E. Carroll Joyner literally owns the block where he’s standing in front of a U-Haul truck stuffed with frozen turkeys in this town north of Raleigh.
He owns the warehouse behind him where the United Way collects canned food for needy families, along with dozens of properties in several counties. His name graces a park down the road in Wake Forest and buildings at N.C. State University and Louisburg College. Another park, in Louisburg, bears the name of his late daughter.
But on this bright December morning, the 81-year-old businessman is braving a bitter cold wind, all smiles, passing out boxes of turkeys to a line of cars bearing volunteers from food pantries throughout Franklin County.
Joyner personally picked up 500 donated turkeys from Mount Olive that will soon be the centerpiece of many a Christmas dinner. He bought most of them, though he also worked with Butterball to secure a discount and some donated turkeys.
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It’s by no means the largest donation he’s ever made, but the joy he seems to get from the experience offers a glimpse of why the businessman who grew up on a Sampson County farm has donated millions over the years to various causes, often giving his time as well.
Kathy Harrelson, director of the United Way of Franklin County, says Joyner’s monetary support and enthusiasm has added a new dimension to her nonprofit since he started helping five years ago. He has also worked with local Boy Scouts to sort donated food, supported the local Salvation Army, and helped the sheriff’s office start a community garden.
“He’s such inspiration to us in the way he gets up every day and does what he can to help other people,” Harrelson says. “But his reach is far, far beyond in helping the region and North Carolina.”
Joyner continues to work in his investment business, but he also increasingly occupies his time with philanthropy. He says he sees this work not as a duty, but a pleasure.
“There’s only three things you can do with money: You can spend it, invest it or give it away, and the last one is the best one,” he says. “If you can understand the part of helping someone who is struggling, then I think your life is going to be a lot happier.”
Joyner grew up on a Sampson County produce farm. His family scraped by selling squash and watermelons because they lacked the acreage to grow tobacco, a more profitable crop.
His parents didn’t graduate from high school, but Joyner was college material: a good student with a strong work ethic.
His parents chipped in some money to pay his tuition at N.C. State University, and he worked to make the rest. One of his jobs was to wash dishes, though he says that job mainly supplied him with free meals.
Another was to drive around to area farms, doing spot checks to make sure they were accurately reporting their yields. He was lucky enough to have a mentor who assigned him farms clustered close together, so he could ride a scooter since he didn’t have a car.
He studied agriculture, focused on livestock, and earned his degree in 1956. He raised cattle for many years, but his main focus was on other business pursuits.
He went on to own and operate a Western Auto store in Zebulon for 18 years, and opened a Golden Corral in Fayetteville when the company was still a small chain.
He played a key role in the restaurant’s expansion into a national chain, and became a major stockholder in the company, earning a considerable sum when he sold his shares.
He has continued to invest in real estate and a number of other ventures since. He recently bought the 155-acre plot that was home to the Wake Forest Golf Course, though he has yet to develop the land.
He credits his success as a businessman to a steadfast focus on character, including paying debts promptly.
“If I owe you, you will get paid whether I eat or not,” he says.
A life of philanthropy
Philanthropy was always part of the equation.
He has been a longtime benefactor to his alma mater, garnering most of the awards the university offers, including an honorary doctorate and its distinguished alumni award, which he won this year.
In the 1980s, Joyner established the N.C. Cattleman’s Foundation to support beef cattle research and donated his own herd of Angus beef cattle to the university.
He also helped establish the E. Carroll Joyner Visitors Center, a first stop for new students and visitors to the university, that opened in 2006. He served as director of the N.C. State Foundation Board and of the Veterinary Medical Foundation Board.
He also donated money for a student housing building at Louisburg College.
In recent years, he started focusing on building parks.
He donated 32 acres to create Joyner Park in Louisburg, named for his daughter, Joy Larue Joyner, who died of breast cancer when she was in her 30s. That park opened in 2003.
For the park in Wake Forest, he donated 117 acres and worked closely with the town and city planners on its development. The park now includes a preserved homestead, walking trails and an amphitheater.
Joyner says he seeks projects that meet a demonstrated need, will last a long time, and help a lot of people. And in addition to his money, he tends to devote his time, making sure the project meets his expectations.
“He’s one of those people that tends to take a job by its horns,” says Randall Ward, a longtime friend.
Joyner’s work with the United Way started when he moved to Youngsville five years ago after living for many years in Raleigh.
Harrelson says Joyner approached her, asking to help. Joyner allowed the group to use his warehouse for its annual sorting events in the spring, when it distributed canned goods. And he came up with the idea of donating turkeys, which are difficult for food pantries to provide.
“It’s a huge help,” says Mary Lou Illingworth, who collected 60 turkeys for the food pantry at Our Lady of the Rosary church in Louisburg. “Unless a food pantry has a budget, they can’t afford turkeys.”
The first year, the group distributed a few more than 100 turkeys. By 2011, it was 300. Joyner’s goal was 500, but he says he’ll keep expanding the program.
“I figure we’ll feed a few thousand people with this,” he says, waving toward the quickly dwindling pile of turkeys. “And that feels pretty good.”
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