Dr. Elizabeth Willis Pryor, a local dentist, Kenwood Academy graduate and devoted amateur baker, died unexpectedly on Feb. 28 at the age of 65.
Pryor was born on Nov. 1, 1955, to Nathaniel and Eleanor Willis, ten months after the family moved to Chatham. The fourth of five siblings, she was described by her younger sister Jocelyn as “the sweet sticky that kept us all together.”
Her father was an academic administrator and chemistry professor at Chicago State University, while her mother was an elementary school teacher. When Pryor was ten, her family moved to the 4800 block of S. Ellis Ave. in Kenwood.
Pryor attended Kenwood Academy, where, as a freshman, she became friends with Rick Pryor, a basketball star who would go on to play at Chicago State. She told herself at the time that she was going to marry him.
After graduating from Kenwood in 1973, Pryor attended Hiram College in Ohio. It was there that she became interested in science after a trip to the Cayman Islands. (She also once won a national competition in karate, a sport in which she held a brown belt.)
Following her time in Ohio, she got a job at the American Dental Association, which inspired her to go to dental school at the University of Illinois at Chicago, from which she graduated in 1985. After a brief spell working in Oklahoma, she returned to Chicago in 1986, where she worked with Dr. Richard Kaufman in the Hyde Park Bank Building.
Since her time at Kenwood Academy, she and Rick Pryor had stayed in touch, occasionally running into each other at parties. Eventually, they began dating, and were married June 28, 1986 at the Hyde Park Unitarian Church.
“I was blessed to have her choose me. She had so much integrity and honor,” Rick said. “I often had to remind her of how special she was. She made me a better person.”
The couple had two children, Erin and Eriel, who attended local schools. Eriel is the mother of Easton Williams, who was born last June.
“She was probably the most genuine kind person I ever met,” said Eriel about her mother. “We would FaceTime every day. She always listened and had my best interest at heart. She had my back.”
In 1990, Pryor started her own dental practice, Gentle Dentistry Inc., in the bank building. She occasionally switched locations in the next 30 years, but stayed in the Hyde Park-Kenwood area. Since 2014, she had an office at the Jackson Park Hospital.
Pryor, whose specialty was root canals, would often hire young women she met at Hyde Park Unitarian as her office assistants. (As a result, Rick nicknamed her “Mother Teresa.”) She was a compassionate doctor, and arranged payment plans with patients who needed them.
“When I was a young, working, single mother and needed some rather extensive dental work, Liz saw my need, assessed my financial position and worked out a plan I could comfortably handle,” one former patient, Vera, remembered after Pryor’s death. “The happy ending was that I walked out of her office with renewed self-esteem and confidence, and a deeper understanding of the meaning of empathy.”
Outside of dentistry, Pryor loved to bake — her specialties included blueberry muffins, banana nut bread and crawfish étouffée.
“If it was a new recipe she would approach it like a scientist, researching all the ingredients, then couple it with love to produce a Liz specialty,” her sister, Michelle Bey-Williams, wrote after her death. “The love and compassion for Liz and our family from all of you in our community has made her transition easier to bear, letting us know how much she has touched your lives.”
Her family has started a GoFundMe to raise money for costs associated with her death. Donate at gofundme.com/f/dr-elizabeth-willis-pryor-dds-and-family.