Bryan was born on October 23, 1871, at Brook Hill in Henrico County, the son of Joseph Bryan (1845–1908), a wealthy industrialist and newspaper publisher, and Isobel Lamont Stewart Bryan, a noted preservationist. Aided by the wealth that Joseph Bryan had accumulated, the family was one of the most influential in Richmond during John Stewart Bryan’s lifetime. The Bryans were well educated and well read, loved to travel and write letters, and acquired notable collections of art, books on Virginia, and literature in several languages. In 1935 Bryan published Joseph Bryan: His Times, His Family, His Friends, a biography of his father that vividly describes the family’s elegant lifestyle and expresses a reverence for a romanticized view of Virginia’s history that he and other family members labored to preserve.
A childhood accident blinded Bryan in his right eye but did not keep him from leading an active life. Educated at Thomas H. Norwood’s University School in Richmond and Episcopal High School in Alexandria, he graduated in 1893 from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville with both BA and MA degrees. In 1894 Bryan began to study law at the University of Virginia, but after the death of his professor John B. Minor, he transferred to Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1897. Bryan practiced briefly in New York before returning to Richmond to practice with Murray Mason McGuire. In 1898, as a member of the Virginia State Bar Association’s Committee on Library and Legal Literature, Bryan completed an able essay on early compilations of Virginia statutes based on personal examination of a number of rare volumes and a close reading of the historical scholarship then available.
JournalismIn 1900 Bryan gave up the law to become a reporter for Joseph Bryan’s Richmond Dispatch, and the next year he became vice president of his father’s publishing company, which owned the morning Richmond Dispatch and the evening Richmond Leader. In 1903 the Bryans sold the Leader, acquired the Dispatch‘s morning competitor, the Richmond Times, and merged it with the Dispatch to form the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Shortly before Joseph Bryan’s death in 1908, the family acquired the afternoon Richmond News Leader, of which John Stewart Bryan then became publisher. He remained the owner and publisher of the Richmond News Leader for the rest of his life. In 1915 Bryan hired Douglas Southall Freeman as editor of the News Leader, and during the following decades he supported Freeman’s time-consuming historical research and writing. Bryan sold the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1914, but in 1940 his Richmond Newspapers, Inc., bought it back, so that during most of his adult life, he owned and published one or both of the city’s major daily newspapers. They were the two most influential papers in Virginia and, with the exception of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, probably the best edited.
Bryan was an original member of the reorganized Associated Press in 1900 and an active member of the American Newspaper Publishers Association, of which he was secretary for fifteen years and president from 1926 to 1928. In 1917 he founded and helped supervise Trench and Camp, the wartime newspaper of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Following a visit to England on YMCA business at the end of World War I (1914–1918), Bryan went to Paris to cover the opening of the peace conference. In 1927 he and Samuel Emory Thomason, a Chicago publisher and his predecessor as president of the American Newspaper Publishers Association, bought the Tribune of Tampa, Florida. Later that year they purchased the Record of Greensboro, North Carolina, and in 1928 they acquired the Chicago Daily Journal. They sold the Chicago paper in August 1929 and the Greensboro paper the following year, but they remained owners and publishers of the Tampa Tribune until Thomason’s death in March 1944.
Bryan married Anne Eliza Tennant on June 4, 1903. They had one daughter and two sons, including David Tennant Bryan, who succeeded his father as publisher and president of Richmond Newspapers. Following the deaths of his parents, John Stewart Bryan lived at the elegant and showy new Laburnum mansion that Joseph Bryan had constructed in Richmond after a fire destroyed the original in 1906. The family made Laburnum a center of Richmond society, and Bryan became a popular toastmaster and after-dinner speaker. More than six feet, two inches tall, he cut an impressive figure and carried himself with an easy dignity. Bryan had a wonderful memory and a copious stock of apt anecdotes, literary and historical allusions, and poetic references.
Bryan seldom participated directly in politics. His views reflected the conservative, business-oriented opinions of his industrialist father, but both men disliked the machine politics characteristic of the leaders of Virginia’s, successively , , and . The conservative Bryans were occasionally at odds with the party’s even more conservative leaders. Nevertheless, Bryan was a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions of 1920, 1924, and 1932, and in 1924 he accepted the chairmanship of ‘s favorite-son presidential campaign.
