to honor his wife, LaRue, who had been a music major and later taught music. He also gifted Austin Peay’s department of elementary education with scholarships in memory of his sister who had graduated from that program. He was equally generous with Vanderbilt and the University of Tennessee.
His philanthropy extended to Columbia’s First Presbyterian Church – where he was a member for over 50 years. In addition to his financial support for renovation projects and the organization’s involvement in Habitat for Humanity, Pryor created a choir fund in LaRue’s memory to buy music, robes, and send members to a summer music program in North Carolina.
Columbia State will continue to benefit from Dr. Pryor’s commitment to the school. Combining gifts throughout his life and from his legacy, Harold S. Pryor gave in excess of $2 million dollars to benefit the school and its students.
A man of reflection as well as action, at the age of 80, Dr. Pryor created his “Musings and Moods of an Octogenarian.” He included the words of writers who, as he put it, “stimulated moods and thoughts in me.” First among them was a quote from the Jewish Prayer Book: “Each of us is a shattered urn, / grass that must wither, / a flower that will fade, / a shadow moving on, / a cloud passing by, / a particle of dust floating on the wind, / a dream soon forgotten.” Looking ahead to the end of his life, Pryor shared the words of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: “Death is simply the shedding of the physical body, like a butterfly shedding its cocoon. It is a transition to a higher state of consciousness where we continue to perceive, to understand to laugh, and to be able to grow… death is a graduation.”
Finally, and so very reflective of his own life, Pryor quoted from Genesis 25:8, speaking of Abraham: “…died in a good old age, and full of years, and was gathered to his people.” Now that the time of his passing has come in his 101st year, it seems too soon and the loss to the communities he loved too difficult to bear. Yet his life of service continues to touch those who want to learn and transform their futures as he had done so well in his own life.