Here’s part of one nomination email we received for this week’s “Faces of New Canaan” subject:
I nominate Julie Pryor for Faces Of New Canaan! Julie is an extremely active member of the New Canaan community, with her church work at the Methodist Church, her business Pryority Wellness, as a Meals-on-Wheels volunteer, and as an active member of the Chamber of Commerce. You are likely to see her shopping the stores in New Canaan, walking or running on the streets and in the local eateries.
All true, I discovered in the course of our conversation, transcribed below—and yet, those public, known facts of Pryor in New Canaan receded as she talked to me on a recent morning, especially about a singular upbringing in the Middle East and truly, truly incredible story about reconnecting with friends thought to be lost forever in the wake of the Iranian Revolution that brought her to the United States.
We met at her place of business, Pryority—New Canaan's favorite place for yoga, though services go well beyond that—and talked in an exercise room there.
Julie: Thanks for sharing your story with us.
Patch: So how long have you lived in New Canaan?
Julie Pryor: Twenty years. Actually we moved here, out of the city, and our kids were four and two and we were looking for a small community with a great school system, and here’s where we ended up.
How did your kids make out in the school system?
The schools were able to provide a great education for these kids who were quite different students. Our younger son is about to graduate from Sacred Heart and our older son is living in Atlanta and working for Coca-Cola.
Where did you live in New York?
At 83rd and 3rd.
What were your first impressions of New Canaan, 20 years ago?
Small. We live right in town, on Millport Avenue. We chose that area just to be able to walk everywhere. After about a month and a half without a car, I realized I need a car in this community. We had one in the stroller and one in the backpack and we’d walk up to town. Also, one of my first impression was people and how smart they were, and the women that I sort of hung out with or met initially, they had stellar jobs and now they were choosing to be stay-at-home moms like me, too. It was an easy community to make connections, that’s one of the things I noticed.
What are you connected to here? What are you involved in?
For me, church is a big thing. I’ve been a member of United Methodist Church for a long time and through that I’ve met a lot of people. I’m on most of their committees. My biggest thing is making people connect, so one of my favorites has been membership evangelism, looking at how do we get people to connect but also within the church.
Your nomination note for “Faces of New Canaan” talked about a lot of community volunteering, your involvement with Meals on Wheels, the chamber.
Yes. The other thing I love is helping women. So I was very involved in their [the church’s] women’s group, so through that, through the church, I became involved with Meals on Wheels. Since I opened this, I have stepped back on a lot of volunteer work, and this is my mission now, to provide wellness opportunities for people and we do. I don’t know if you noticed when you came in, there was a man out there. (Points to welcome area.) But we do have men. It mostly open as a women’s place.
OK and yes, I want to hear about this place. But I want to hear more about you first. Tell me where you grew up.
Where were you born?
I was born in a city called Rasht. It’s in northern Iran near the Turkish border.
So now I need to hear more about your parents.
My father is American and my mother is Canadian and my parents went overt there as missionaries. My father is a minister in the Presbyterian church. What happened was, we ended up in the United States. The revolution was happening in 1979 and I had started my senior year, in 1978, and then in 1979 we were evacuated. So, because I was in a school system that was very similar to an English school system—I mean, I did not want to go to Canada, even though we have family there, because you go through grade 13, so my father was able to find a place that we could stay. We had to do all of this very quickly.
So where did you end up in the U.S.?
We ended up living in a Christian missionary outside of Atlantic City. So, I went from Tehran, Iran, to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and in those days it was not a good place.
And all your family moved to AC at once?
What happened was, my father was able to get out and he joined us almost nine months later. He looked for a job and ultimately found a job in Santa Barbara, California.
You graduated high school in Atlantic City?
Did you go right to college?
Yes, what happened was, because of the evacuation, I had no school credits, but there was a small school called the College of Wooster in Ohio and they actually recruited students like me. They were very familiar with students from schools like where I went in Iran, so they accepted me with partial credit. I had to go to summer school before college and take U.S. history because I had never taken that before, and a writing class because I had to prove that I could write.
I was going to say that you had an unusual background for a New Canaan resident, but I mean your background is unusual for pretty much everybody. How much does your background inform who you are now?
I think it totally defines me. It has created a path of acceptance. I think being a minister’s kid, mission work was always really important to me, and giving back to the community and helping people celebrate themselves. That’s very unusual. When I came to the States I realized that a lot of people didn’t grow up with a feeling of, ‘I am pretty terrific.’ What I see is people here have challenges like the media, the social pressures, financial pressures and basically what I do is come into everybody’s life to say, ‘We are all the same and we all want the same things in life.’ To be successful, however that word is defined for you. I think that if you ask any mother or father, you want your kids to have a healthy and happy life. That’s everywhere. We all want the same thing.
OK, so you’re in New Canaan, kids in the district. You are a stay-at-home mom. When did you go back to work?
What happened was, I was working part-time before I moved to New Canaan, working in HR and also getting my Masters in social work. And then when my younger son was born, there were health issues so I didn’t complete it. When I came here, I felt sort of out of sorts. I was used to having the flexibility of working part-time and it didn’t seem like a possibility.
Did you get your boys into nursery school?
Yes, St. Mark’s Nursery School when we moved here in May of 1993. All the nursery schools were full but St. Mark’s was starting a new school and they needed a couple of boys. They were all set with the girls but needed a boy, so my older son went there and I started a walking group, because fitness has always been something very important to me. Iranians actually move every day, they’re big walkers. They love nature, so I grew up hiking, biking, skiing all the time. So I was always doing something outside.
