Max Ray Joyner Sr. (Photography by Cliff Hollis)
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Quietly but consistently, Max Ray Joyner has nurtured East Carolina in much the same way the university has nurtured the region.
By Steve Tuttle
ECU News Services
East Carolina University and Greenville should be forever grateful that Max Ray Joyner ’55 never had a real hobby.
Max Joyner's 1953 yearbook portrait
His late wife, Kitty Smith Joyner ’59, who died in 2011, certainly did. “Kitty had more hobbies than any human being I ever knew,” he says as he looks up at an oil painting of her in the living room of his Greenville home. “I never did. I guess you could say that the college and civic work was my hobby.”
He has quietly engaged in that hobby for nearly 60 years now, becoming a leading citizen of Greenville and one of the university’s most reliable volunteers and most generous donors.
It’s hard to think of a campus group he hasn’t led. He was president of the East Carolina Alumni Association and then the Pirate Club. He was a founding member and president of the ECU Foundation and served on that board for more than 20 years. He served two terms on the Board of Trustees and was its chair for two years.
He started giving money to East Carolina in the 1960s “when you could pay for a scholarship in the business school for around $650.”
In the years since, he has funded an endowed scholarship in the College of Nursing and created the first endowed chair in the Brody School of Medicine. He funded a cash prize to recognize faculty excellence in continuing education. He endowed a University Scholars award and recently funded a second scholarship in the Honors College.
His gifts have entitled him to membership in all of ECU’s major philanthropic groups, including the Leo Jenkins Society, the Order of the Cupola, the Old Austin Society, the Order of Wright Circle and the Polaris Society — the new group supporting the Honors College.
He’s 83 and — after more than five decades — he’s still giving his time and money to the university. Why?
He considers the question as he glances around the living room. This home in the Forest Hills neighborhood is where he and Kitty lived for 50 years — where they hosted many dinners and receptions for ECU, where Chancellor Richard Eakin was first introduced to the community.
He shrugs his shoulders. “It’s not hurt my standard of living any,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
Kitty and Max Joyner watch as Chancellor Richard Eakin, right, presents one of the first University Scholars awards in 1987 to Patricia Lynn Jones '91 of Kinston, left. The Joyners funded the scholarship.
Thought Leo ‘would be a flop’
Most alumni tell stories about things that happened on campus several years ago. Joyner’s stories are about events that happened several chancellors ago.
Like this one: Joyner was just three years out of East Carolina in 1958 when he raised $50,000 and built Greenville’s first off-campus student apartments, The Collegiate, a 20-unit building at Fifth and Holly streets that’s still in use. It’s now called Sycamore Hill.
When his renters stayed up past 10 p.m. talking in the parking lot (Roddy Jones ’58 of Raleigh and Don Leggett ’58 of Greenville were two), a retired teacher who lived nearby would call the college to complain. And then Joyner’s phone would ring.
“Dr. Messick called me practically every morning, saying ‘Max Ray, Mrs. Clark called me again, and we’re going to have to do something about those boys over there.’”
John Messick was seven chancellors ago.
As his business career blossomed, Joyner became an enthusiastic supporter of Messick’s successor, Leo Jenkins, although at first he thought Jenkins faced a big impediment—his accent.
“When Messick was leaving (as chancellor in 1959), a lot of people didn’t think Leo would get it…because he was from New Jersey,” Joyner recalls. “Back then a lot of people didn’t cater to Yankees. And he sounded like a Yankee. I thought in politics he would be a flop as soon as he opened his mouth. But I was very wrong. Leo was a great leader.”
He and other local business people found it hard to resist when Jenkins invited them to dinner meetings to pitch his pet projects for the college.
“I went to a lot of Leo’s ‘free’ dinners,” Joyner says. “One time he asked a bunch of us to dinner and said he needed $15,000 for something for the school. He said that if 10 of us gave $500 each for three years, he would have it. That was the beginning of what’s now the ECU Foundation.”
As the decades rolled by, Joyner was a quiet presence at seminal moments in East Carolina history. He was on the search committee that picked Jenkins’ successor, Thomas Brewer, and was chair of the inauguration committee for Chancellor Eakin. Joyner served on other search committees that hired a university athletic director, a head football coach and a head basketball coach.
Through the many scholarships he supports and the gift of his time to lead university and civic organizations, Joyner has become the embodiment of East Carolina’s motto, Servire—to serve.
“Max Ray has lived the very goals that ECU seeks to advance for eastern North Carolina with his service and commitment to improving the lives of others,” Eakin says.
Joyner was a junior at Greenville High School in 1949 when he walked by the home demonstration class one day and saw Kitty Smith for the first time. “She was sitting behind a sewing machine, and she was the most attractive thing I had ever seen. Our first date—she invited me because it was Sadie Hawkins Day. Six years to the day later, we were married.”
In the interval he served in the Army in Korea as a master sergeant with the 987th Armored Field Artillery. Then he came home and completed a degree in business administration in three years. He sold shoes in a downtown store to supplement his GI Bill benefits.
Kitty was from a prominent family. Her mother, Mary Bertolet Smith, taught piano at East Carolina from 1917 to 1926. Her father, Guy Smith, was a local business owner and civic leader for whom Greenville’s baseball stadium is named. A Terpsichordean Club debutante, Kitty went to Duke for her undergraduate degree before returning to Greenville to marry Joyner and enrolling in graduate school here.
Max Ray, as he is called by his legions of friends, was one of seven children. His family lived in the Red Oak community, and his father worked for Guaranty Bank. His older brother, Wilton Joyner ’50 ’53, taught in the ECU education department from 1976 to 1998. He and Wilton are the last surviving siblings.
