Joseph McKinley Bryan, Sr.
February 11, 1896 to April 26, 1995
Joseph McKinley Bryan, Sr. was born in Elyria, Ohio. His father, an accountant and inventor, soon moved his family east to Massachusetts. The five children were separated when Bryan’s mother became ill after the death of her infant child. Bryan roomed with a family in the town of Farmingham, and performed custodial chores at the elementary and high school he attended to help pay his keep. At 16 he dropped out of high school to support himself. At 18, he enrolled in Mount Hermon School where he excelled as a student. Funds ran out before he could graduate. At that time Bryan’s uncle, a prominent physician and the Chief of Staff at Staten Island Hospital in New York, took him into his home.
Bryan strode headstrong into life. He volunteered for service during World War I., treating wounded soldiers as a Medical Staff Sergeant in the battlefields of France. In Haiti he managed the holdings of a cotton broker, and armed against bandits, rode the hills on horseback. Back in the states he became, at age 27, the youngest member of the New York Cotton Exchange, taking risks and making substantial profits when most businessmen went bankrupt in the crash of 1929.
In 1927, Bryan married Kathleen Marshall Price and in 1931 the couple moved to her hometown of Greensboro. Here they reared three children: Kay, Nancy, and Joe, Jr. He relished the fresh countryside and friendly people, and began a love affair with his adopted Southern home that wouldn’t end. In 1931, at the persuasion of Kathleen’s father Julian Price, Joe accepted a position with Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Company. As an officer with Jefferson he continued to succeed. He established a communications network of newspapers and radio stations that became one of the firm’s largest money-makers. He brought the first television station to the Carolinas.
As the years passed, his giving increased, jointly with his wife, and individually after her death from Alzheimer’s disease. One of the most far-reaching effects of Bryan’s largess is his contribution toward a cure of Alzheimer’s. He provided seed money for Duke University Medical School to establish a rapid autopsy program, and followed this with a $10 million donation to provide a permanent research facility which soon became internationally acknowledged for isolating the cause of the sickness and projecting a viable treatment.
At 99, Joe Bryan continued to go to his office every morning, including the day he was admitted to the hospital in April 1995. He died one week later. As requested, his ashes were placed at Bryan Park, his favorite spot.