Wendell Pritchett, 87, a classical pianist, public school teacher, and father of the University of Pennsylvania’s first African American provost, died Saturday, April 6, at the hospice at the University of Pennsylvania.
The cause was complications related to Alzheimer’s disease, his son, also named Wendell, said.
He was born April 22, 1931, in Philadelphia and grew up in Darby, according to his family. He graduated from Temple University with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music before receiving a doctorate in music education from Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Pritchett taught at several schools, including West Philadelphia High School, and directed the Philadelphia School District’s music program before retiring in 1993, said his wife of 55 years, Carolyn.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Dr. Pritchett conducted the All-City High School Music Festival, an annual showcase of hundreds of the city’s top young musicians and singers, his family said.
The classical pianist also conducted choirs with Grammy Award-winning pianist Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, his son said. Dr. Pritchett taught and mentored top musicians including Kenny Gamble, Christian McBride, and Joey DeFrancesco. In the early 1980s, he served as director of the Germantown branch of Settlement Music School and chairman of the board of Opera Ebony in Philadelphia.
One of Dr. Pritchett’s favorite musicians was Frédéric Chopin, the 19th-century Polish composer of Romantic-era music, Carolyn Pritchett said. His son, Wendell, added that his father had a penchant for the dramatic, always opting to play German composer Robert Schumann’s Widmung (“dedication”). He played this song at his son’s wedding.
“He loved all music," Carolyn Pritchett said. “It was not all classical. It was jazz, it was popular music, and if it was well-performed, it was perfect to him.”
Dr. Pritchett’s family also worked in education. His wife was a high school English teacher at Philadelphia High School for Girls in the 1970s and the High School for Creative & Performing Arts from 1978 to 1993. She met her husband at West Philadelphia High School in the late 1950s when she had her first assignment as an English teacher and he was a music teacher.
Son Wendell became Penn’s first African American provost in 2017. Before taking the No. 2 post at the Ivy League school, he was chancellor of Rutgers-Camden and a member of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. Dr. Pritchett’s son grew up in Society Hill and attended Friends Select.
Dr. Pritchett instilled a love for music in his family, his son said; his two granddaughters sang in the All-City Choir.
“Teaching is our family business and certainly he and my mom had influence on my desire to be a teacher,” Wendell Pritchett said.
He would see the excitement from his father’s former students and how in teaching music, students were able to quickly apply new lessons. This taught him "how rewarding active learning is,” his son said. Wendell Pritchett now teaches law subjects and tries to incorporate this type of active learning in the classroom by having students think of problems they would have to solve “in the real world,” he said.
In retirement, Dr. Pritchett was always curious, his wife said, adding that even when they went on trips, such as their vacation to Spain, he was interested in knowing the history, architecture, music, and language of cities like Barcelona, Madrid, and Valencia.
He studied languages and thought he had “conquered French,” so moved on to Spanish, Carolyn Pritchett said. He would attend lectures, go to museums, and seek out ways to continue learning.
“I’m pursuing my studies,” he would say when he was studying something outside of music but needed time for it, she recalled.
“It was just love of all things beautiful,” she said. “It could be paintings, it could even be electric if it was delivered beautifully.”
In addition to his wife and son, Dr. Pritchett is survived by his daughter, Paula Pritchett; a sister and three grandchildren.