Mar 11, 2011 03:00AM
● By Anonymous
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Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Joan Vinson has lived and traveled all over the world. She’s been a teacher, flight attendant, lobbyist, administrator, and political organizer. But she describes her decision to ultimately make her home Annapolis as, “the best thing I ever did for myself.”
“I’m sort of a perpetual student,” says the grandmother of 13 who holds several graduate degrees in addition to her Ph.D. in political science from George Washington University. “I’m thrilled with all the opportunities Annapolis offers for continuing education.”
Thirty-three years ago, when Vinson first settled in Annapolis, she was hoping for a miracle—the return of her husband Bobby Gene Vinson, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and West Point graduate, shot down over Vietnam and declared missing in action (MIA). This was not to be.
With the initial motivation of her husband’s plight, Vinson became involved. Between 1969 and 1973 she served as National Coordinator for the National League of Families. In 1969 the North Vietnamese government opened up a Paris office and multi-millionaire Ross Perot took a plane load of families to enable them to meet with the North Vietnamese officials. Joan Vinson was on that plane to France. She made it her mission to help find the answers for the families of prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action. In 1972 she also served on a nonpartisan political action committee seeking a voice in the treatment of prisoners. “In 1973 it was felt that some prisoners were left behind, and I was worried they had held my husband back.”
While working in Washington, D.C., and living in Northern Virginia, Vinson was no stranger to Annapolis. She passed by the city on her way to a summerhouse on the Eastern Shore outside St. Michaels. In 1968, when her husband left on his final tour of duty, her four children were ages 14, 12, 10, and 5. “Washington was aflame with protest,” says Vinson, “Those were very troubling times and it was hard being a single parent.”
As director of communications for the Bicentennial, celebrated in 1976, Vinson began spending more time in Annapolis. During the Ford presidential administration she also served on the presidential Clemency Board. “The question was clemency versus amnesty,” she explains, “was it fair that some people served prison time while others in the military just went AWOL?” (Ford ultimately offered conditional amnesty; whereas full amnesty was granted during the Carter administration in 1977.)
An adjunct professor at George Washington University, where she also earned a graduate degree that focused on travel and tourism, Vinson was keenly interested in the economic aspects of the travel industry and wrote her thesis on the Washington Convention Center. Her youngest daughter was still in school at Georgetown Visitation, but her older three were off to college, so Vinson thought she could make the transition to Annapolis while still maintaining a condo in Georgetown.
In 1977 purchasing and decorating her home in Epping Forest, she recalls, “I imagined if my husband Bobby was going to come home, he would have loved it. I set it up as a mini resort with a pool and I took up gardening, becoming active in the Four Rivers Garden Club. Ultimately,” she says, “It was best for me and the children to accept his death.”
For nine years Vinson worked for the American Trucking Association in its public affairs office. Her mission was to make them look good, and she succeeded by writing and promoting the association with several successful slogans including, “If You’ve Got It. A Truck Brought It” and “Pulling for America.”
A graduate of the St. John’s College graduate institute in 1981, she became a member of the Friends of St. John’s College in 1983 and utilized her professional expertise in marketing to assist their Outreach Committee. “One of our basic challenges was to acquaint the community with St. John’s,” she explains. “We started a really good program. Previously people thought there was nothing. We developed programs such as the Saturday seminars and the Great Issues discussion groups and we had some wonderful speakers such as Elliot Richardson. We had a discussion on ‘Ethics in Sports’ with Arthur Ashe. The idea was to draw people to St. John’s. And then there were events like “Kite Flying Day,” she adds, “and the Jazz Festival in collaboration with Friends of the Annapolis Symphony.”
Vinson also joined the Board of Advisors of the Mitchell Gallery at St. John’s College where she continues to serve on the Education, Docent, and Special Events and Fundraising committees.
“I have enjoyed serving with Joan on many committees here at St. John’s and she is a joy to work with,” says Kathy Dulisse, director of community programs at St. John’s. “She is always a thoughtful and active participant with a wealth of experiences from which to draw. She is one of the most gracious people I know.”
In 1988, Vinson married Richard Stallings, who worked for the CIA. He died in 2004.
Vinson remained grateful to Ross Perot for the help he had extended to veteran’s families, and when she saw him on the Larry King Show in 1992, declaring his intent to run for president, she contacted him to ask how she could help. “Get me on the ballot in all 50 states,” was Perot’s response. Vinson became the campaign director for the Perot campaign in the state of Maryland.
“Joan always asks about you but rarely talks about herself,” observes Pat Edwards, former president and executive director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. “When I first met Joan, I was amazed to learn of her background. From Mississippi, married an air force pilot, had four children, Ross Perot’s go-to person. Along with this history, I knew she loved the arts and was committed to living here and making a difference. Joan brought an intense love for the arts and a respect and understanding of the role of a board member to her term with ASO,” says Edwards.
“I bet there is nowhere in the world where you can meet so many interesting and diverse people—it’s historically so significant with St. John’s and the Naval Academy, plus the water and the boating.
I’ve seen our community blossom and grow with cultural opportunities,” says Vinson. These days she still puts focus on her family.
“I’m very proud of my children and my grandchildren,” she says. When given the opportunity she will work on her tiny garden, spend time cooking, reading, entertaining, knitting, and cuddling with her 13-year-old Shih tzu named Tara.