Remembering "Mr. Alpha Chi"
Dr. Joseph E. Pryor, a leader in Alpha Chi for more than three decades before his retirement as executive director in 1993, died October 27, 2006, in Searcy, Arkansas, at the age of 88.
Known by many in the society as “Mr. Alpha Chi,” Dr. Pryor led the organization through its years of fastest growth. During his tenure as national secretary-treasurer from 1970 to 1983 and as executive director from 1983 to 1993, Alpha Chi tripled in size, from 100 chapters to more than 300. Before his national offices, he had been secretary-treasurer of Region II, beginning in 1959.
During most of his Alpha Chi years he also was chief academic officer at Harding College (later university) and carried major responsibilities in support of student publications and intercollegiate athletics, not to mention his service as sponsor of the Arkansas Eta chapter of Alpha Chi.
He is survived by his wife, Bessie Mae, who worked closely with him in Alpha Chi, especially at national conventions and in hosting Alpha Chi visitors to the Harding campus. They have three adult children and one granddaughter.
I was saddened to hear of the death of Dr. Pryor but, as Paul says, “We do not grieve as those who have no hope.” With the sadness is also a rejoicing for Dr. Joe’s “promotion” to the fullness of God’s salvation.
I came on the National Council as Secretary-Treasurer of Region VII in 1988. Dr. Pryor was at that time still Executive Director of Alpha Chi. I immediately was struck (positively) by his loving, caring spirit. During the course of the several years I was on the Council before Dr. Joe completely retired, I found him to be the consummate professional, diligent and hard working in everything, personable and positive in all human relationships, completely dedicated to the cause of Alpha Chi. Dr. Pryor was a faithful servant, an embodiment of Alpha Chi, indeed, rightly “Mr. Alpha Chi.” Dr. Pryor is and will always be among a handful of giants in the history of Alpha Chi.
I was blessed to be a colleague with Dr. Pryor not only in Alpha Chi but also in my teaching career. And before that, he was my undergraduate teacher for Inorganic Chemistry and Analytical Mechanics. In all these relationships I cherished his kindness, wisdom, and gentleness. He worked longer and harder than anyone I’ve ever known, and Alpha Chi is one of the major beneficiaries of his lifetime of devotion and generosity. He believed in Alpha Chi not because it was his job but because its ideals were truly his ideals, “in scholarship and in service.”
My long association with Dr. Pryor kept alive my faith in human nature. If ever I doubted that good existed in the world, one thought of Dr. Pryor renewed my faith. If ever I became discouraged by hypocrisy in religion, I knew that one true Christian lived — Joe Pryor. His trust and love of others was reciprocated. I’m sure I join many of his admirers in saying that he touched my life profoundly.
I had the privilege of being Dr. Joe’s first Alpha Chi employee. He was a joy to work with, and to all he was the quintessential Southern gentleman. I was always amazed at his stamina and work ethic. He could outwork all of us–never mind that it was midnight, or a Saturday morning early, or Thanksgiving Holiday–an Alpha Chi mailing had to get out on time. He didn’t ask us to help, but we just couldn’t let him do it by himself. He cared deeply about Alpha Chi and meticulously watched over every detail. I felt as if I had finally gained his confidence when he would let me mail out a box of pins without checking over my taping job. I am confident no chapter ever received a damaged box of pins! I will always think of him fondly, and he will be dearly missed.
As a long-time sponsor of Alpha Chi at Gardner-Webb University and as Past President of Region III, I would like to pay tribute to Dr. Pryor whom I consider Mr. Alpha Chi. He is truly one of the outstanding supporters of scholarship and leadership in the United States. His passing is a loss to everyone who treasures education and learning.
When I think of Dr. Pryor I am always reminded of his phenomenal memory: when I had only been a sponsor for a short while, he still knew who I was and my college and even chided me for not putting “Dr.” before my name when I would send in official correspondence. I well remember the legal-sized, single-spaced memos that he would send giving chapter sponsors necessary information. He always impressed me as a gentleman-scholar, a wonderful ambassador for Alpha Chi.
I began my career with Alpha Chi right after Dr. Pryor retired. As a young employee I was trained to do things as “Dr. Joe” would have done them and to take pride in the way our materials and publications represented Alpha Chi. To this day, a good rule of thumb in any task is to ask myself if he would have approved. Through my work with Alpha Chi’s National Council and chapter sponsors, I witnessed the influence this intelligent, intentional, and considerate man had on so many lives across the globe.
