Former music chairman and professor James Pruett's memory cherished


When James Pruett applied to UNC as a prospective undergraduate in 1951, he halfheartedly wrote in his application that he aspired to be a college professor — he hoped the profession would give him an unusual freedom to be with books and with music.

But Pruett, a retired UNC music professor and alumnus, never expected to spend 25 years at the University teaching music, including 10 years as the department chairman.

Pruett, 81, died on Feb. 26 after a battle with cancer.

“It’s almost a cliche to say that he was a scholar and a gentlemen, but he was both,” said Mark Katz, the current music department chairman. “He exemplified the best qualities of both — he was friendly, he was refined, he was well-spoken.”

The Mt. Airy, N.C. native was heavily influenced by his hometown’s lively music and theater scene. He was childhood best friends with actor Andy Griffith, and his mother loved both music and reading — these influences are what propelled Pruett’s lifelong interests in books, music and teaching.

He arrived at UNC in 1951 as a pianist, and earned his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees in music and music history from the University. Pruett met his wife, Lilian, while he was in graduate school — she, too, was a pianist and a musicologist.

Pruett eventually joined the music department staff in 1961 alongside his wife. He was hired as UNC’s music librarian and then eventually advanced to a full professorship. He served as the department’s chairman from 1976-1986.

During his time at UNC, Pruett expanded the school’s music library, making it one of the best collections in the country.

It was his work with the music library that led to his next career step at the Library of Congress as the Chief of the Music Division, from 1987-1995.

Brent Wissick, a music professor who was hired while Pruett was chairman, said Pruett was always an accessible and wise mentor.

“He was serious, but he was warm,” he said. “You knew he was an excellent professional person, but you also felt comfortable with him as a human being.”

Music professor Tim Carter worked with Pruett to develop the Pruett Fellowship, a program that allows three musicology students to spend a summer archiving at the Library of Congress Music Division. The program started in the summer of 2007.

Carter said even after Pruett officially left UNC, he still remained a pillar in the Chapel Hill community, keeping his residency in Chapel Hill while he was working at the Library of Congress.

“He was an old-style, southern gentleman, in the best sense of the term,” Carter said. “Everyone only had good things to say about him.”

A memorial service will be held for Pruett later in the semester, but an exact date has not been announced.

“Those of us who worked with him as people, one-on-one, including the performing musicians and faculty, all loved him deeply and knew that he cared about us,” Wissick said.

“We miss him.”

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