Priscilla Clarkson, 66, visionary leader at UMass Amherst
Like the ballerina she once aspired to be, Priscilla Clarkson turned the complex choreography of her exceptionally full life into something dazzling to behold.
“You’d look at her, and it was a bit breathtaking,” said Maria Urso, one of Dr. Clarkson’s former doctoral students.
As dean of the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Dr. Clarkson was the key administrator guiding to completion the program’s new complex, into which students will move for the first time on Friday, just days after her death early Monday in her Leverett home.
“She was a visionary leader,” said James V. Staros, the university’s provost and senior vice chancellor of academic affairs. “She was uncommonly intelligent, even among academics. She was a star scientist.”
Dr. Clarkson, who was 66 and had been diagnosed about four years ago with breast cancer, was also devoted to creating an exemplary undergraduate educational experience. “She was committed to the honors college because it was a way of modeling what undergraduate education can be at a large public university,” Staros said.
Leading the honors college was less a capstone than a continuation of her life on a campus that was Dr. Clarkson’s academic home since she arrived as an 18-year-old student. She received her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from UMass Amherst, and after graduation immediately started teaching there, becoming a distinguished university professor of kinesiology and an associate dean before taking the reins of the honors college in 2006.
While rising swiftly as an academic and an administrator, Dr. Clarkson also founded and ran the university’s Muscle Biology and Imaging Lab and lent her scholarly expertise to everything from a state panel to NASA and the NCAA. She also was a fellow and former president of the American College of Sports Medicine.
“Priscilla Clarkson was an elegant thinker, collaborator, and person whose legacy will continue to unfold,” Dr. William W. Dexter, the sports medicine organization’s current president, said in a statement after her death. “She was an exemplary scientist, teacher, and mentor.”
As a scientist, she studied muscles: how they work when they function properly and what happens when they are injured or atrophy through disuse or aging.
Patty Freedson, a professor who chairs the university’s kinesiology department, said that early on Dr. Clarkson took a pioneering approach to looking at every aspect of muscles. As research techniques became more sophisticated, Freedson said, Dr. Clarkson delved deeper into muscles and added the molecular level to her areas of expertise, “never forgetting the importance of how exercise could help inform that understanding.”
Freedson added that Dr. Clarkson “always had a vision for direct application to real-life situations.” NASA sought Dr. Clarkson’s opinion about how to ensure the health of astronauts whose muscles are little used in zero gravity, but she was as quick to respond to an e-mail from a weight lifter who could not overcome a bout of soreness in overused muscles.
“She was famously accessible,” said Daniel Gordon, acting dean of the Commonwealth Honors College. “She rarely took more than 15 minutes to return an e-mail, and anyone could approach her. She worked apparently around the clock.”
Indeed, Urso said, “she was one of those people who you thought, ‘Do you have a 30-hour day and the rest of us have 24?’ She always had room for one more person in her lab, one more project.”
Born Priscilla Massei, she grew up in Worcester as the older of two children. Her late father, Edward, ran his own print shop.
At UMass Amherst, she received a bachelor’s in zoology in 1969, a master’s in marine science and zoology in 1973, and a doctorate in exercise science and human movement in 1977, the year she began her teaching career as an assistant professor in the department of exercise science.
“She had a great love of ballet that she developed as a young person,” said her husband, Ron Pipkin, a professor emeritus of legal studies at UMass Amherst. At 5 foot 2, he added, “she was always frustrated early on that she was too short to be a ballerina.”
Instead, she served at various times as president, board member, and choreographer for the Pioneer Valley Ballet ensemble in Easthampton, for which she performed annually in the role of the mother in “The Nutcracker.” In addition to some 200 scholarly papers, she wrote books about sports medicine and dance.
An earlier marriage ended in divorce, but Dr. Clarkson, who had already begun publishing under that byline, “liked the name and she kept it,” said Pipkin, whom she met in a crowded coffee shop on the campus.
“I was at a table with an empty chair, and she came by with a tray looking for a place,” he said. “I invited her to sit, not knowing if we would end up talking, but we did. And we’ve been together ever since.”
They married in 1981 and lived in Leverett on 2 acres that overlook the Connecticut River. Dr. Clarkson lavished so much attention on landscaping around their home that visitors might not guess she had a day job.
“Our house is surrounded by beautiful gardens,” her husband said, and part of the property is filled with about 20 flowering trees, each planted to commemorate an event such as a birthday or anniversary.
In addition to her husband, Dr. Clarkson leaves her mother, the former Mary Lincoln, and her brother, Jay Massei, both of Millbury.
The university will announce the date for its celebration of Dr. Clarkson’s life and career, which included receiving the Chancellor’s Medal from UMass Amherst in 1997.
“Her spirit and love of learning will be deeply missed,” Kumble R. Subbaswamy, the university’s chancellor, said in a statement.
Current and past students will also miss a professor who was a life-changing mentor for so many, said Urso, who is the director of clinical research at Arteriocyte Medical Systems Inc. in Hopkinton.
Dr. Clarkson was so learned that she could wax poetic about something as minute as the part of a cell that produces power. “She would talk about mitochondria like she was talking about the Sistine Chapel,” Urso recalled.
Yet turning an artist’s eye to research, teaching, and administering a lab, “she absolutely did everything like a ballerina, with grace and with poise, just perfectly executed, and with a scientific perspective,” Urso said. “And she even handled her illness that way.”
A voracious reader who filled her home’s bookshelves, Dr. Clarkson was no stranger to the clinical trials she participated in as a cancer patient, having run research studies in her own field. “The doctors always laughed and said Priscilla seemed to know as much about what was going on as they did,” her husband said.
A great lover of dogs and cats who insisted that her own research only involve human subjects, Dr. Clarkson added a Shih Tzu mix from a shelter to her troupe of pets at home a month before she died. They bonded immediately.
“Goldie just sort of knew her job,” Pipkin said.
Their home was filled with pet toys purchased over the years, and “it was clear that Goldie never had any,” he said. “And she began bringing them one by one onto the bed, for Priscilla. And today she stopped.”