Funeral held for former Belmont Abbey College president
BELMONT — Former Belmont Abbey College President Robert Preston, 80, died at noon Aug. 20 in High Point of pancreatic cancer.
Abbot Placid Solari of Belmont Abbey issued the following statement later that day: "It is with deep sadness that I must inform you that Dr. Robert Preston died peacefully at noon today in the healthcare center at Maryfield, in High Point. One of the religious sisters was reciting the Angelus in his room, when he took a few short breaths and died." Abbot Placid asked for everyone to remember the Preston family in their prayers.
A funeral Mass was celebrated by Abbot Placid Aug. 24 at the Abbey Basilica, followed by interment at the abbey cemetery.
Preston's wife of 53 years, Helen, said he found out he had terminal pancreatic cancer on July 26 after a visit to the doctor's office. He attended a family reunion in the western U.S. in July when he began not feeling well. He was diagnosed shortly after returning to High Point. She said her husband's cancer diagnosis and death happened "very fast."
"He was calm, always calm, even tempered, very slow to anger, always fair, generous to a fault, a gentleman," Mrs. Preston said. "He was thoughtful, he was proud of his family, all of whom have done so well. He took great pride in that."
Preston graduated from Belmont Abbey College in 1953 and served as president from 1995 until his retirement in 2001 at 70.
He was born June 6, 1931, in Richmond, Va. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean Conflict and worked as a reporter and feature writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch as a young man.
He received his doctorate from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and did post-doctorate studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
He taught undergraduate studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland and taught in the graduate school at St. Louis University. He worked as academic dean at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., and provost at Loyola University in New Orleans, before becoming president of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
From there, he became provost at Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill., and then president of Belmont Abbey College.
"He was a very busy man. He was very, very intelligent – did lots of things in his lifetime," Mrs. Preston said. "He left a trail of friends all over the United States."
She said her husband was active with the Rotary Club and other civic organizations. She described him as a man who loved academics and although his career led to the administrative side of education, his heart was in the classroom.
"He very much made himself available for the students, as this was his mission, to be a teacher... and he was an excellent teacher," she said. "He was an unusual man and very much devoted to Belmont Abbey College."
"They honored him and myself with a scholarship when he retired as president," she said. "We're most devoted to that."
Preston was close to faculty, students and the abbey from the beginning of his tenure as president in 1995.
Dr. Mike McLeod, chairman of the biology department at Belmont Abbey College, said, "He was both a really good president for us and a really good president for that time. He came in and provided stability to the college and made people feel like they were valued employees. He had a very calming, relaxing demeanor with all the employees here."
McLeod described Preston as a patient, friendly man who truly listened and knew people by name.
"He was not afraid to make decisions and he was not afraid to explain his reasons for his decisions," McLeod said. "He listened to people before he made decisions. And again, he made people feel like they were important to the college, and he recognized that they were important to the college."
As president, Preston started the Bradley Institute for the Study of Christian Culture, which has monthly speakers on topics relating to Christianity and Catholicism. He was a strong supporter of the liberal arts program, and he started the expectation that Belmont Abbey students perform community service.
He once wrote a letter to Phillip Morris declining a $40,000 grant sent to aid in establishing a literacy program. Preston didn't decline the money because of their tobacco products. He rejected it because he stumbled upon an ad that appeared to promote premarital sex. So he wrote a letter to Phillip Morris explaining his reasoning and ended up sitting down with company executives, who decided to pull that ad campaign.
Preston continued to be a part of the college even after he left the helm. He became director of the Bradley Institute after retiring as president. He also stayed involved teaching classes.
"And even last spring he taught several philosophy courses for the college," McLeod said.
Belmont Abbey College senior Ian Moye enrolled in one of Preston's philosophy courses this spring.
"He was someone who made his students work, for sure," Moye said. "He made philosophy fun."
Students enjoyed his sense of humor, Moye said. He remembered a saying that Preston would often reiterate before the weekends: "If you plan to go out Saturday night, do your best thinking Saturday morning, and for me, two beers and only two beers."
"I will miss him," McLeod said. "In my opinion, Dr. Preston was one of the best presidents we had and was the president we needed ... because of his demeanor and his relationship style and the way he treated people."
Preston was preceded in death by his son, Robert Andrews Preston Jr., and a sister, Patricia Hardie. He is survived by four children and nine grandchildren.
Donations may be made to the Robert Preston Family Scholarship Fund at Belmont Abbey.
McLean's Funeral Service in Belmont was in charge of the arrangements.
— Wade Allen and Amanda Memrick. Reprinted courtesy of The Gaston Gazette.
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