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David Prior, U.Va.-Wise Chancellor, Dies

February 2, 2012  (UPDATED Feb 3, 2012 with memorial service, classes canceled) — The University of Virginia's College at Wise is mourning the unexpected death of David J. Prior, the College's seventh chancellor.

Prior, 68, died on Feb. 2. He is survived by his wife, Merry Lu, and two children, daughter Andrea and her husband, Tom Martin, and son Christopher and his wife, Sarah.

The U.Va. College at Wise, situated in the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia, is the University's only branch campus. A public, four-year residential liberal arts college, it enrolls more than 2,000 students.

Marcia Adams-Gilliam, chair of the U.Va.-Wise Board, and Marvin Gilliam, chair of the U.Va. Board of Visitors' Committee on Wise, expressed sadness at Prior's passing.

"His many contributions to our college, our region and our students will continue to impact the campus for years to come," Adams-Gilliam said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Merry Lu and their children."

"David Prior was a champion for the College at Wise, and he worked tirelessly to spread the culture of education throughout Southwest Virginia and the commonwealth," Marvin Gilliam said. "He was a tireless advocate of STEM initiatives at the college, and this legacy will have a tremendous impact on the region and its economic development efforts well into the future."

Students at U.Va.-Wise held a candlelight vigil Thursday night to mourn Prior's passing. In Richmond, the House of Delegates and the state Senate each adjourned in his honor and memory.

A memorial service will be held Feb. 6 in the U.Va.-Wise Convocation Center. Visitation begins at noon, with the service following at 2 p.m. Classes will be canceled and College offices will be closed during the service.

U.Va.-Wise offers Virginia's only undergraduate degree program in software engineering, along with several pre-professional programs including dentistry, engineering and veterinary medicine.

During Prior's seven years as chancellor, U.Va.-Wise experienced remarkable growth, both in student enrollment and its physical plant. During his administration, the College celebrated an important milestone: the success of its "Fulfilling the Dream" campaign, which exceeded its $50 million goal.

He was at the College's helm during construction of many buildings on the 396-acre campus, including the Hunter J. Smith Dining Commons, the Gilliam Center for the Arts and two residence halls, as well as the renovation of the newly re-christened Leonard W. Sandridge Science Center. 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.

"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. The beautiful new buildings at the College are merely the most visible signs of his success.

"I very much enjoyed working with him, and I had the opportunity to see how well he represented the College and the region with our Board of Visitors and in Richmond. We will miss David very much, and I am grateful for his life and his example."

Prior began his work at U.Va.-Wise in September 2005, when he was appointed by then-U.Va. President John T. Casteen III, and the Priors took up residence in the the Lila Vicars Smith House, the chancellor's home.

"David seemed to have been prepared from birth to lead and love the College at Wise and the people and landscape of Southwest Virginia," Casteen said. "Tireless, wise and always focused on whatever would be best for the College, he brought its great promise to maturity. The evolving faces of the campus – its promising students and busy staff and faculty – are his legacy as surely as fine new buildings and sound financials are. He led the College a long step along the road toward its future."

U.Va. Rector Helen Dragas said Prior will be greatly missed.

"The Board of Visitors and the University community mourn the loss of an extraordinarily gifted leader and extend our condolences to Chancellor Prior's family," she said. "His passion and energy for the College at Wise, its students and faculty, were boundless. Deeply dedicated to elevating this important region of the commonwealth, he personified the University's goal, linking the resources of the College at Wise to drive economic development."

Prior earned a Ph.D. in neurophysiology at U.Va. in 1972. Before that, he earned a bachelor's degree 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 chair 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.

— By Kathy Still

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