After earning a grant from the National Science Foundation, Denver Prince was attending Vanderbilt University in the summer of 1959 when he was contacted by A.E. Burdick, the academic dean at Arkansas State Teachers College, now the University of Central Arkansas, about teaching at the institution.
“I was taking 14 hours and didn’t have time to come to Conway for an interview. Dean Burdick met me at the airport in Nashville to interview me for the job at UCA,” Prince said. “He came back and reported to Dr. Snow that he felt they should hire me.”
Prince was scheduled to return to Magnet Cove that fall and continue his role as a science teacher. Instead, he joined the UCA faculty.
“I started in the fall of 1959 teaching at UCA — teaching chemistry and physics,” Prince said.
Shortly into his faculty tenure, Prince applied for leave to go back to graduate school. He became the first chairman of the Department of Physics and Astronomy in 1965, the same year he earned a doctorate from Oklahoma State University. He remained in that position until he retired in 1994.
Prince had a storied career at UCA from his musical feats to student-centered educational approach.
He said Jerry Manion, former chair of the chemistry department, was interested in learning how to play the banjo and three other science faculty could play instruments.
“I couldn’t play anything, but we built a tub with a stick and a string as bass and formed a group called The Professors,” Prince said.
The Professors were a bluegrass-singing group made up of faculty members from the chemistry, physics and biology departments, which were all located in Lewis Science Center at that time.
The individual members were Ralva Bass on guitar, Neal Buffalo on fiddle, Manion on banjo, Prince on the washtub bass and Faril Simpson on mandolin and guitar.
The group was organized in the fall of 1967 and made their debut for the Kiwanis Club of Conway, as several members also belonged to the club. The Professors were a popular local attraction playing at campus, community and statewide events.
The other members of The Professors are now deceased, but Prince fondly remembers his time with them, from recording their album, traveling and performing at colleges and universities to their close friendship and playful times.
“We were playing once at the Miss Arkansas contest in Hot Springs, and I had the tub,” Prince said. “Manion had an expensive banjo, and everybody was interested in the tub instead of his banjo. He said, ‘You’ve got to get you a bass.’ So, I did.”
Prince has long since retired his bass, but not his commitment to UCA. He continues to support the university through endowments, the UCA Alumni Association and the Purple Circle, the official support organization for UCA Athletics.
This commitment to UCA and its students was recognized in 2003 when the “Old Gym,” constructed in 1936, was renamed the Prince Center in honor of Prince and his family. His wife, Freda ’62, ’66, and children, Melissa ’80, Mickey ’75 and Randy, all attended UCA.
In addition to his teaching and administrative duties, Prince volunteered for other roles at UCA, including cross-country track coach. Running had become a personal hobby for Prince, and working with the team allowed him to maintain the hobby, as well as impact students.
One such student was Michael J. White ’76. White was a business student taking a general science class in Lewis Science Center.
Prince said he remembers seeing White standing alone in a hallway wearing running shorts. He asked the student to join the team. White reluctantly agreed, but the decision changed his life.
In March, Prince received a two-page letter from White, which reads in part, “I cannot thank you enough when you reached out to me that fateful day in the science building. You gave me gifts I can never repay you. Those gifts, comradery/learning to push myself/set higher goals and expectations/to meet new challenges, had far-reaching affects that even decades later, I am still unwrapping. Yes, there were days of hard runs, but I look at them today with a huge sense of pride, all because of you. It gave me a higher level of self-confidence, which is an area in my life I totally lacked. Had it not been for you reaching out, my time at SCA/UCA would just have been time spent at college.”
Throughout his career and retirement, Prince has received many correspondences from former students. He said knowing the impact he’s had on their lives is what he treasures most.
“It’s the students,” he said. “It was always about the students.”