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Contact: Ann Hatch
For immediate release — Jan. 4, 2015
(DALLAS) — Dr. Bill J. Priest was known for many “firsts” in higher education, but Dallas-area leaders, students, educators and colleagues remember him best as the first chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District. They also mourn his passing on Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014, at the age of 97.
A native of California and a Dallas-area resident for almost 50 years, Priest was a renowned expert in higher education, and he built a legacy of leadership that continues today.
From 1965 until his retirement in 1981, Priest guided the creation and development of the district, which comprises seven individually accredited colleges, five community education campuses, Dallas Colleges Online and other locations across DCCCD. The colleges of DCCCD have served more than 2 million students since the district was founded. Those colleges are Brookhaven, Cedar Valley, Eastfield, El Centro (the district’s first college), Mountain View, North Lake and Richland.
“I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of Dr. Bill J. Priest, our district’s first chancellor,” said Dr. Joe May, DCCCD’s current chancellor. “Dr. Priest was the very embodiment of leadership. His vision for Dallas was far greater than our district because he was a community leader first and a college leader second.”
May added, “I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Priest on only a few occasions. However, because I started my community college career in 1978 at Cedar Valley College, I feel like I’ve known him all my professional life. He will be missed. Dr. Priest was loved and respected by the faculty, professional support staff, administration and board of trustees, and we are all mourning his loss.”
When he was hired in 1965, DCCCD’s chair of the board of trustees, R.L. Thornton Jr., said that Priest was the only man offered the post “after a search that pointed to him as a superior administrator and educator deeply admired by those in the forefront of the nation’s community college movement.”
Charletta Compton, current chair of the DCCCD board of trustees, said, “The trustees, our students, our colleges and our employees are saddened to hear of Dr. Priest’s passing. We strive to fulfill the mission that our first chancellor embraced: to educate students and prepare them for work and careers in a changing world.”
Robert L. Thornton III, who has served DCCCD in a number of leadership capacities as well — including former chairman of the DCCCD Foundation’s board of directors — said, “Bill Priest was an extraordinary leader who built DCCCD into one of the top community college systems in the country. His goal was to grow citizens of Dallas — in large numbers — and he knew a vibrant community college was the best way to scale. His challenge to young people was simply this: Come to us, get a skill set, get a job and earn your way into the middle class. Bill Priest built a system that delivered on that promise. The city of Dallas is indebted to him.”
Priest was born in French Camp, near Stockton, Calif., where his family had settled before the gold rush. He graduated early from high school, attended Modesto Junior College and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, on a baseball scholarship. After the war, Priest earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from UC Berkeley and did post-doctoral studies at Columbia University. He taught history at a community college near Oakland, Calif., before entering administration at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif.
A nationally recognized leader and consultant in the field of education, DCCCD’s chancellor emeritus also served community and junior colleges through his involvement with many professional organizations, including his role as board chairman of the American Council on Education and president of the American Association of Community Colleges; he also helped found the League for Innovation in the Community College.
Several educational entities are named in his honor, including the Bill J. Priest Institute for Economic Development (now the Bill J. Priest Campus of El Centro College), which celebrated its 25th anniversary in fall 2014, and the Bill J. Priest Center for Community College Education at the University of North Texas. The Bill J. Priest Administration Building at American River College also was named in his honor; Priest was the college’s first president (from 1955-1964) and became the first superintendent of the Los Rios Junior College District (Calif.) in 1964, the year before he started his tenure as DCCCD’s first chancellor.
For a quarter of a century, DCCCD’s Bill J. Priest Institute for Economic Development has provided training, workforce development assistance and a business incubator for entrepreneurs who have needed help starting their own businesses and area employers who want well-trained employees.
The Bill J. Priest Center at UNT was established to prepare leaders and teachers for specific careers in community colleges. Because of the Priest Center, the University of North Texas Program in Higher Education is able to offer a doctorate in higher education with a specialization in community college education. The center at UNT was made possible by a $1 million donation from Don Buchholz, former DCCCD trustee and former chair of the DCCCD Foundation’s board of directors. (He also has served as a UNT regent and member of the university’s foundation board.) An endowed chair is named in Buchholz’s honor as part of the Bill J. Priest Center and UNT’s Program in Higher Education.
The DCCCD Foundation also established the Bill J. Priest Legacy Society, which commemorates his extraordinary contributions to community colleges in Dallas and across the U.S. It recognizes the philanthropic leadership and vision of individuals who have made a planned gift or have included a commitment to DCCCD in their estate plans.
In 2004, the University of North Texas Press published a biography titled “Bill Jason Priest: Community College Pioneer” by Kathleen Krebbs Whitson. The book explores the education leader’s career and leadership in higher education.
Although the community college district was a major part of Priest’s life, he also had a lifelong love for baseball. He played professional baseball as a a right-handed pitcher for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics and was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at UC Berkeley.
Additionally, he served his country as an intelligence officer for the United States Navy in the Philippines and post-war Japan, entering active duty immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was among the first Americans to visit Hiroshima after the atomic bombing.
An observance honoring Dr. Priest will be announced by DCCCD at a later date.