Bryan’s influence in Richmond and Virginia extended to many fields but focused on the arts and education. He helped found a short-lived symphony orchestra in Richmond during the 1930s, and he was one of the first vice presidents of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Active as a lay leader in the Episcopal Church, Bryan often attended its triennial national councils during the 1910s and 1920s. He chaired the board of the Richmond Public Library, sat on the boards of a number of charitable organizations, and in 1936 and 1937 was president of the Virginia Historical Society. Bryan also served for many years as president of the local regional council of the Boy Scouts of America. He supported theof Virginia, founded in 1904 to advocate improvement of public education in the state. Bryan sat on the board of visitors of the University of Virginia from 1918 to 1920 and was rector from 1920 until his term expired in 1922. From 1937 to 1943 he served on the board of overseers of Harvard University.
College of William and MaryIn 1926 Bryan became a member of the board of visitors of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. Early in the 1930s, as vice rector, he shouldered more than his share of the additional burdens faced by board members as a result of the failing health and sometimes erratic behavior of President Julian Alvin Carroll Chandler. Following Chandler’s death, the board named Bryan president of the college on June 30, 1934. Bryan’s eight-year administration was remarkable for the long list of famous guests who visited him and the college, beginning with U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who spoke at Bryan’s inauguration.
During Bryan’s presidency the college made significant strides in broadening its curriculum and strengthening its reputation as a liberal arts college. The student body improved in quality, as did an enlarged faculty. Bryan bolstered the college’s financial standing, reduced its debt, and took responsibility for the beautification of the campus and the planting of boxwood in the sunken garden. The small and underfunded School of Jurisprudence came under criticism, but alumni rallied to the school’s support, and reorganized as the School of Law, it survived to grow in size and gain in stature beginning shortly after Bryan’s death. He eliminated other schools, including programs in business administration, economics, education, and secretarial science, in order to focus on the liberal arts.
Bryan continued to pursue his other varied business and professional interests and was thus a part-time college president. He used administrative practices similar to those he had followed as a newspaper publisher, when he hired the business managers and editors and gave them the freedom to do their jobs. Bryan’s habit of interviewing candidates for appointment to the faculty caused some deans to worry that this interference with their traditional responsibilities might result in a weakening of academic standards. Although too much presidential involvement in some academic affairs rankled, inadequate supervision in others may have exacerbated certain problems. The college’s Richmond affiliate, then known as Richmond Professional Institute (later Virginia Commonwealth University), operated virtually without supervision. The Norfolk division (later Old Dominion University) was academically inferior to the main campus. In the spring of 1941 the Norfolk dean was found to have altered student transcripts, thus endangering the academic reputation of the entire institution. Bryan and members of the board reluctantly bowed to public pressure from leading citizens of Norfolk and allowed the dean to remain in the college administration, although Bryan assigned the college bursar, Charles J. Duke, to run the Norfolk campus.
Partly as a result of that episode, the Committee on Classification of Universities and Colleges of the Association of American Universities suspended William and Mary from its approved list on October 30, 1941. The AAU had been reviewing its accreditation of the institution since 1937, largely because of complaints about the Norfolk division. Despite many improvements made during Bryan’s presidency, the committee in its suspension cited a high rate of student failures, low faculty salaries, inadequate library and laboratory facilities, mismanagement of the Norfolk division, and inefficient administrative procedures made worse by the schedule of the president, who had too many other demands on his time to give proper attention to the administration of the college.
William and Mary continued making administrative changes to meet some of the committee’s objections, and Bryan submitted his resignation on April 11, 1942, citing poor health and the need for new leadership during World War II (1939–1945). He relinquished his position on September 15, 1942, the day his successor, John Edwin Pomfret, took office. Within two months the Association of American Universities restored William and Mary’s accreditation. The board of visitors revived the ceremonial office of chancellor of the college for Bryan, and he was formally vested at Pomfret’s inauguration on February 8, 1943.
As a result of his careers in journalism and education, Bryan received honorary degrees from Washington and Lee University (1911), the University of Richmond (1920), Ohio University (1928), the College of Charleston (1935), Dartmouth College (1936), the University of Pennsylvania (1940), Syracuse University (1941), and the College of William and Mary (1942). After he retired from William and Mary, he continued to run his newspapers and engage in other business and civic pursuits, but his health rapidly deteriorated. John Stewart Bryan died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the Medical College of Virginia Hospital in Richmond on October 16, 1944, and was buried in Henrico County at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, to which he had belonged all his life.