In Memoriam

Joseph Roger Priest
Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Physics
1929 - 2009

Joseph R. Priest, Professor Emeritus of Physics at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, passed away on September 25, 2009.

Born October 14, 1929 in Highland, Ohio, he earned his bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from Wilmington College in 1951. He served his country in the Army during the Korean War, and then earned his master’s degree in physics from Miami University in 1956. He earned his Ph.D. with Donald Tendam at Purdue University in 1960, studying angular distributions of protons and deuterons from reactions utilizing alpha and He-3 beams. After working for IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York, studying stress in thin films, Joe joined the Miami Physics faculty in 1962. He was promoted to professor in 1968, and altogether spent 45 years as a faculty member at Miami.

At Miami, Joe’s early research program involved collaborations utilizing proton, deuteron, and alpha beams incident on selected targets at the cyclotron of the NASA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. He also collaborated on studies of reactions utilizing the 600-MeV proton beam of the NASA Space Radiation Effects Laboratory synchrocyclotron at Newport News, Virginia. A number of Joe’s students earned master’s degrees in physics at Miami in investigations based on this research. Joe also directed students earning master’s degrees in Miami’s Institute of Environmental Science in concert with his interests in energy and the environment.

Joe’s generation of scientists experienced an unprecedented evolution in technology, especially in the area of computers and their applications in the educational setting. Joe and his colleagues, John Snider and Don Kelly, in the Department of Physics, were at the forefront of the development of the use of this new technology in the teaching laboratory. Joe’s interests in instrumentation and electronics led to his developing software and experiments for use with personal computers in the sophomore laboratory course. In 1989, Joe collaborated with John Snider to publish “Electronics for Physics Experiments: using the Apple IIe computer”, and in 1990 they received the Higher Education Software Award for Distinguished Curriculum Implementation from the National Center for Research to Improve Postsecondary Teaching and Learning (NCRIPTAL).

Joe’s scholarly productivity in pedagogical application of new electronics technology was prodigious. Almost every time he taught the sophomore electronics course he developed a novel experiment, many of which were published in “The Physics Teacher” or “The American Journal of Physics” – the most prestigious pedagogy journal in the field. The last of these papers appeared in 2009, and he was working on another publication at the time of his death. Mid-career, Joe developed a scholarly interest in the physics of pendulums, which perhaps contributed to his role as the departmental ‘curator’ of Culler’s famous Foucault pendulum. On this topic, he published several articles describing the electronics required to keep it in ‘perpetual’ motion.Joe also gave a number of invited talks at conferences throughout the U.S. and Europe on the use of computers in the teaching laboratory. He was an internationally recognized expert in this field of endeavor. In summer 1989, Joe accepted an invitation to serve as a visiting professor at Osmania University, Hyderabad, India, to assist in establishing computer-based instruction.

In addition, Joe published “University Physics” with George Arkfen, David Griffing and Don Kelly, as well as a long string of articles on teaching, often in collaboration with his students or with James Poth, professor emeritus of physics. Joe’s interest in environmental physics was manifest in his publication of “Problems of Our Physical Environment” in 1973, regularly updated and now in use in its sixth edition re-titled as “Energy: Principles, Problems, Alternatives”.Joe was heavily committed to and involved in restructuring the beginning course sequence in Miami’s physics curriculum. Known as the Miami University Physics Education Project, this endeavor was generously supported by NSF grants and gained national recognition by Project Kaleidoscope as one of the “Programs that Work”. Joe was subsequently one of only twenty-five physicists invited to serve on the NSF Workshop on Undergraduate Physics Education chaired by Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman.

In 1986, Joe was recognized by the Associated Student Government (ASG) as the Outstanding Professor and in 1987 was one of the first two faculty members to receive the Distinguished Educator Award from Miami’s College of Arts and Science. In 1990, Joe was presented the Alumni Educator Award from Wilmington College. In 1991, he was named as a Miami University Distinguished Professor. In 1993, he became the first science professor to teach at Miami’s John E. Dolibois European Center in Luxembourg, and in 1994, Joe was awarded Miami’s highest honor, the Benjamin Harrison Medallion.

A passionate and energetic educator who cared deeply about his students, Joe continued to develop new experiments and to teach electronics instrumentation long after his formal retirement. Joe also applied his talent for teaching to serve the Oxford community by offering courses through Miami’s Institute for Learning in Retirement.

Loved by his students, Joe was also a devoted husband, father, and grandfather. He and his beloved wife, Mary Jean, enjoyed fifty years of marriage. They were very active in the Oxford and Miami communities as well as St. Mary’s Church and Catholic Campus Ministry, where they served jointly on the Catholic Student Advisory Board and as instructors in a course that prepared engaged couples for marriage. Joe also served as President of the Parish Council and as a Reader and Eucharistic Minister. In these roles Joe and Mary Jean served as mentors and role models to friends, peers, students and young couples.Joe’s pride in his children and grandchildren knew no bounds. He talked about them freely and often, and he followed their accomplishments avidly. He communicated with them constantly and lovingly. He also kept an incredibly well-organized and complete photographic history of special family occasions over the years. Many of these photos adorn the walls of the Priest home.

Joe had a great love for the outdoors, in particular gardening, biking, traveling, and the ocean. He also enjoyed sports, especially baseball. During his high school days in Highland County he was known as an outstanding pitcher with a wicked curve ball. Even in his last years when he was dealing with health challenges, he would take 50-mile bike rides with his Oxford biking friends. He viewed as one of his greatest accomplishments the construction of his family’s home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, which he built himself with the help of many friends. On special occasions he often enjoyed a good cigar sitting on the back deck of 32 Circle Drive.

Joe had one of those rare personalities who would befriend anyone – regardless of their stature or status. His modest, rural upbringing left an indelible stamp on his character and provided him with valuable and varied life experiences that enabled him to interact easily and comfortably with a wide range of individuals. Joe was the kind of man we would all like to emulate; generous, thoughtful, and with the highest integrity. He was universally well-loved and respected.A fitting description of Joe’s career is that of Chaucer’s Clerk of Oxenford: “… gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.”

Respectfully submitted by: T. William Houk, Glenn M. Julian, Michael J. Pechan, William E. Scott, Ronald Surface