“The secret of a good life is to have the right loyalties and hold them in the right scale of values.” – Norman Thomas, six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America

We are all contributors to history. But few create a legacy while preserving others’ history.

Joanne Prisley, 76, has spent 28 years with the Athens County Historical Society and Museum working part-time, both formerly as the director and currently as curator. With her resourceful mind and focused determination for community issues, she has given knowledge and spirit to our town by transcending the conventions of her time.

Chapter One: The early years

“My dad was very radical; he was just wild,” says Prisley. “He always had an opinion.” His opinions supporting communism cost him his job. “He was blacklisted and he didn’t work for years.” Her mother was born to Irish immigrants. “My mother was the one in our neighborhood that if there was something they didn’t like, they would say, ‘Mrs. Dove, you’re going to have to do something about this,'” Prisley says. “She was always out there rabble-rousing and making sure people were treated right.” Both her parents were schooled only through the eighth grade.

Her brother, 11 years older, would become a football star for Notre Dame and the National Football League, and then coach for 37 years. He brought home his college books, which Prisley’s father voraciously read. Her brother’s fame sparked their home-town’s interest, which she and her father opposed. “He became well-known; then they wanted him to come and work in the mill to stay in shape so they could show pictures,” she says.

Her family was naturally inclined toward social values and seeing all sides an issue. “Nobody sat down at home and said, ‘Look, we are going to go out there and support people,'” says Prisley. “It was just what you did.”

Chapter 2: The college years

Prisley traveled southwest from Youngstown to begin her college education in Athens in 1949. Majoring in government (now called political science), she enjoyed the small department where everyone seemed to know each other.

Athens in 1949 to 1953 was mainly Republican. “Everybody thinks of this as this big Democratic stronghold,” says Prisley, “but it was very conservative.”

Athens is where she met her husband, the late Alexander Prisley. He would eventually serve as associate professor emeritus of political science at Ohio University for 37 years. “I met him in Ray Gustafson’s American Political Parties class,” recalls Prisley. “He wanted to take an Alpha Gam to the dance so he could double date with his roommate. I was the only one he knew, so that’s how we got started.” Political involvement strengthened their bond.

She earned her master’s degree in government the following year while working as a graduate assistant in the dorm and her own department. After their marriage, the couple would return to Athens in 1957 while her husband earned his master’s. She was a high-demand residence counselor in three successive dorms, and her husband was one of the first males to live in each.

Chapter 3: The working years

In a time when the majority of women were not working, Prisley was a trailblazer.

Straight out of college she worked for Proctor and Gamble in an innovative market and consumer researcher program. She traveled to conduct door-to-door casual interviews and later recorded extracted data.

She then taught fifth grade in Youngstown, which she despised. “I was raised in a family where if you take on a job, you do it if it kills you,” Prisley says. “I didn’t go and cry and say, ‘I have to leave.'” Despite her feelings, she cared enough to convince school nurses of one boy’s dyslexia and another’s epilepsy, both uncommon diagnoses.

She married, moved to Cleveland, and began employment with BF Goodrich in industrial research and market analysis. No other women worked in that capacity, save one, who was the department head. Though married, she was prohibited from traveling with the men. “They wouldn’t let me travel on the same plane. I had to stay at a different hotel,” she says. “I used to type my own report, but I was typing the fellas’ report, too. I’m sure I wasn’t making as much money. I know I was smarter.”

During this time, the CIA was investigating her husband’s Russian heritage, making his own employment difficult since the available work did not match his capabilities. Prisley was the primary breadwinner.

From 1958-63, while her husband was earning his doctorate at Brown in Rhode Island, she worked in a rare book library with printed material dated before 1800. “That’s where I learned about collecting: how you restore things, how you preserve them, how you do exhibits,” says Prisley. “They gave me good training there.”

They returned to Athens in 1963 on her husband’s agreement to temporarily replace a colleague, teaching American government. She worked as one of two assistant deans of women. He had not yet completed his dissertation, and would not for three more years. With a bachelor’s in history, he struggled to teach the material. Says Prisley, “Luckily, I had saved all my notes. He used that as a basis for his lectures.”

Chapter 4: The child-raising years

Ten years into the marriage, the decision was made to have children. In 1965, at the age of 33, Joanne’s son was born at the old Sheltering Arms Hospital on Athens’ west side. She had chosen not to work. But it didn’t stop her from joining clubs and organizations. She was a member of the Democratic Women’s Club; an adviser to her former sorority, Alpha Gamma; an adult dame for her husband’s fraternity; and co-chair for the Cancer Crusade. Lacking cooking skills, she joined a luncheon group from the time her son was 7 weeks old, called the Ladies Outdoor Gardening and Karate Club. They still meet to this day. She notes, “We have wills, money left for when we die to have a party and a big dinner.”