Dr. Joe Pryor was a beloved teacher, mentor, academic colleague, and dear friend for fifty-four years. I respected him for his scholarship, his gentle and gracious spirit, and his dedication to service–especially to students. I was honored to work with him on a number of major projects at Harding during the 1960s, and I enjoyed my work with him during the next two decades in the Alpha Chi Honor Society. I wore my Alpha Chi pin to church last Sunday as a special tribute to him. I loved that man! I love his wife, Bessie Mae, and I pray for her in her loss.
“Your commitment, your gentleness and patience, your persistence and hard work have sparked the phenomenal growth of this society.” Walden Freeman, National Council Secretary 1991-95
“The chemistry of the National Council created the climate necessary for success. You were the chief chemist.” Edwin Gaston, National Council President 1971-79
“It is apparent that what matters most for you is people.” Kathryn K. Rileigh, Sponsor, NC Kappa
“You continue to work tirelessly on after so many of us younger ones in Alpha Chi have fallen by the wayside.” Gayle White, National Council President 1987-91
“Your service to Alpha Chi was merely one achievement among a seemingly endless string of achievements. I cannot figure out how you managed to squeeze all of this into one lifetime while maintaining a personal disposition that projects warmth, friendliness, humor, and serenity.” Michael Sabol, Region VI Secretary-Treasurer 1988-2000
“Almost 200 years ago William Wordsworth wrote that ‘plain living and high thinking are no more.’ Well, William Wordsworth never knew Dr. Joseph E. Pryor.” Robert Blake, Region III Secretary-Treasurer 1982-94
When he retired as Alpha Chi’s first executive director at the end of 1993, Dr. Joe Pryor could look back on several decades of profoundly successful service to the society. He was the founding sponsor of Arkansas Eta chapter at his beloved Harding College in 1958. In 1959 Region II asked him to accept the post of secretary-treasurer, a responsibility which he fulfilled until 1970 when he succeeded Dr. Nolle as national secretary-treasurer. In 1983 Alpha Chi reorganized its leadership structure and created the office of executive director for the society. The National Council named Pryor to the job and he held it until his retirement in 1993. His service covered half the life of the organization, and for most of that time, he was a member of the national executive committee. Upon his retirement, most of an issue of the Newsletter was taken up with tributes to his leadership.1
“Dr. Joe” holds other distinctions in the society. He represented the National Council in the inauguration of more than eighty new chapters, which means that he personally oversaw the birth of nearly a fourth of all Alpha Chi chapters. His career as a teacher was such that three of the first six Alpha Chi Distinguished Alumni Award recipients were his chemistry students.
The changes that took place in the society from 1970 to the creation of the professional national office were difficult ones. There is a qualitative difference between managing the daily business of a society with assets of under $100,000 to one whose assets approached a million. There is a qualitative difference between a society which inducted a couple thousand students into a hundred chapters and a society which inducted nearly ten thousand into three hundred chapters. Dr. Pryor saw the society through this transition with grace, instituting most of the needed changes on his own and knowing when and where to seek assistance when he needed it.
Pryor’s relationship to Alpha Chi was only one facet of his busy life. Earning B.A. and B.S. degrees from Harding College, he attended Louisiana State University, where he completed M.A. and Ph.D. work in chemistry. Returning to his alma mater, he became professor of physical science in 1944. In 1960 he was appointed dean and eventually vice president for academic affairs. The science building at Harding is named in his honor. At Harding he served as yearbook advisor for so many prize-winning annuals that he was given the national Distinguished Yearbook Advisor award in 1973. A student athlete himself, he became Harding’s athletic representative, serving as the conference president twice and winning enshrinement in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame.2
Yet little of this acclaim touches the real essence of the man, which is better defined by his relationship to his church, his family, his students, his colleagues, his friends, and all with whom he comes in contact. In each of these relationships, he is the embodiment of courtesy, honor, and high intelligence. He could accurately be called “Mr. Alpha Chi.”3
1 Newsletter, March 1994, pp. 1-4.
2 “Pryor, Joseph Ehrman,” in Who’s Who in America, 1978-79 (Chicago: Marquis Who’s Who, Inc., ), p. 2630.
3 Newsletter, March 1994, headline, p. 1.