College of the Holy Cross alumnus Cornelius “Neil” B. Prior Jr. is giving the school the single largest gift in its history: $25 million for a new performance facility that he hopes will inject more fun and joy into students’ education.
“I started to think about what I could leave behind,” said Prior, who graduated in 1956 and is 79 years old. He decided, he said, to “put it in something that was fun for me and for you.”
He recalled how the Rev. Gerard Mears started an art appreciation course during Prior’s years there, but at the beginning, there was not much else in the way of fine arts at the college. Prior, an English major, spent a lot of time at the Worcester Art Museum.
Holy Cross has changed since then. In the introduction to Wednesday’s announcement, the packed crowd in the Rehm Library watched a video of students working in theater, music, dance and art before live performances afterward. Graduates include actors, artists and directors.
Prior’s gift will be not a beginning, but a new beginning, Holy Cross President the Rev. Philip Boroughs said.
Wednesday marked for Christians the beginning of Lent, which comes from the world “lencten,” meaning spring.
“Today, we begin a new springtime for the arts at the College of the Holy Cross, because of Neil Prior, an alumnus, a philanthropist and inspiring man who wants us to be all we can be,” Boroughs said.
Shirish Korde, chairman of Holy Cross’s music department, which was once part of the visual arts department, said, “Your gift is a game changer for us.”
Prior, who started his career as a lawyer with Sullivan & Cromwell in New York, lives in the Virgin Islands and is chairman of the board of Atlantic Tele-Network Inc., a Beverly-based telecommunications services company. He is a former US Navy officer and Fulbright scholar and is a graduate of Harvard Law School. In St. Thomas, he is chairman of the Forum, a not-for-profit arts organization, and in Maine, he is a director of the Kneissel Music School.
“I appreciate this recognition of the gift that I am able to make thanks in great part to the great education I got here and little bit from Harvard later on, and I’ve always wanted Holy Cross to have that same level of recognition in the country that Harvard has,” Prior told the crowd Wednesday. “The arts give you that joyous feeling... It elevates you. At the same time you’re having fun, you’re experiencing another dimension.”
He said he was moved almost to tears by a student and faculty performance of part of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras on Wednesday. A recording of Salli Terri singing the same piece was the first 33-1/3 record he ever bought. “You were better than Salli Terri,” he told the young soprano Wednesday.