Retired U.S. Army Col. James Nurney “Jim” Joyner Jr. ’67, who served as commandant of the Corps of Cadets during the transition to coeducation in the late 1990s, died July 4, 2023. He was 79.
A career Army officer, Joyner served in several positions at VMI, including two tours in VMI’s Army ROTC unit—one as a captain from 1975–78 and as colonel and department head from 1989–93. After his retirement from the Army, Joyner served as director of cadet affairs at VMI before becoming commandant in 1997. He was later director of auxiliary services, a position he held until his retirement in 2011.
He was awarded the VMI Meritorious Service Medal in 2011 and received an award for distinguished service during the 2011 Institute Awards ceremony.
Those who knew Joyner well recalled his ability to thrive when presented with challenge and change. Mike Strickler ’71, who served as the Institute’s public relations director from 1992–2001, recalled Joyner being named commandant in August 1997, just weeks away from the matriculation of VMI’s first coeducational class. “He got thrown right into the fire,” said Strickler of Joyner—the “fire” being a national media spotlight that involved approximately 250 members of the press representing 60 media outlets.
As public relations director, all eyes were on Strickler—and as commandant, Joyner was placed in the same spotlight. “[F]or about two years, Jim and I were pretty much joined at the hip,” Strickler recalled. Thankfully, the two worked seamlessly together, and Strickler recalled Joyner as a consummate professional.
From the time he was named commandant to Matriculation Day, Joyner and others turned their attention to making sure no detail was missed in the final preparations for the first women to arrive. “His leadership skills were tested, and he did a magnificent job,” said Strickler. “He was very principled. He was a man of character.”
After the first coeducational class broke out in the spring semester of 1998, Joyner was featured in a news story sharing with readers that the bar was not lowered and women proved themselves equal.
Retired U.S. Army Col. Eric Hutchings ’77, who succeeded Joyner as commandant, also recalled Joyner’s wise counsel and steadfast leadership. Stepping into the commandant’s role, Hutchings noted, was challenging because there was no protocol for the transfer of leadership. Thankfully, though, Joyner was only a phone call away when Hutchings needed the back story on a situation.
“I could call him at any time, and I greatly appreciated his willingness to speak and his candor,” said Hutchings, who retired from VMI in 2020. “He was very helpful to me.”
Hutchings recalled that he and Joyner first met when Hutchings was a cadet—and in a situation that didn’t lend itself to comfort. “He was a [tactical] officer, and anybody who’s a tactical officer you view as someone who can give you demerits, so you do your best not to engage with them,” Hutchings explained.
“But once, when I was sergeant of the guard, he was officer in charge for the night, and we had to do a stick check. It takes a long time to do the stick check. It took about two hours, and I asked him about his military experiences in Vietnam and everything, and it was captivating. I remember some of the things he told me to this day. This was a subject he knew well and warmed to. I’m not sure if the stick check ever got done!”
The relationship that began that evening continued for decades and extended to the times when neither was in uniform. “Both he and his wife were so gracious to me and my wife, and they had us over for several meals,” Hutchings recalled.
“Colonel Joyner, in his various roles at VMI, stayed directly connected to the Corps of Cadets,” said Brig. Gen. Dallas Clark ’99, deputy superintendent for finance and support. “In his final role in auxiliary services, the results of his leadership provided exceptional results in improvements to cadet uniforms and the services provided in the mess hall, bookstore, armory, military store, quartermaster, and mailroom. … He was instrumental in supporting and implementing major strategic initiatives to the post-wide safety with the VMI police, which for a time was also under his purview.”
Joyner matriculated from Norfolk, Virginia, after having attended Greenbrier Military School in West Virginia during his high school years. At VMI, he immersed himself in cadet life, becoming a member of the Floor, Hop, and Saber Committees. Joyner also held rank in the Corps, serving as a corporal his 2nd and 3rd Class years and commanding Company B his 1st Class year. He was also the Social Committee chairman of the Corps Activities Committee during his 1st Class year.
Concern for others, his brother rats noted, was central to his character. In the 1967 Bomb, his brother rats wrote, “Unlike some in the post, Nurney is a ‘brother rat’ first. For this, he gained the respect and admiration of his brother rats and friends. He cares, although some rats may not think so, about his men.”
Upon graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and a commission into the U.S. Army (infantry), Joyner married his high school sweetheart, Barbara, and was shortly thereafter deployed to Vietnam.
Over the next 26 years, a multitude of Army assignments and relocations followed, including but not limited to overseas assignments in Berlin, Germany, and Korea, and stateside ones at Fort Bragg, North Carolina (now Fort Liberty); Fort Benning, Georgia (now Fort Moore); Fort Drum, New York; Fort Lewis, Washington; and the Pentagon, among others.
He was a graduate of the U.S. Army Infantry Officer Basic and Advanced Courses, Airborne School, Ranger School, U.S. Naval College Command and Staff School, and the U.S. Army War College. In addition, he earned a Master of Arts degree from Georgia State University.
His awards and decorations included the Legion of Merit Award, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Military Meritorious Service Medal x3, Army Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal x2, Army of Occupation Medal, National Defense Service Medal x2, Vietnam Service Medal x3, Vietnam Campaign Medal x3, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation, U.S. Army Staff Identification Badge, U.S. Army Ranger Tab, U.S. Army Parachutist Badge, and the Combat Infantry Badge.
He is survived by his children, Virginia Joyner West (Ken) and James N. “Jamie” Joyner III ’95 (Laura); grandchildren, Hanna West, Alex West, and Caroline Joyner; sister, Alice Langford; and brothers, Richard Joyner and George Joyner.
He was preceded in death by his wife, Barbara, and grandson, Thomas Joyner.
Mary Price Development Writer/Communications Specialist
The development writer plays a key role in producing advancement communications. This role imagines, creates, and produces a variety of written communication to inspire donors to make gifts benefiting VMI. Utilizing journalistic features and storytelling, the development writer will produce content for areas such as Annual Giving, stewardship, and gift planning.