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In Memoriam | Fall 2020

In Memoriam: John L. Colley Jr.

February 17, 1930 – July 15, 2020

Beloved Darden professor brought rigor, humanity to his work

In his decades at the Darden School of Business, John Colley rarely missed a First Coffee—or a free throw. For the legendary professor, who died July 15 at age 90, making the rounds at the morning social and holding court at Memorial Gym in friendly shooting contests were among the many ways he connected with students.

John L. Colley Jr. Ian Bradshaw

“It was just a way of putting a little humanity into things,” Colley said upon his retirement in 2017. “Taking out some of the rigor.”

Colley’s insistence on rigor made him an intimidating classroom presence known for holding students to exacting standards. His humanity inspired students from seven Darden classes over five decades to elect him to lead the graduation procession as a faculty marshal.

“He was able to walk a very interesting line,” said John Macfarlane (Darden ’79), a longtime friend. “He was very much the taskmaster, the disciplinarian and very demanding—that was his classroom persona.

Seven Society logo

“Outside the classroom, he was a regular guy.”

Colley came to Darden in 1967 from Hughes Aircraft, where he made a name by optimizing production using computer- assisted predictive analytics.

At the time, Darden was a 12-year-old “upstart regional business school,” according to The Darden Report. Colley helped focus energies on attracting top students through excellence in teaching and on becoming a leader in general management. Darden was ranked No. 1 in the nation in “best education experience” for nine consecutive years (2011–19) by The Economist, and No. 1 or No. 2 in the world for general management for the past eight years by  The Financial Times.

Colley won numerous teaching awards, and in 2010 became the first Darden professor to receive the Thomas Jefferson Service Award. He was a member of the Seven Society.

His personal touch endeared him to generations of students, said Darden Dean Emeritus Robert Bruner.

“He spoke softly. To really understand him, you had to lean in and get close to him,” Bruner said. “His mannerisms invited a sense of intimacy with the man and a sense you were being led into a special circle.

“To this day there are numerous groups of Colley loyalists who gather in celebration of him and what he imparted to them.”

Colley was predeceased by his wife, Tommie Love Lancaster Colley. He is survived by sons John Lawrence Colley (Med ’84) and Thomas Michael Colley, daughter Claire Ellen Colley, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. 

—Ed Miller