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Dr. Joseph Lee Nelson, Jr

October 3, 1923 - January 24, 2021

U.S. Veteran

A Service of Celebration and Remembrance for the late Dr. Joseph Lee Nelson, Jr. of Lynchburg will be held on Sunday, July 25, 2021, at 1:30 p.m. in Snidow Chapel at the University of Lynchburg.

Masks are suggested for all attendees and UL campus guidelines mandate that unvaccinated persons on campus must wear a mask and maintain social distance.

Tharp Funeral Home & Crematory, Lynchburg is assisting the family.

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Quietly and in the presence of his children, Dr. Joseph Lee Nelson, Jr. of Lynchburg, Virginia, completed his life journey on January 24, 2021 at Westminster Canterbury in Lynchburg, Virginia.  Joe was the devoted husband of the late Margaret Miller Nelson for sixty-three years.

Born in Norfolk, Virginia on October 3, 1923, he was the son of the late Joseph Lee Nelson and the late Margaret Randolph East Nelson.  Raised in Norfolk, he was in the first class of Granby High School and played on its football team, coached by the legendary Coach Bill Story.  In his youth, he attended Camp Greenbrier in West Virginia, where he was recognized for his accomplished skills in tennis and riflery.

World War II interrupted Joe’s college education when he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1942.  During the war, he was principally stationed at Duke University, a part of the prestigious Navy V-12 engineering program.  Honorably discharged at the end of the war, he returned to and graduated from Hampden-Sydney College where he became a mathematics instructor and the college’s tennis coach.

Joe received both B.A (summa cum laude) and B.S. degrees from Hampden-Sydney College in 1947, was a member of Chi Phi Social Fraternity, wrote for the college’s student newspaper and was a member of the college’s football and tennis teams.  He received a Divinity Degree from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va. in 1951 and a Master of Theology degree from Harvard University in 1961.  He obtained a Doctor of Theology degree from Union Theological Seminary in 1969 with proficiencies in the French, German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew languages.

He married Margaret and was ordained by the Disciples of Christ Church in 1948. His first pastoral assignment was at Olive Branch Christian Church in Toano, Va. and then later at Gilboa Christian Church in Louisa, Va.  While there he also taught at Louisa County High School.

In 1952 he joined the Lynchburg College faculty where initially he taught mathematics, physics, history, and government but in 1956 began teaching in the Religion department.  Thereafter, for forty years, he taught a spectrum of Religion, Greek and Classical Studies courses and served for almost twenty years as the Chairman of the Religion Department while simultaneously serving as Chairman of the Humanities Division.

Joe was preceded in death by his parents, his wife, and his brother, John Byrd.  He is survived by his only daughter, Margaret Angela Nelson Phillips, and her husband, Bill, of Lynchburg, Va., and by five sons:  Joseph Lee Nelson III, MD and his wife, Linda, MD, of Roanoke, Va.; John Randolph “Randy” Nelson and his wife, Karen, of Lynchburg, Va.; Milton Miller “Mitch” Nelson and his wife, Susan, of Manakin Sabot, Va.; Thomas Edwin East “Tommy” Nelson and his wife, Lisa, of Purcellville, Va.; and David Francis Nelson and his wife, Kim, of Charleston, W.Va.

Joe is survived by eighteen grandchildren:  Joseph Lee Nelson, IV (Meg) of Springfield, Va.; Garland Powell Nelson of Lynchburg, Va.; Rosemary “Liz” Nelson McCormick of Charlotte, NC; Bethany Nelson Kastrinsky (Matt) of Arlington, Va.; Poppy Bilbra-Jacobs of Lynchburg, Va.; Ashley Nelson Richards (Kyle) of Richmond, Va.; John Randolph “Jake” Nelson, Jr.  of Arlington, Va.; Shannon Leigh Hellem of Alexandria, Va.; Kimberley Dawn Hellem of Montclair, N.J.; Lee Nelson (Yadira) of Arvada, Co.; Mark Nelson of Denver, Co.; Kelly Nelson Barth (Eddie) of Raleigh, NC; Susan Nelson of Washington, DC; Christina Nelson of Kotzebue, Alaska; Sara Margaret Nelson of Purcellville, Va.; David Francis Nelson, Jr. of Falls Church, Virginia; Marilyn Miller “Molly” Nelson (Alex) of Avon, Connecticut; and Peter Norman Nelson of Charleston, W.Va.

