While pursuing an education at Arkansas State College in Jonesboro in the mid-1950s, Harold Priest worked his way through school at a local print shop.
Like many young people in college, he was initially uncertain of his educational focus, but soon set his sights on becoming an educator — a career choice that would later provide fond memories for students at several Missouri high schools.
"Harold graduated from college with his bachelor of science degree in education," said the late educator's wife, Sally. "He had gone to college with the son of the superintendent of the high school at Climax Springs (Missouri), and was offered a job there (in 1955)."
Priest taught social studies and history in addition to coaching baseball and softball. Shortly after embarking upon his teaching career in the small Camden County village, he met the former Sally Moulder, and the two were married in December 1956.
Sally recalled, "After two years at Climax Springs, Harold was one of three teachers requesting a raise of $30 per month. After the Board of Education denied their request, the teachers left the school, and he was hired to teach at Cole Camp (in August 1957)."
The budding educator taught classes while also serving as a basketball coach. Throughout the next year, he gained local notoriety for leading the small Cole Camp basketball team to a 29-2 record for the season.
Clyde Penick, who was the superintendent initially hired as Priest at Climax Springs, had been hired as superintendent at Russellville. At the end of the 1959 school year, Penick hired Priest to come teach and coach for the rural Cole County school.
Sally recalled, "For the first year, he was the coach and taught physical education for Russellville High School."
Prior to the start of the school year, in May 1959, the Priests became parents of a daughter, Connie Sue. The following year, Priest made the transition into administration when hired as high school principal. He continued, however, to coach in addition to his new responsibilities in administration.
The school's proximity to nearby Jefferson City lent itself to an opportunity to continue making an investment in his own education. In the summer of 1962, Priest was awarded a master's of education degree at Lincoln University.
Decades earlier, in 1937, a four-year-old Priest had his right eye surgically removed because of a tumor. For the rest of his life, he wore a glass eye — a device resulting in a perceived stern "look" that inspired many humorous memories among several former students.
"I was a seventh-grader and had such a terrible headache, so I went to his office for an aspirin," former Russellville student Jerry Koestner recalled. "He was reading a book and looked up at me (with his glass eye) and asked, 'Koestner, what do you need?'"
Chuckling, he added, "He was still reading with his other eye, and it scared me so badly that I forgot what I came there for. He simply said, 'Well, Jerry, if you remember, come back.'"
Sharon (Jones) Young, recalls Priest serving as the sponsor for the Russellville High School class of 1961. On one occasion, the class was lined up in the hallway, and she decided to sit down on one of the pedestal ashtrays in the front lobby. (At the time, adult visitors were allowed to smoke in the building.)
"Mr. Priest came down the hall, and I quickly stood and knocked the round metal ring off the ashtray," Young reflected. "It went rolling down the hallway, and I ran after it with my heart pounding because I knew I was in trouble but he didn't say a word and just stood there with that 'look.'"
A respected coach and principal, Priest and his wife were filled with unfathomable sorrow at the death of their 5-year-old daughter and only child, Connie Sue, in December 1964.
"The community of Russellville, with the cooperation of the Eugene and Versailles High Schools, will hold a Memorial Benefit Basketball game in honor of Connie Priest," reported the Sunday News and Tribune on Jan. 10, 1965.
The newspaper explained proceeds from the game and a community supper would be "turned over to Priest, who is the basketball coach at Russellville High School and has built the Indians into a Central Missouri power."
Priest remained at Russellville until 1966, at which time he became superintendent of schools at Lowry City. While there, he enrolled in college in Warrensburg, earning his educational specialist degree. In 1968, he became superintendent in Belle, remaining there for the next decade.
Harold was superintendent for a couple of years at Sherwood School District in Cass County before going to Linn as their superintendent. After five years at Linn, he decided to retire since he had 30 years in education.
Shortly after retiring, the Priests moved to Jefferson City, where Harold sold real estate for a brief period and enjoyed the occasional game of golf. The 85-year-old retired educator died in 2018; he was laid to rest near his daughter in Enloe Cemetery near Russellville.
Sally Priest said she joined her husband in later years for many class reunions and alumni events at Russellville High School, fondly observing as students reminisced and shared memories of the educator who had provided a positive influence in their young lives.
"All of those years he served at Russellville really brought him close to the students," she said. Not just because of his work as the principal and coach, but he basically fulfilled the role of school counselor until one was hired."
She added, "He knew all of the kids, and when he moved on and became superintendent at other schools, he no longer had that close connection with the student body."
Jeremy P. Amick is writing a series of articles on the history of the Russellville area in honor of the Missouri's bicentennial.