Priest, Billy

Billy Joe Priest died June 22, 2020 at the age of 91. He was born on December 20, 1928 in Wickliffe, Ky. He was the only child of Joe Tommy and Lucille Olivia (Rollins) Priest. The family spent the early years of his life during the Great Depression moving from southern town to southern town so that his father could work as a union dragline operator. His mother found work as a short order cook. They had few possessions since they were always moving. He estimated that between first and ninth grade he was in 20 or 22 schools. He got his first job at age 12 as a water boy serving construction gangs working on the Army airfield in Biloxi, MS making 10 cents an hour. As he wanted a different life, he left his parents (with their blessing) and moved in with his maternal grandparents in Wickliffe, Kentucky. He graduated from Wickliffe High School in 1945 at age 16. Determined to build a life with more choices than his parents, a foreman at the company for which his father worked promised him employment every summer on construction projects so he could pay for school. He was always grateful to that man who allowed him to pursue his dream. He started that fall at Murray State Teachers College. His transient schooling left him poorly prepared for college. He was always embarrassed at his transcript, but it showed his determination as he had to take several classes multiple times. Despite these struggles he managed to graduate. He said he chose education as a profession because he knew it was important and wanted to make sure that other kids were better prepared than he was. In his senior year in the fall of 1948 he met a freshman girl from Lone Oak, Kentucky who changed his life. He told of the months he attempted to get a date with June Allen. When she finally agreed, their first date was an exciting trip to the school library to study. He stayed at Murray to work on a master’s degree and to try to win the affections of Ms. Allen. Though he was called for military service for the Korean War, the university president intervened to keep him in school for the few remaining months he needed to complete his studies. He finished his degree, finished his courtship of June, and enlisted in the Air Force. They married while he was home on Christmas leave on December 25, 1951 – then he went back to the service and June went back to college for another year and a half. After completing his service commitment, they returned to Kentucky to start teaching careers. Finding that teachers’ salaries were significantly higher in Illinois they crossed the river and stayed for the next 50 years. While he taught science and she taught English at Carrier Mills, they went to summer school at the University of Illinois. June pursued her master’s degree while Bill pursued a doctorate degree to prepare to be an administrator. They moved to Mt. Vernon where they continued to teach and finished their degree work. Rather than stop working to write a dissertation, he obtained an advanced certificate. In Mt. Vernon they welcomed their first son, William Allen. He obtained his first principal’s job in 1964 at Piasa Southwestern High School. Their second son Steven Joseph was born a few weeks after they moved, on the morning of the first day of school at his new job. He stayed up all night at the hospital and then went home and took his older son to work as he felt he needed to be there and they had no family or community contacts to watch the child. That is an example of his dedication to duty. In 1966 he took the job as high school principal in Mt. Carmel. He found the hometown he never had and stayed 49 years until his care needs made it important to be closer to his sons. He never wanted to leave Mt. Carmel. He served as the high school principal for many years. In 1984 he left MCHS and became principal of both South Elementary and Keensburg schools. He stayed there until retirement in 1994. One of many experiences he enjoyed was arranging for the 1974 football team run to the state championship game in the first year of the playoffs. He had to write the book as to how to do it as they went along. He talked of flying in Steve Litherland’s private plane to Bloomington to pick up the school ticket allotment. He was thrilled when Steve helped lead the 1982 team to the state championship. For years he read all the graduates names for the ceremony. He practiced for hours to get it right in honor of each student. He appreciated all the people who would come up to him in later years to talk about their days in his schools. He believed that schools were important to communities, and communities important to schools. He was a member of the Chamber of Commerce board of directors for many years, paying his dues out of his own pocket. He served as Chamber President in 1989. He was a long time Rotarian, joining the club in 1966 within months or arriving in Mt. Carmel. He served as President in 1985-86 and received his 50-year award in 2016 and remaining a member until his death. He served on the board of the Illinois Principals Association, on accreditation teams for the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, and as a representative to the IHSA. He and June were very active at EUM Church. At various times over decades he served as the Sunday School Superintendent, Administrative Board, and Board of Trustees. Until they began to lose their health, they attended almost every Sunday. He was preceded in death by his wife of almost 59 years June, to whom he was extremely devoted. He has missed her tremendously since 2010. He is survived by his sons William Allen (Joan) of Louisville, KY, and Steven Joseph (Sheila) of Brentwood, TN. Also surviving are 8 grandchildren; Christina (Jacob) Harrison of Oxford, Ohio, Thomas (Tanya) Priest of Columbus, Ohio, Hannah Priest and Mary Priest, Louisville, KY; Sarah Jordan (Brian) Davis, Lincoln (fiancé Maraya) Priest, Tanner Priest, and Meredith Priest, all of Nashville, TN, as well as great grandchildren David and Emma Harrison. He was buried beside June in the Mt Kenton Cemetery in Lone Oak, Kentucky. A memorial service will be held in Mt. Carmel Illinois at a future date. Memorial contributions can be made to the MCHS Alumni Foundation c/o Emily Teague, 115 Northwood Drive, Mt. Carmel, IL 62863.

Published 12:00 AM, Wednesday Jun. 24, 2020
Updated 01:30 PM, Wednesday Jun. 24, 2020

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