He is also survived by five great-grandchildren: MacKenzie Nelson of Springfield, Va.; Olivia Nelson and Logan Nelson of Arvada, Co.; Abigail Barth of Raleigh, NC; and Ida Marie Kastrinsky of Arlington, Va.

During his teaching career at Lynchburg College, he was an interim pastor in churches extending from Tidewater to Southwest Virginia. He and his fellow Religion Department faculty members alternated preaching assignments at Fairview Christian Church in Lynchburg, Peaks Presbyterian Church and Pisgah Presbyterian Church in Bedford County, Otterwood Presbyterian Church in Campbell County, Massie’s Mill Presbyterian Church and Mountain Top Christian Church in Nelson County.

Joe was also a “pulpit guest” for a multitude of congregations in Lynchburg and its surrounding counties, including the Congregation Agudath Sholom, for more than fifty years before he fully retired in his 80s.   He was especially proud to have assisted in organizing Peakland Baptist Church in 1956 when its temporary worship site was in the former Garland Rhodes School, wherein he delivered their second sermon and continued as their pulpit guest for decades.

When not pastoring at other churches, Joe faithfully attended The Church of the Covenant in Lynchburg pastored by the late Rev. Beverly R. Cosby.  Joe earnestly supported Bev Cosby and his humanitarian ministries which included:  The Church of the Covenant; Lynchburg Covenant Fellowship (LCF); The Lodge of the Fishermen; and Camp Kum-Ba-Yah.   In 1977, his mother and he played significant roles in the purchase and renovation of an abandoned school, the “old E. C. Glass” to provide critically needed housing for elderly, disabled and low-income households – The Lynchburg High Apartments of LCF.

Joe became a lightning rod as a civil rights activist.  One former student, who later became Dean of Lynchburg College, said, “when two of my classmates were arrested following their decision to participate in a lunch counter sit-in, Joe Nelson was at the very forefront of rallying faculty and community support for their efforts to bring local attention to the injustice of Jim Crow laws.”  Later, he took on the City’s closure of public swimming pools, wrote newspaper editorials, and testified to City Council to persuade them to fully integrate its public pools after the abrupt closure in response to integration efforts in 1961.  “Professor Nelson was a leader who was not afraid to speak out – he was not intimidated.” At a ceremony to dedicate a classroom to him in perpetuity, “Smiling Joe” Nelson was thanked for “being a beacon, showing by example how one can live a life that combines faith and powerful intellect, as well as a healthy ability to laugh.”    

Joe embraced a love of travel and cultures.  Joe and Margaret extended their home and hospitality to host two international students who made their impact in Lynchburg and Camp Kum-Ba-Yah – Laurent Berteloot from France and Wijnand Jongen from the Netherlands.  They too were like sons to him.  With his wife and children, he explored interesting regions both domestically and internationally, including living in Greece three times for sabbatical studies at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.

His family extends sincerest appreciation for the skilled care rendered by the nurses and doctors of the Stroobants Cardiac and Neurological Intensive Care Units of LGH who saved his life five years ago and to the health, therapy, and comfort care providers of Drinkard 5th Floor and Heartside 6th floor of Westminster-Canterbury who assisted his recovery since.

Private interment will be exclusively with family and a memorial service will be conducted later once pandemic concerns abate.

In lieu of flowers Joe’s family suggests memorial contributions be made to the Church of the Covenant, Camp Kum-Ba-Yah, Inc., Lynchburg Covenant Fellowship, Inc., University of Lynchburg, or a charity of your choice.

Tharp Funeral Home & Crematory, Lynchburg is assisting the family.

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