Obituaries » Dr. Joseph Lee Nelson, Jr

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

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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.

Condolences & Tributes

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Posted by:
Don Davis

Posted on:
February 16, 2021

It was always a pleasure when Dr. Nelson visited the Lynchburg Extension Office to discuss the care of his yard. I have fond memories of chatting with him about rhododendrons, grass and other features of his home landscape. When Gov. Wilder threatened to eliminate funding for my office in 1992 Dr. Nelson contacted the state legislature and helped save it. What a fine person he was. A friend I will never forget.

Posted by:
Anne and Don Tate

Posted on:
February 13, 2021

Dear Mitch and Susan, Anne and I send our condolences for the loss of your father. I recall you shared with us recently how many books your father owned and now I see why there was such a large collection! What a full life he lived, always putting others first. Take comfort in knowing how many lives he must have touched in a meaningful way. I noticed he was born the day before my mother and he taught at Louisa High School where my mother graduated. I'm sure you'll miss him and know that we're thinking of you. Hopefully we can get together later this year. Our best, Anne and Don

Posted by:
Margie Lipparf

Posted on:
February 13, 2021

Dear Margaret and family, I send my sincerely condolences and sympathy upon learning of Dr. Nelson’s passing. Shirley shared the news with me yesterday. Dr. Nelson made such a difference in his life and leaves a wonderful legacy in his family. He was so beloved and will be greatly missed. Love, Margie

Posted by:
William Fraker

Posted on:
February 5, 2021

I was sorry to learn of Dr. Nelson’s passing. He was my New Testament (Koine) Greek teacher for two years (1967-1969). He was unassuming, cheerful, attentive, and caring, to students like myself, who may not have been that enthused, but slightly curious about the subject matter.  He was a master at providing illustrations of verbal declensions (time travel based on tense, mood, etc.) and building vocabulary through the etymology of English words rooted in Greek. Many examples remain with me today, such as “pneumonia” and “pneumatic” based on the Greek word for “breath” or “spirit” (pneuma). Another unforgettable bond was pointed out between homecoming (nostos) and ache or pain (algos)– in English, nostalgia or “home sickness.” He had a knack of remembering each of us by our first names, even after many months or years out of the classroom. He demonstrated a sincere desire to wish us well in our pursuits. If a teacher can be measured in part by his students, my cohorts in Dr. Nelson’s classes included future ministers in the Christian (Disciples of Christ), Methodist, and Episcopal denominations. The best student went on to become both ordained and a well-established academic, specializing in New Testament Studies. Dr. Nelson did not give his grades away. A couple of classmates and I made a wise decision to form a study group to prepare for his exams. He knew of our efforts and identified with our struggles by offering a story about carrying around note cards with Greek vocabulary as a student at Harvard, so he could study while waiting in lines. He also mentioned in passing his continuing work on his dissertation from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond and the pressure he felt to excel in his field. He was an excellent coach of study, faith, and life. Most of us in his class knew of his role as one of the founding members of the Church of the Covenant and learned of his support of Civil Rights. He demonstrated for us that faith was more than an intellectual exercise, that it needed to be lived. He was a profound example of Christian decency and joy. With fond remembrance as a teacher, my thoughts and prayers are with his children and loved ones, Sincerely, William W. (Bill) Fraker

Posted by:
Dr. and Mrs. RIchard J Shores

Posted on:
February 3, 2021

Our thoughts and prayers reach out to you in the loss of your Dad. He was a special person, loved by many.


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