LEMONT FURNACE, Pa. — James “Jay” Precht, associate professor in history at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, died suddenly on Oct. 1 at the age of 53.
Born in Jennings, Louisiana, Precht obtained a bachelor of arts in history from McNeese State University before joining the United States Army, receiving an honorable discharge after three years of service.
He went on to achieve a master of arts in history from Central Missouri State University and, shortly thereafter, his doctorate of philosophy in history at Arizona State University in 2007. He was especially interested in 20th- and 21st-century American Indian history, completing his dissertation on the Coushatta people who occupied territory in present-day Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.
He continued this work as a research associate at his undergraduate alma mater before joining Penn State Fayette, in 2010, as assistant professor in history. Here, he contributed courses in western heritage, American civilization, pop culture and folklife, indigenous peoples and more.
“Dr. Precht was a true academic scholar and a faculty leader at Penn State,” said Charles Patrick, chancellor and chief academic officer. “His efforts were always focused on student learning and he was known for his intelligence, hard work and kindness. We will surely miss him at Penn State Fayette.”
Precht’s scholarship and service earned him numerous awards; most recently, in 2017, he received funding from Penn State to organize a trip to the White House for the Fayette chapter of Student Veterans of America, for which he served as faculty advisor. In 2015, he organized a campus visit from Cherokee Principal Chief Chad “Corntassel” Smith.
At Fayette, he served as chair of the faculty development committee, the academic and curricular affairs committee and, previously, the faculty senate and the student excellence awards committee. He represented Fayette as a University Faculty Senator and a member of the University College Faculty Council. He also contributed to a number of committees and initiatives to increase diversity, equity and inclusion across Penn State.
Precht was a member of many professional organizations, including the American Society for Ethnohistory, for which he delivered numerous conference presentations. His extensive publication history includes book reviews, scholarly articles, encyclopedia entries and chapters in peer-reviewed books. Most recently, Jay was published as a contributing author of "U.S. History," an OpenStax textbook.
His generosity of spirit was probably his greatest gift to our community.
—Lindsey Simon-Jones , associate professor of English
Precht received tenure in 2017 as associate professor in history. He was instrumental in the development of the bachelor of arts in humanities program at Fayette, alongside Lindsey Simon-Jones, associate professor in English.
“Jay's enthusiasm for the study of Humanities on our campus was unmatched,” said Simon-Jones, who arranged an improvised memorial on the campus quad to help the community grieve. “But, his generosity of spirit was probably his greatest gift to our community. He was always willing to give his time and energy to students and colleagues. I knew any time spent working with Jay would be filled with laughter, intellectual discussion and more than a few good dinner suggestions. I know he had an immeasurable impact on students both in and outside of the classroom. His loss will be felt for years to come.”
Julio Palma, associate professor in chemistry, was a close friend of Precht’s. “He loved his job and wanted to make the campus and the University a better place for everyone,” said Palma. “He was a mentor to students and junior faculty. Those of us who met him were fortunate to have the opportunity to work, share lunch and laugh with an extraordinary person. Some of the things that will be missed the most are his strong advocacy for equity and inclusion, his humor, his intellectual contributions and his service. But, above all, we will miss his unconditional friendship.”
Aris Karagiorgakis, assistant teaching professor in psychology, benefitted from Precht’s advocacy, too. “I always viewed him as a vocal leader for faculty on this campus,” said Karagiorgakis. “He always supported me and made me feel welcome, especially when I was new at Fayette. He was charming and had a great sense of humor and a sharp wit. This is such a loss to the campus.”
Precht was responsible for the installation of a Native American section of the campus garden, which he used to introduce students to the "Three Sisters" planting method — a strategic grouping of beans, corn and squash. The day after Precht’s funeral, a class led by Ginett Pineda, assistant teaching professor in Spanish, set a temporary plaque in the garden to commemorate his contribution. A permanent plaque will be installed later this academic year.
Precht is survived by his parents, James and Linda (Welborn) Precht, Sr. of Missouri; loving wife of 25 years, Sarah Anne (Jones) Precht, their sons, Jayson Tyler Precht and Benjamin James Precht; brothers John Precht, Tommy Precht, and Toby Precht; and many nieces and nephews, aunts, uncles and cousins.
“He was a mentor that became a friend,” said Lauren Esteban, a graduate of Penn State Fayette and U.S. Army veteran. “He always went above and beyond for his students. I will forever be grateful for his guidance.”