It was a birthday unlike any other for a man whose career has no equal.
Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Harold S. Pryor, who played a pivotal role in expanding higher education in southern Middle Tennessee celebrated his 100th birthday this past weekend.
After 16 years at Austin Peay State University as the director of student teaching, head of the department of education and director of teacher education, Pryor became the founding president of Columbia State Community College.
Pryor spearheaded Columbia State and simultaneously opened a new chapter in the history of the state’s education system, serving as the first president of the state’s first community college.
In all, Pryor spent 38 years dedicating a career expanding and improving the state’s college system.
Pryor’s portrait, commissioned by artist Connie Erickson, hangs in the lobby of the Administration Building that shares his name at the Columbia Campus. He was also recognized in a state resolution commemorating the college’s 50th anniversary in 2015.
Now a resident of The Bridge at Columbia, a local assisted living center, the state’s revered education leader engaged in a busy weekend of socially-distanced parties.
“I am recovering from a long birthday,” Pryor told The Daily Herald. “I never thought I would reach 100, but I am grateful that I have. Here I am. I never had a birthday that lasted three days.”
On Friday, Pryor was welcomed with a salute of sirens as a gift from the Columbia Fire Department.
That same day, he had a birthday Zoom call from family and friends that included representatives of First Farmers and Merchants Bank, Columbia Kiwanis, the University of Tennessee, Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and Austin Peay State University.
“It is unbelievable to me how many people have remembered this,” Pryor said.
On Saturday, Mayor Chaz Molder presented Pryor with a proclamation that that made Oct. 3 “Dr. Harold S. Pryor Day.”
First Farmers presented Dr. Pryor with a framed picture for “The Man, The Myth, The Legend” it listed the happenings and prices of 1920 — the year of Pryor’s birth.
In recent days, he has received over 100 birthday cards from all over the United States along with multiple flowers and gifts.
“Everyone wanted to show him their appreciation for what he did for education in Tennessee, along with his influence in everyone’s life,” said Christy Thrasher, the lifestyle services director for The Bridge at Columbia.
Pryor said he was particularly moved by the letters, manny of which, recognized him for his military service.
Now, more than 50 years after its founding, Columbia State and the institutions that have followed in the college’s footsteps remain a keystone of the state’s Tennessee Promise initiative, a scholarship and mentoring program focused on increasing the number of students who attend college in the state.
Launched in 2015, it provides students a last-dollar scholarship, meaning the scholarship will cover the cost of tuition and mandatory fees not covered by the Pell grant, the HOPE scholarship, or the Tennessee Student Assistance Award for two years, giving students the ability to attend one of the state’s 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology, or other eligible institution offering an associate degree program.
“Now there is no excuse for anyone in the state of Tennessee not to go to college,” Pryor said. “If they want the kind of life that meets their needs and what they want, they have to get an education. You have got to study if you want to have a job that is going to be fulfilling. There has never been a period in American history where an education has been more important. Go to school, go to college and get as much education as you can.”
Pryor enlisted in the United States Army in 1942 and served as a medic in World War II, first in England and then on mainland Europe in General George S. Patton’s Third Army.
“Maturity came early for me,” Pryor said, reflecting on his military service.
Following his four-year career in the armed forces, Pryor earned a bachelor’s degree from Austin Peay in 1946, a master’s degree in 1947 from George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University and a doctoral degree in higher education administration from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, in 1951.
A trusted voice in the higher education community, Pryor published numerous articles in professional journals and authored chapters in two scholarly books. Pryor was responsible for designing the blueprint of success for the state’s community colleges, giving thousands in the region access to higher and vocational education.
As everything was brand new at the institution and many roles were still in the process of being filled, Pryor was responsible for everything from financial accountability at the college to hiring faculty and recruiting students, serving in the role from 1967 to1984.
“There was awful lot of things I had to do,” Pryor said. “It was a campus grown out of a hay field. It took a year or two to really get things rolling, but we came through.”
Sharing a bit of his own wisdom, Pryor called on the leaders of the county, the state and the nation to take additional measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“I have never seen in my hundred years as much confusion that we have now in our county,” Pryor said. “The whole world is in transition. We are not taking the virus, the pandemic seriously. We have somehow got to change course and get control of this thing. So many people have ignored the protocols that have been handed down. We are in serious trouble, and it bothers me. This pandemic we have got is much more serious than the Spanish flu. The political leadership does not know the problems that we face.”
Mike Christen is the multimedia editor for The Daily Herald. Reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @MikeChristenCDH and @Michaelmarco on Instagram.