Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas, Volume 16, Number 01, Spring, 2004 Page: 60
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Kathleen Krebbs Whitson,
Bill Jason Priest: Community College
Pioneer (Denton: University of North Texas
Press, 2004, 165 pp., $19.95)
When business leaders decided in the 1960s
that Dallas needed a top-notch junior college, a
national search led them to Californian Bill J.
Priest. An interview committee was impressed
not only by his reputation and experience but
also by his unpretentious, straight-talking manner.
In August 1965, Priest signed a five-year
contract, named his own hefty salary, and promised
to deliver a multi-college, comprehensive
community college system to the citizens of
Kathleen Whitsun's well-researched doctoral
dissertation is expanded into a lively biography
through the addition of photographs from the
Dallas County Community College District
(DCCCD) archives, utilization of Priest's private
papers, and numerous interviews with Priest and
individuals who worked with or for him. The
result is an impressive tale of the development of
one of the nation's premier two-year educational
institutions. The author further enhances her
work with endnotes, bibliography, and index.
Early chapters document Priest's boyhood
in rural California, his brief career as a professional
baseball player, and his service as a Navy
intelligence officer in the Philippines during
World War II. After graduate work at the
University of California at Berkeley, Priest
honed his leadership skills in California's twoyear
colleges, returning to teach and coach at his
alma mater Modesto Junior College and later
assuming administrative roles at Orange Coast
College in Costa Mesa and Los Rios College in
Rural two-year colleges were morphing in
the 1960s into urban-based institutions, combining
academic and technical programs. California
led the way in this dynamic evolution to the
modern community college which was occurring
nationwide. It was an exciting era, and Bill Priest
was a major player, not only in California, but also
nationally, through his role in the American
Association ofJunior and Community Colleges.
Priest eagerly took the helm in Dallas, opening
the flagship college, El Centro, in the old
Sanger-Harris department store downtown in
1966. From the start he enjoyed almost unlimited
financial resources, a cooperative board of
trustees, friendly press, and enthusiastic public
support. A strong advocate of aggressive marketing
and public relations, Priest was a powerful
communicator who sprinkled his public remarks
with slang, profanity, and humor, charming audiences.
He relished tough decisions concerning
site selection for additional campuses, architectural
design, recruitment of staff, and curriculum
offerings. Drawing on his California experience
and his own keen instincts, Priest tackled innate
tensions of a multi-college district: academic versus
technical programs, campus autonomy versus
district unity, and faculty versus administrative
priorities.With a staff recruited nationwide, Priest
introduced innovations to Texas higher education
including an associate degree in nursing, telecourses,
remedial programs, non-credit courses,
an open-door admissions policy, self-paced
instruction, and a heavy emphasis on counseling.
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Dallas Historical Society. Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas, Volume 16, Number 01, Spring, 2004, periodical, 2004; (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth35092/m1/62/: accessed August 20, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Dallas Historical Society.