Chapel Hill: Obituaries

James Worrell Pruett

James (Jim) Worrell Pruett of Chapel Hill, age 81, died February 26 at home, cradled in the arms of his family.

Jim Pruett was born in Mt. Airy, NC in 1932, the youngest of six children. His father, who had a small grocery/meat store, taught him to properly carve a turkey, swing a hammer, and to be a good man unafraid of challenges. His mother’s love of music and reading would greatly affect Jim—to the end of his life he kept his mother’s 19th-century chaise lounge on which he used to read as a young boy.

Home of the world’s largest granite quarry, Mt. Airy and Surry County had a remarkably lively music/theater life. In Jim’s own words, “the musical life in Mt. Airy was wonderful: oratorio, opera, drama, musical comedy, church and school music all were extraordinary for such a small town.”

His older brothers and sisters went into law, nursing, ministry, the Army, and business. For Jim, Mt. Airy’s influences and his family’s belief in education led to a life of music, books, and learning. Over the years he sang in choirs, performed in a radio quartet, learned to play the piano, played French horn in the Moravian church band, and spent summers acting in The Horn in the West, a musical historical play performed in Boone, NC.

Jim’s family and teachers encouraged him to go to college. When writing the required admissions essay, without really knowing what it meant, he wrote that he hoped to be a college professor, suspecting that it would mean unusual freedom to be with books and music, as well as like-minded people. Little did he know where that would lead.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he earned bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees in music and music history. In graduate school he met and in 1957 married a fellow student and pianist, Lilian Pibernik-Benyovszky, a native of Zagreb, Croatia. Also in 1957, he began his professional career as reserve librarian at UNC’s Wilson Library. In the early years the couple lived in a small upstairs apartment at the corner of Henderson and Franklin Streets, overlooking the post office, the campus statue known as Silent Sam, and the nearby University Presbyterian Church, where Jim served as music director.

In 1961, Jim became UNC’s music librarian, eventually advancing to full professor and serving as the Music Department’s chairman for a decade. He became known as an inspiring teacher and dedicated mentor to generations of students, many of whom went on to teach in universities across the nation. In 1993, he was honored as one of UNC’s distinguished alumni.

After saving money for years, in 1967 Jim ventured across the ocean for the first time, taking his family on a three-month tour of Europe, during which he built strong relationships with European universities and the rare book dealers who had become an important part of his life as a librarian. In later years he would spend many months in Paris, France, living two blocks from Notre Dame cathedral, learning to speak French and doing research on rare manuscripts in French collections.

By the mid-1970s he was widely known for building UNC’s music library into a significant, nationally admired institution with a major collection. He also served as president of the Music Library Association from 1973-1975 and as editor of NOTES, 1974-77.

He then was offered the position of Chief of the Music Division at the U.S. Library of Congress, which would have meant running the largest music library in the world, with over nine million items in the music collection, and resources of millions of dollars for operations and acquisitions. Jim and his wife discussed it, considered the impact of moving to Washington on her career and their young children, and turned the job down with no regrets.

Ten years later he was approached again about becoming the Music Chief at the Library of Congress. This time he accepted, saying “the chance to run the best music library on the entire planet is something I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams as a kid on Oakdale Street in Mt. Airy. Somehow, the chance has come around TWICE for me. I think I’m supposed to say yes this time.”

From 1987 to 1995 Jim served as Chief of the Music Division of the Library of Congress, where he had a dramatic impact on rare materials acquisitions, public concerts, recordings and publications, new exhibits, private donations, and the Music Division’s relationships with museums and libraries around the world. Until his death Jim remained a member of Washington’s Cosmos Club (founded by the explorer John Wesley Powell to bring together leaders in the sciences and arts), and he was one of the founding members of the Creativity Foundation, an organization which celebrates the legacy of Benjamin Franklin and provides awards and support for creativity in all aspects of life.

Jim’s interests and skills extended far beyond professional life. He was an avid motorcyclist and gardener. One summer he built a 600-square-foot music room addition that was the showpiece of the family home.

Jim’s innate curiosity and love of the world may have come from his parents or the books he read as a child, but his wife and career inspired the deep desire to explore the world. After years of traveling for work, in retirement Jim and Lilian spent almost two decades traveling America and the world, from Alaska to Madagascar, Turkey to Russia, Egypt to China. Jim always looked forward to somewhere new, but each summer included an extended visit to the beloved city of Dubrovnik, Croatia.

To his everlasting credit, in patient and gentle ways Jim imparted his curiosity and love of the world to his children. He has renewed subscriptions to National Geographic and Smithsonian magazines to his children every year, and every trip in the last half century has meant that postcards would soon find their way home, always signed with love.

Jim is survived by his wife of 57 years, Lilian, son Mark Worrell Pruett (Spartanburg, SC), daughter Ellen Pruett Eudy and husband Timothy (Houston, TX), brother Jack (Hampstead, NH), and many nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by parents Samuel and Gladys Pruett, brothers Conway and Samuel, sisters Dorothy Vogler and Mildred Snider.

Since 2007, a fellowship program honoring Jim has enabled UNC graduate students to spend summers interning at the Library of Congress. Memorial gifts may be directed to the James W. and Lilian P. Pruett Fund in Music, at UNC. Please mail contributions to the UNC Arts and Sciences Foundation, 134 E. Franklin St, Chapel Hill, NC 27514, Attn: Peyton Daniels.

A memorial service will follow in the spring.