Richard Priebe, retired English professor and beloved scholar of African literature, died Friday

Richard Priebe, Ph.D., at left.
Richard Priebe, Ph.D., at left.

Richard Karl Priebe, Ph.D., a professor emeritus in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences, died Friday morning when he was struck by a vehicle while jogging in Richmond’s Fan District.

Priebe, 74, was an African literature specialist who taught freshman composition, and American, African, Caribbean, Postcolonial and world literatures at Virginia Commonwealth University for more than three decades. He retired in the fall of 2005.

“He was a remarkable man. This is a man who, for instance, went back and took a bachelor’s degree in French when he was in his 50s so he could read Francophone African literature,” said David Latané, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of English. “And he was a great colleague. A person who always spoke what he felt about things in an honest way. Didn’t play games. Very dedicated to teaching, and especially dedicated to educating Americans about Africa.”

Priebe joined VCU’s faculty in 1973 after earning his doctorate in English from the University of Texas, Austin. He graduated from Franklin and Marshall College in 1964 and pursued his graduate studies in English and German at the University of Tübingen, Germany.

He found his lifelong enthusiasm for African literature while teaching secondary school English in Okwagbe, Nigeria as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1964-66.

Priebe went on to author five books and numerous articles and reviews, including “Ghanaian Literatures;” “Myth, Realism, and the West African Writer;” “The Creative Circle: Artist, Critic, and Translation in African Literature,” edited with retired University of Richmond professor Louis Tremaine, Ph.D., and Angelina Overvold, Ph.D., an associate professor of French and Francophone Studies in VCU’s School of World Studies; and “Artist and Audience: African Literature as Shared Experience” and “The Teaching of African Literature,” both edited with Thomas Hale, Ph.D.

Priebe was a founding member of the African Literature Association, and served as the international organization’s president from 1988 to 2001. In April 2001, he brought the 27th African Literature Association Annual Meeting to Richmond. The meeting brought writers and scholars — including Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer — from around the world to VCU and the University of Richmond. It was the largest conference on African literature that had ever been held in North America.

In addition to studying African literature, Priebe also had extensive experience in Africa, both in the Peace Corps and as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, from 1980-81.

At VCU, Priebe was beloved by his students and is remembered for being very generous with his time.

“He would have African literature students over to his house where he and his wife would make African food for them,” Latané said.

Winnie Chan, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of English and associate dean for faculty affairs in the College of Humanities and Sciences, said Priebe continued to be engaged with both the Richmond and VCU community, noting that he attended the English Faculty Forum in March and contributed to a lively discussion of a paper by a new faculty member.

He was so extraordinarily active in all he did that you'd think he never retired.

“Dr. Priebe was always trying new things and sought to excel at them,” she said. “He volunteered at the SPCA and became a regular among the RVA hiking community. He was my neighbor and friend. We were never employed at VCU at the same time, but — as the terrible circumstances of his passing suggest — he was so extraordinarily active in all he did that you'd think he never retired.”

"The world would be better if more people could emulate his high standards and absolute integrity," added Sachi Shimomura, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of English.

In 2009, Priebe donated a collection of nearly 4,000 books, journals, tapes and other documents related to the study of African literature and culture to the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in Durban, South Africa. He also donated his collection of African art to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Priebe is survived by a son. His wife, Barbara Priebe, passed away in 2010.

“Richard was a mentor and friend who set a high example — everything he did, he wanted to do well, and to the standards that he set for himself, not for praise,” Latané said. “This included scholarship, teaching, even committee work — but also fly fishing, boating, working with dogs, cooking, writing about the outdoors, and many other enthusiasms over the course of a remarkable life.”


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