Joseph Elbert Nunn, Panhandle educator and businessman, son of John Martin and Alice (Breeding) Nunn, was born September 23, 1851, in Adair County, Kentucky. At age seven the family moved to La Grange, Missouri, where his father prospered as a merchant and where he spent the remainder of his youth. The Civil War wrecked the family's business, but they gradually recovered. Joseph became a Southern Baptist in February 1866 and in June 1871 graduated from La Grange College, the youngest member of his class. He was licensed as a minister in November 1872, returned to Kentucky, taught for six years at the Baptist Seminary in Eminence, and joined its Masonic lodge. Nunn then took charge of the Seminary in Bagdad, Kentucky. On December 4, 1879, during his seven-year tenure there, he married Lettie Hamlet, who was on the faculty. Three daughters and a son were born to them; one of the daughters died of spinal meningitis at age eleven in 1892. In 1888 Nunn's health failed, leaving him almost an invalid. However, he regained his strength while vigorously traveling by buggy over a wide area in Kentucky selling life insurance for a few years before returning to teaching.
By August 1903, after serving for a time as dean of Shelbyville College in Shelbyville, Kentucky, Nunn considered retiring from education and the pulpit. However, he changed his plans after a visit to his brother George, who had founded the short-lived Amarillo Academy, and decided to move to the Texas Panhandle with hopes of further improving his delicate health. In Amarillo, Nunn bought from B. G. Stegman the Amarillo Telephone Exchange Company, to which he added the property of the Northwest Telephone Supply Company in 1906. Assisted by his son, John Lindsay, he acquired a total of six exchanges and 200 miles of toll line, which by 1912 he had sold to the Southwestern Bell Telephone Company. He also was part owner of the Nunn Electric Company, which John Lindsay started in 1910. The company lasted until the financial recession of the early 1920s.
Nunn's longest Panhandle business connection began in January 1910, when he became a major stockholder of the financially shaky Amarillo Daily News, through which he and his colleagues expressed their prohibitionist views. In 1916 the Nunns purchased outright all the stock in the paper, which they merged with the unprofitable Daily Panhandle, and put it on a sound footing. After acquiring the Amarillo Daily Tribune in 1923, they moved into its building. This subsequently became the headquarters of the Globe-News Publishing Company after Eugene A. Howe and Wilbur C. Hawk bought the Daily News from the Nunns in 1926. Even then, Nunn remained a vibrant force in the News through his contribution of a discussion of the International Sunday School Lesson to the paper's Saturday editions until three weeks before his death.
Soon after his arrival in 1903 he was appointed treasurer of the Palo Duro Baptist Association. In that capacity he oversaw the organization of several Baptist churches in Amarillo. In 1907 he helped establish Wayland College at Plainview and was one of its first trustees. He also was on the board of the short-lived Goodnight College and was on the executive committee of the Texas Baptist General Convention. In 1923 Nunn was appointed one of the first directors of Texas Technological College in Lubbock. In 1926 he delivered the commencement address at his alma mater, La Grange College, in honor of the fifty-fifth anniversary of his graduation; a men's dormitory on that campus was afterward named for him. Nunn suffered a double loss during the World War I era with the death of his daughter Virginia in 1914 and that of his wife in 1919. Despite his grief he continued attending to his civic duties; his silky beard, elegant attire, and electric car became familiar sights on Amarillo's streets. During his last years his increasingly delicate health forced him to limit many of his activities. In the spring of 1938, while visiting his daughter Saline and her husband, Horace B. Gooch, in Colorado Springs, Nunn fell ill and was taken to a hospital in that city. He died there on the morning of May 2, 1938, after undergoing a major operation. Following funeral services at Amarillo's First Baptist Church, where he was a member, he was interred in Llano Cemetery. The library at Wayland Baptist University and a student loan fund there both bear his name. His son J. Lindsay and grandson Gilmore become prominent in both Texas and Kentucky for their widespread business interests in newspapers, oil, ranching, dairying, insurance, and real estate.