|Dr. Robert F. Pryce|
1982 Yearbook, WRA
Yesterday, I learned from a former colleague and current FB friend about the death of Dr. Robert F. Pryce--Bob Pryce--truly one of the greatest teachers--and greatest human beings--I've ever known.
I met him in the fall of 1979 when Joyce and I began our careers at Western Reserve Academy. Dr. Pryce (what the kids always called him) was one of the coaches of the girls' tennis team, and that was one of my early assignments, as well. Frank "Stretch" Longstreth was the head coach, and Bob and I were his assistants. During those practices with Bob--with the players--I had some of the best times I had in my entire career.
After practices we would sometimes jog 4-6 miles together--sometimes with some of the team, sometimes not--and on those runs I realized, again, that I was participating in sort of a moving seminar conducted by Dr. Robert Pryce. Back home, I would start looking up things he'd talked about--hoping I'd fooled him into thinking I'd known what he was talking about, had read what he was reading or alluding to. He was one of those people I never wanted to disappoint.
I quickly learned that Bob was far more than a tennis coach--in fact, tennis (which he was pretty good at) was one of his least accomplishments. He taught French; he directed plays; he was a spectacular father and husband; he was a pianist, often volunteering to accompany kids during their vocal or instrumental recitals. And friend. He helped Bill Appling, the school's musical director and a single father, deal with the demands of job and fatherhood. He welcomed Joyce and me into his home, where we met his terrific wife, Velia, who also taught French and organized the school's weekly assembly programs (among myriads of other things)--and she is also one of the greatest cooks who ever humbled me.
It's not always fair to judge parents by the accomplishments of their children, but in Bob's and Velia's case I'm going to do so. They had talented daughters who have crafted wonderful careers. It's as if avatars of Bob and Velia are now out there in the world doing important work, igniting a little Pryce fire wherever they are.
Bob was an intellectual. The real thing. Not a pompous, arrogant, or "elitist" man at all--just a man who loved words, languages (he knew several others--German, Latin, maybe Italian--I can't remember), literature, ideas. And not ashamed of it a bit. Going to his house was such a thrill for us. Sitting in their back dining room, eating something fabulous, learning from Bob and Velia. Feeling both humbled and grateful. We talked about books all the time. He was forever reading, somehow finding time to do so amid the cyclonic swirl of commitments at a boarding school.
The students adored him--in his classes, his plays, his other activities. At dinner, they swarmed to sit at the Pryces' table in the dining hall. They knew they were going to get a lot more than food that night. Often after dinner, Joyce and I would join them at their table, too. Where we learned some more. I remember once ... after he retired ... he came back to WRA to fill in for a while. One of my best students stopped me in the hall. "Do you know Dr. Pryce?" she asked. I said I did. "He's just wonderful!" she said. I said that I knew. Oh, did I know!
Bob's talks in the Chapel were always terrific. Literate, witty, concise, respectful to the space and to his audience. He was the adviser to the Cum Laude Society for years and always handled that task with his customary skill and aplomb. When he spoke in faculty meetings, everyone listened. Listened. If Bob said it, it was worth thinking about--a lot--even if you didn't agree with it.
And did I mention he could write? Our first year at the school, I served with Bob on the College Guidance Committee. One of our responsibilities was to produce what was called a "write-up" on each student applying for college. We divided the students among us, interviewed them, checked their records, and so on--then wrote a memo to be included in each student's application. Each week, the committee listened as members read their drafts. The first time I heard one of Bob's, my thought was, Who is this guy? The language was so graceful, so clear, so supportive of each kid. Once again, Bob was the teacher; I, the student. He also wrote one of the volumes of the official history of the school. No offense to the other writers--but Bob's was just, well, professional.
One of Bob's acquaintances at Cambridge (yes, that Cambridge) was poet Ted Hughes, and I remember sitting in on a English class one day where he was the guest for the day to talk about Hughes and his poetry. He read (and recited from memory) so many wonderful lines and poems--all showing another of his talents--performance. He was a wonderful actor, and he was able to communicate so clearly and effectively with his student performers. His were among the best student productions I've ever seen.
The last time I saw Bob perform--2 October 2006--was at the local library here in Hudson. He was reading to a very appreciative audience a number of his favorite poems. One was Ted Hughes' "Hawk Roosting," which Bob delivered in a way that, well, a hawk would have said it. I was blown away. (Link to poem.)
And here's something far more quiet--but resonant, too--about Bob. He and I shared the same barber in town--Mickey. I used to run into Bob at the shop. Then, later, as his disease began to consume the Bob I'd known, I met another, still genial and delightful man who was no longer too sure who I was. We no longer talked about WRA and Dickens or Shakespeare. We talked about the weather--and Mickey the barber. And that would have to do.
When Bob could no longer go to the barbershop, Mickey used to ask me how Bob was doing. I knew less than I should have. I knew he wasn't doing well. I'd even heard that he was barely hanging on. Mickey was sorry to hear that. Genuinely sorry.
As I was. Am. I guess I knew what was coming. It was just a matter of time. But, still, when the news came yesterday, it was a profound shock. The sun in Hudson seems dimmer today, the air a little colder. And most desperate is the thought that I will never again listen to Bob's voice--will never again learn at his side--will never jog beside him feigning knowledge I do not have--will never laugh so hard I cannot breathe. Instead, today, I'll weep.