WESTFIELD, NJ — Nancy Priest has made significant contributions of her time and talents to Westfield since she moved here from Stubenville, Ohio, just shy of 50 years ago when she and Bill Priest planted their roots here. She has been dedicated to town affairs and beautification ever since.
At first they lived in the Forest Avenue apartment before buying a home on Cranford Avenue where they made many friends, among them Al and Ellen Linden who lived on Stevens, the next street over. They joined the Presbyterian Church where Nancy sang soprano in the choir and became a church leader. She currently chairs the office and property commission.
Major Park Renovation
As delighted as she was with the church, Priest said she became upset about the deteriorating condition of Mindowaskin Park, across from the church. On the other side of the church sat the Revolutionary Cemetery, also in disrepair. The time had come to push for restitution and renovation projects for both dilapidated church “neighbors,” she said.
“I complained to the town council about Mindowaskin but when the council couldn't raise enough money for improvement, a town committee was formed,” Priest said.
Joining her on the committee initially were councilwoman Peggy Sur and garden designer Marilyn Shields. Other concerned residents jumped aboard and Friends of Mindowaskin Park was incorporated as a tax-exempt organization.
“We raised close to $400,000 for the project,” said Priest, who became the first president of Friends. A large attractive wooden marker opposite the municipal building was erected in 1994 when the renovations were completed. There are also bronze plaques listing participants in the project with Nancy Priest listed as leader.
Sherry Cronin, executive director of Downtown Westfield Corporation, said she met Nancy “back in the early 90s, and we haven't stopped working together since. She led the effort to fund raise the money for the park restoration and refurbishment by convincing everyone in town that it was a worthy investment.”
Priest detailed the results: “We obtained vintage-style lighting, benches, gardens, renewed the bandstand and made major renovations to the overlook. The concrete was crumbling. Now it's made of granite inlaid on the perimeters with pavers purchased by individuals to honor residents.”
Because David Rogers, Nancy's husband for the past 17 years, has an engineering background, she said, “He's already built monuments. When he offered to rebuild the overlook following the original design from the 1920s, basically, he donated his services.”
Westfield Historical Society Involvements
For many years, Priest has been active in the Westfield Historical Society, joining the board in the late 90s. Since 2004, she has served continuously as president, working arduously on the restoration of Reeve House, built in 1870 on Mountain Avenue, with the goal to get it open for the public to enjoy.
“It was the most exciting thing to see it when it was cold, damp, gloomy and dark and then to see it become transformed so that today it is wonderful to behold,” she said, lighting up. “We worked with fundraisers to raise a million for the restoration.”
The Reeve brothers had donated the house to the town in 1985 with a 99-year lease for the Westfield Historical Society Reeve History and Cultural Resource Center, she said.
“Its aim is to preserve, interpret and encourage interest in the history of Westfield and its residents through educational efforts and community outreach,” Priest explained. “We hold programs and lectures at Reeve House but lately we've been drawing more people than Reeve can comfortably accommodate.”
Westield Historical Society also owns the Miller-Cory House Museum, built in 1740, which is described as “a living museum” with regular activities most Sundays from September to June. Restoration began in 2005. Five years later it was completed. Both Reeve and Miller-Cory are registered as national and state historic sites.
Metropolitan Museum Tour Guide
Overlapping her volunteer activities, from 1983 to 2008 Priest drove into New York City twice a week to serve as a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“On tours I was there to explain artwork, but I was the one who got the free art education,” she said with a big smile.
When the Lindens were passing through Westfield recently, Ellen Linden shared a special memory from when Priest invited about 14 friends for a private tour.
“She gave us a fabulous Met tour. We all learned so much,” said Linden, a retired school teacher. “To this day, I vividly recall her fascinating history of Auguste Rodin’'s colossal sculpture of the six ‘Burghers of Calais,’ plus many other works of art. Then we all went out for dinner. She made it all such fun.”
Priest’s current home in the Wychwood section could be a museum of historic artifacts. She has amassed a sizable collection of rare figurines, sculptures, paintings, carpets and furniture, all displayed in artistic fashion. Her sweeping lush gardens have earned awards and been displayed on garden club tours.
Never Too Late
College came later in Nancy’s life. She took courses at Union College over a 10-year span while her son Jeffrey and daughter Karen were young, earning enough credits to be accepted at Drew University.
“I loved Drew so much; that’s why Karen chose to go, too. I was a senior at Drew in 1983 when she was a freshman. Both of us wanted to maintain a degree of independence while getting our degrees. Karen made the guidelines clear,” Priest recalled with a laugh. “She'd say: ‘Now mom, we'll both be on campus. Please don’t tell me to clean up my room in front of other students.’” In response, Priest would say with mock sincerity: “And don't call me ‘mom’ on campus, either. It was all such fun and I'm so proud of all her achievements.” (Priest is a Drew trustee emerita.)
Karen went on to Columbia after Drew. Now a hospital social worker, she lives in Ardsley, New York, with her husband and three children. Her older brother Jeff chose the College of Wooster and then the Suqua program at Duke. Today he is president of a financial concern in Manhattan and commutes from Lyme, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Other Westfield Historical Society Projects
Priest cited other Westfield Historical Society renovations and improvements, including the Revolutionary Cemetery, Presbyterian church steeple, town clock on the Methodist church, WWII memorial plaques, town bell and replacement of Boulevard's mosaic street signs.
Her current crusade is to “find the right spot” for the society's vast archives, now housed at the Westfield Board of Education building on Elm Street (the old Westfield High), which is only open to the public Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to noon.
“Our new space will provide more public access and allow us to have more programs for children too,” she said. “We have a lot of dedicated people supporting our programs. We're proud of what we’ve done so far and we want to do more,” she promised.
Cronin offered a fitting tribute to her colleague: “We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Nancy. She is a force of nature working to create or restore beauty to our town. She never seems to age in the 22 years I've known her. She has a pioneering, tenacious spirit and passion. Not only has she earned certifications and awards in historic preservation, but she puts those skills into action and teaches others. We are all the beneficiaries of Nancy's generosity and hard work in and for Westfield.”
Coming up on Oct. 14 is the historical society’s annual Apple Fest family, which attracts families with games, pumpkin carvings, dancing, entertainment, a cafe lunch and art exhibits. The society will also sponsor or co-sponsors six evening speaker programs at Echo Lake Country Club. It is not necessary to be a WHS member to attend the evening speaker program, the Apple Fest or the regular First Wednesday Luncheon lecture series at Echo Lake. Visit www.westfieldhistoricalsociety.org or call 908-233-2930 to learn more.