For 42 years, Dr. Joe Nelson taught religion and Greek, often in Hopwood 23. Several former students and colleagues decided his presence in that room should be known by subsequent generations.
“A number of us thought we should do something to honor Joe and his many years of service at the College,” Dr. Tom Brickhouse said Friday in a short ceremony to unveil a plaque in Dr. Nelson’s honor.
President Kenneth Garren said the bronze plaque, which included an inscription in Greek, needed to be more significant than a “George Washington slept here” sign.
“A lot of students slept here,” the 90-year-old Dr. Nelson quipped to the crowd packed into the classroom, where he first taught in 1952.
Indeed, several speakers noted that Dr. Nelson was known for his quick wit, including his daughter Margaret Nelson, who said she grew up surrounded by the comedic trio of her father, Dr. Jim Price (above left), and Dr. Bill Goodman, both also professor emeriti of religious studies at LC.
Dr. Julius Sigler ’62, vice president and dean for academic affairs, was once a student of Dr. Nelson and describes him as “a mentor, colleague, teacher, and staunch defender of the College’s liberal arts tradition for 42 years prior to his retirement in 1994.”
Outside the classroom, Dr. Nelson was known as a prolific letter writer, often taking on the local newspaper for its racist positions.
“Those were the days when the editors regarded all LC faculty with suspicion and Joe was certainly no exception,” Dr. Sigler said. “On many occasions, the editor, who was an LC alum, would insert into the text of the letter in bold print a note that the writer (LC professor) was either a well-known liberal or, only slightly worse, was known to be a Communist sympathizer. Joe received his full share of such editorial notes. But those letters told me that Professor Nelson was a leader who was not afraid to speak out — he was not intimidated. …
“When two of my classmates were arrested following their decision to participate in a lunch counter sit-in in Lynchburg, Joe Nelson was at the very forefront of rallying faculty and community support for their efforts to bring local attention to the injustices of Jim Crow laws.”
A graduate of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond and Harvard University Divinity School, Dr. Nelson personified the combination of faith and reason that LC founder Joseph Hopwood envisioned, Dr. Sigler said.
“So thank you, Professor Nelson, 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,” Dr. Sigler concluded.
Dr. Nelson said he was overcome by the number of people who attended the ceremony and was privileged to spend 42 years at LC. “I can’t imagine anything better,” he said.