After her son began grade school, Joanne joined the PTA and was homeroom mother. She also worked part time. “Bill Lavelle was the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, and worked out of his office here,” she says. “I was the administrative assistant in Athens.”

Chapter 5: The historical society years

The building where Prisley has spent the last 28 years, her longest stint of employment, once housed the Athens Public Library. In 1980, the Athens County Historical Society & Museum found its first home, occupying the upstairs. Though the organization itself had started slowly in 1960, it was too late, in Prisley’s opinion. “As a community, we should have had a historical society back in the 1800s,” she says.

When the library moved to its new facility on Home Street in 1993, the Historical Society & Museum spread itself into both floors. The current displays, library, files, researching area and bookshop began to expand into the respected organization that it is today.

“We did the same thing the Smithsonian did, but without staff, equipment or money,” says Prisley. The Historical Society & Museum relies upon membership fees and book sales to keep the bills paid. Their stunning collections and exhibits are from county residents’ donations. With little, the organization has gained much respect, both historically and professionally. Says Prisley, “We’ve had people come here from across the country to research. They say this is one of the most outstanding small historical societies they have ever been in.”

The society also offers genealogical researching tools, tours and classes. Their publications program has more than 100 titles on its list.

But spend any amount of time with Joanne Prisley, and you will become keenly aware of her sharp propensity for accuracy. She remembers in fine detail her husband’s teaching schedule from 45 years ago. “I remember weird things,” admits Prisley. “My husband always said, ‘How do you know how to find things?'” This ability, which she denies is a talent, has served in countless research projects, in which she has been reliable in finding the proper source. Her most productive thinking time: when she is cleaning. Then she can remember specific pages and books.

Her only regret for the Historical Society & Museum is the lack of storage space, and the proper funding for humidity and temperature control to ensure perfect preservation procedures. She says she will miss interacting with people.

Chapter 6: The current years

Keep your eyes open for a woman walking around town, armed with a clipboard. She will be taking meticulous notes on code-enforcement violations to help the city keep standards alive and avoid more deterioration. Having served with the Metropolitan Housing Authority since 1977, chaired the Athens Planning Commission for a 16-year term that expired in January, and involved with the neighborhood association, Prisley is keenly aware of local issues.

“My father always said, ‘Keep your mouth shut for the first six months, and you may speak the next six months. But wait a whole year before you try to do anything.'” Her family training has never wavered, but only burned brighter in her later years. “My husband said I was more radical than (my father) was,” she says.

Having watched the university change and grow, and impact growth in the city of Athens, Prisley feels the most disheartening about some people’s self-centeredness. “Some don’t know how to get along with other people in town,” she says. “People are just not considerate. They forget that they live in the midst of lots of people. Everybody has certain rights.” Of particular concern are trash and noise pollution, and lack of respect for pedestrians.

Prisley is also frustrated by the assumption that this is poor, isolated Appalachia. “This is not the back of beyond. It was on the main road, and the east and west, north and south railways ran through,” she says. “People who (originally) came here were well-educated people. They were hard workers and office holders. They gave up everything because they wanted to make money, come out West, and do better.”

Her husband supported her and her views. “He’d believe strongly in things but I was always dashing off to the City Council, going to the Board of Zoning Appeals, and calling up the police.”

Her husband died after battling an illness in 2005. “I always think funerals are a time to celebrate,” Prisley says. “I don’t sit around and cry about things. We used to have a good time going to cemeteries, putting flowers on, going out to eat afterwards or having a big picnic. It was an occasion. I just hope that I pop off when I’m out running around. I’d rather pop off in the middle of some cleaning fit.”

She claims she is not an artistic person, and completes exhibits in order to convey information. “My biggest talent is on the clean-up committee,” she says. “I’m very good at putting things in order.” She’s fascinated by watching people. “I love watching how they react to things,” she says. “Sometimes I do them over in my head. If I could say, ‘Now if you just let me cut your hair or change your hairdo…’ It’s constantly wanting to organize things.”

Prisley confesses she will not be bored after her retirement. She has plenty to do. Still involved with her sorority, Alpha Gamma Delta, she is undergraduate adviser, treasurer of the house company, and president of the alumni group. She recently helped plan their 100th anniversary on this campus, and also handles and organizes their historic memorabilia. She is active in her church, St. Paul’s, keeping their photographs and historic items in order, and organizing exhibits. She remains on the statewide board of the Ohio Association of Historical Societies and Museums.

There is no doubt she will continue to make history.