“Why don’t you write in your column about someone not from Bristol?”

Good questions lead to good ideas. No, that particular question was not asked of me by the Bristol Herald Courier. No one at this newspaper, including my wonderful editor, has ever once told me who, or what, to write about. They allow me full autonomy of choice in my column on education (very thankfully, I might add). That particular question was asked of me by own soul. I find that when my own soul questions myself now and then, it is usually a good thing. In this case, it might also be a very good thing, as it has led to this particular column about a great man from Wise, Virginia.

His name was John Prince. “Dr. John” to those who knew him (and that would be a large majority of the local Wise populace, as I hear it).

By any measure of material things, Dr. John was not born wealthy. But from the beginning, neither in spunk nor spirit did he lack.

Like most people who make a good living in this wonderful country of equal opportunity in which we live, he climbed the ladder of success by hard work and education.

He was smart. Very smart. Yet his heart may have proven even bigger than his brain. (But, wait. That measure will be obvious by this column’s end. I’ll just finish his story.)

Dr. John was a dentist. Word has it that he often did dental work for poor children and needy families for little or nothing. Word also has it that he did much the same for local jail inmates … or virtually anyone else under the sun who was down on their luck and needed dental care. (Again, this man did not have a big bank account, just because he was a dentist.)

Dr. John and his wife raised six children, all of whom graduated Virginia Tech (gobble, gobble). Yes, the importance of education was highly impressed upon all the children. And grandchildren, too! All 15 grandchildren have either attained a college degree or are in the process of so doing at this writing. No, education is not the only way out of poverty, my friends. But in this country, it remains the best way up the ladder for the huge majority of our citizenry. Dr. John lauded and lived that fact, as do all his beloved descendants.

Two of Dr. John’s children are now doctors, themselves. Three of the others became successful business owners, including Bill Prince and his sweet wife, Gena, who now live in Bristol (you just knew a Bristol connection was coming somewhere, didn’t you?).

It is Dr. John’s relationship with the youngest of his six children (five sons and a daughter) that perhaps touches me the most, however. His youngest, with a master’s degree from Vanderbilt University (yes, all the children are as smart as tacks, too) came “out of the closet” as a young adult. Yes, he told the family he was gay.

Being a mountain man, Harley-riding, good ol’ boy from rural Southwest Virginia, his sixth child’s sexuality was hard for Dr. John to accept, at first. But love won out over stereotypical tradition. Dr. John’s youngest went on to win a nationally renowned award for raising money to support families who had a member diagnosed with AIDS. Yes, Dr. John was proud of all his children, for being exactly who they were.

Speaking of being who you are, Dr. John rode a Harley motorcycle in all 50 states (yes, he had to rent one in Hawaii and Alaska).

At Christmas time, Dr. John could often be found rolling money instead of motorcycles … onto the branches of freshly cut evergreen Christmas trees, to which he later personally delivered to local destitute folks in need.

Dr. John worked well into his 80s. One reason may have been that since he gave so much of his wealth away, he still needed to work. But the main reason was obviously that he just liked being around people. People were his life. He loved his blood kin family dearly. But Dr. John apparently looked upon every soul who ever came his way as an extended family member of some sort. This may well have been the best measure of the man, his “wealth” … and his life.

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Ben Talley is an inductee into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, a former Virginia of the Year, and a McGlothlin Award Winner for Teaching Excellence.

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