I need to hear more about your life in Iran. I mean, did you grow up in a sort of bubble there in a missionary, or were you integrated or what?
I was very integrated into the community. What had happened was, my father ultimately ended up in Tehran where we spent the last 12 years of our stay in Iran. He started an interdenominational church, so it was a Christian-based church and we had Jews for Jesus all the way to Catholics and Presbyterians in between, so if you believed in Jesus then you came to this church. A lot of Americans did come and a lot of Iranians that were Christians were part of the church. We were part of different communities in Iran. But I was always among Iranians, I was never based in an American community and that was one of the best things about my father and mother, is they taught us at a very young age that it didn’t matter what someone has or what someone does not have. I mentioned mission work. On weekends we were required as a family to be involved in some sort of mission work, so I alternated between going to leprosariums and orphanages. I would watch my parents being the same with lepers as with the shah of Iran, other than the security. My parents were always the same, and that was unusual. I think with an emphasis on money, I see people give their power to people who have lots of money—or, I don’t know. I just see people giving their power away, like, ‘Oh, you must know so much more because you are richer than I am.’ So, I think the uniqueness of growing up in the Middle East was in learning how to get along with all different cultures. I went to a community school in Iran, people from all over.
You in touch with any of those people now?
Yes, actually what happened was that I’m now in touch with people—and it only happened right before 9/11 through the Internet. When we were evacuated, we lost contact. You have no idea where you’re going, so I lost contact with everybody from that part of my life. It was not until 10 years ago that I reconnected. One of my classmates ended up as a film producer out in L.A., and his idea was to come up with a TV movie about what happened to the “class of ’79,” the class that never graduated. So he started finding people. A lot of them did move to Califorinia. My best friend who was from Yugoslavia at the time, now Croatia, the last I heard about her was the family had been executed. So it turned out she was working for the U.S. embassy in Croatia, unbeknownst to me at the time. So, someone had her contact information and within two weeks of this idea there were 86 of our 89 classmates from around the world who flew to L.A. and met. We had four days filled together, we cried, shared stories—most of us, like me, we were sort of plopped into the United States.
And that get-together happened when?
In 2000. August of 2000.
You reconnected with your best friend.
My best friend and I, our lives had paralleled each other. She had married someone 11 years older than her, which I had done. She has two girls, I have two boys. Her daughter, her older daughter, was born one week after my first son. And then the second children were about a year apart. We went into this mode where it was just too painful to look back at the past, and it’s almost like you’re not sure it happened?
That’s incredible. What’s your relationship like now?
We try to see each other a minimum of once a year, sometimes twice a year. They were here at Crhistmastime.
You mentioned marrying a man 11 years older.
He’s from New York and I met him when I was living in the city. I moved to New York City after I had graduated college.
What did you do for work when you got to New York?
Actually what happened up was I didn’t really come to New York for work. I sort of trust that things will work out, so after college I was invited to be a bridesmaid at a girlfriend’s wedding.
Your parents were in Santa Barbara.
Right, I flew from Santa Barbra to New York City to be in the wedding and I had such a great time, I was there for a week, that I decided to give myself three months to see if I could make it here. I mean, I had a liberal arts degree from 1983.
I had a degree in communications and a minor in physical education.
I think if western medicine had been more integrated, I would have become a medical doctor. I didn’t want to become a western medical doctor. My husband saw an ad in the paper in New Canaan to become a personal trainer.
In Stamford. So I said, why not try that? I love education, I’m certified in so many different things and licenses. A lot of different things launched me on my path to wellness. I love to share my knowledge but I’m actually a private person, so sharing my knowledge was better on a 1-to-1 basis. I realized that, for example, let’s say people come in and say, ‘You know what, you could help me lose some weight,’ and what I help them figure out is why you can’t lose weight. I can help you, yes: What is stopping you? You know what needs to be done—eat and exercise—is there something that is blocking you? So a lot of it has to do with faith. The words "mind, body, spirit" is a cliché now. I almost feel uncomfortable to us it. My feeling about health and perfect health is having balance. To be physically well and strong and healthy, good spiritual practice and you’re fulfilled in that area and then the mental aspect, so it’s been my motto all along.
How long have you been operating here?
Since August 2009. Basically, I knew this space was available. They [the church] were renting it out to people in the community. I approached the minister and asked would he ever let me do my business there. The town had zoned this for residential purposes, but after much going back and forth, they said I could be back here but not allowed to advertise. [Via email after our interview: Pryority has been an extension of the United Methodist Church's ministry.]
How many people do you have here on a weekly basis?
It can be about 200.
Are yours local clients?
Everybody is local. When I say locals, I mean, most people are New Canaan-based. We have a few people from Darien and a few from Wilton, but mostly New Canaan.
Got it. I think I’d like to hear more about you and New Canaan. What do you like to do here?
Actually I love the nature. I love all of the parks. We have amazing parks here. When our kids were little, we did spend a lot of time at Kiwanis and Mead. We’re always at Waveny. I love the local merchants. You can see me at Dunkin Donuts every morning.
Oh, the morning crew.
The crew, yes. I’ve had to sort of monitor my time with the crew, there was an older guy getting inappropriate, but I know the crew. Lenny [Paglialunga] is so wonderful. He has been in my life all these years.
What’s your vision for this place?
To continue to help people make themselves a priority. When we make ourselves a priority we are better friends, mothers, parents. We feel better about ourselves. What I would like to be for this community is a resource.