Joyner went to work for the Jefferson-Pilot Insurance Co. almost straight out of college and stayed with the company for 39 years until retiring in 1995. For 24 years he was Jefferson-Pilot’s manager for the 25 counties in northeastern North Carolina. His agency produced the most life insurance sales in the history of Jefferson-Pilot, which included 75 agencies across the country.
He became a chartered financial consultant, a chartered life underwriter and an accredited estate planner. He was a founder and chair of North State Savings and Loan in Greenville and sat on the local board of Planters Bank.
He developed a keen eye for real estate and invested in several apartment projects, including Tar River Estates in Greenville and Wilson Woods in Wilson. His most recent development is Meridian Park, a 374-unit community in west Greenville.
Max Ray Joyner poses with EC Scholar Kelly Forbis. Joyner has helped fund ECU's leading undergraduate scholarship program.
Over the years, he says, “I would have a little profit in stocks, or I’d sell some real estate, and I’d give the money to the college.”
Why? “While I was attending East Carolina I worked several part-time jobs and also received $110 a month for serving in the Army, and I realized it was tough working your way through college,” Joyner says.
“Today, it is nearly impossible for a student to work their way through college. That is the reason that I decided to start giving scholarships.”
He enjoys meeting the students who are awarded the scholarships he funds. “The first one I remember, she was there with her daddy. It was kind of touching because her daddy came up to me and said he appreciated this because, he said, ‘there is no way I could send her to college.’”
He says he didn’t plan to have an endowed chair in the medical school named for him and Kitty. It happened simply because he was asked and the arithmetic looked right.
“We had a new president of Jefferson-Pilot, and I went with Dick Eakin up to (the company headquarters in) Greensboro to meet him. A week later I got a letter saying Jefferson-Pilot would give East Carolina $250,000.
“Then Dick came to me and said, you know, the state will match us one-third to raise the half-million dollars you need for an endowed chair. So with that quarter-million from Jefferson-Pilot, he said if we just had $87,000 more we could have a chair, the first one at the medical school.
“I thought it was a right good idea, so we did,” he says.
Eakin speaks glowingly of Joyner. “Max Ray has been a supportive and loyal friend to my wife, Jo, and me since our introduction to ECU in 1987. He provided wise counsel as chair of the Board of Trustees while I was chancellor. His dedication to ECU is remarkable.”
‘The best person I know’
Max Ray and Kitty had three children. The middle one, Max Ray Joyner Jr. of Greenville, attended ECU and now is associated with Town Insurance Agency. He serves on the ECU Board of Trustees. He says his dad is “the best person I know, certainly the best role model.”
He points out that his dad helped start the booster club at J.H. Rose High School. “He was at every game, everything that I was involved in growing up,” says Max Jr. “He’s given land for two churches in town and land for a fire station.”
Kitty’s philanthropic interests were in the fine arts. She and Max Ray supported the Four Seasons concerts, the ECU Friends of Music, the Friends of Theatre and Dance, and the S. Rudolph Alexander Performing Arts Series.
Joyner, who has eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, also supported the local Boys and Girls Clubs and the Boy Scouts.
Daughter Catherine Joyner Hoft ’78 lives in Raleigh. “He has just done so much for so many people,” she says. “My parents were always very open and welcoming to anybody whether they were ECU people or folks from the community. After mother died, I had a lot of people come up to me and say how nice my parents had been to them when they moved to Greenville.”
Daughter Julia Joyner Fulcher lives in Wilson and drives down regularly to check on him. “I value that one day a week that I get to spend with my daddy. Growing up in Greenville, I always felt special knowing I was Max Joyner’s daughter.”
Joyner is sadly contemplating the end of his 20-year business relationship with Leigh Ann Raiford Odom ’91, who manages Meridian Park. She is leaving to follow her husband to his new banking job in Wilmington. “He is the nicest, most considerate and giving man I have ever met,” Odom says.
Joyner says he doesn’t plan any more real estate ventures but he does intend to remain active around town and engaged with the campus. A gregarious, warm-hearted and loyal person, he still drinks coffee most mornings with a group of friends that’s been together for more than 50 years.
He’s also carrying on Kitty’s traditions.
“One night I called him, and he wasn’t home, which worried me,” says daughter Julia. “Finally I reached him, and he said he had been at a dance recital on campus. He still goes to all those things.”
Habits built up over a lifetime, thankfully, are hard to break.
Important deeds done far from the spotlight
When he was chair of the ECU Board of Trustees in the early 1990s, Max Ray Joyner initiated a project to compile a list of every building, conference room and lounge on campus that had been named for faculty members, important donors or honored alumni. He wanted to be sure these memorializations weren’t lost over time.
As he looked over the list, it occurred to Joyner that one person had been overlooked, a person who played a key role in East Carolina’s history. But it wasn’t a chancellor, a dean or a rich donor Joyner was concerned about.
It was James Louis “Pop” Williams, pictured at left, who was the campus police chief from 1917 until 1953. For most of those 36 years, Williams was the only campus cop.
“I saw him a hundred times, when I was in high school and later in college. He only worked at night, and he had this big key on a chain around his neck. He would walk around and turn that key in these stations around campus. And sometimes we would talk.
“I just thought there should be some record of someone who had served the college that long, who had done important things but done them away from the spotlight.
“It took me a while to finally get a marker put up in his memory, and I’m glad we got that done.”
The marker, shown at left, is in the parking lot at the corner of Fifth and Harding streets.
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