John William Harrelson was born on June 28, 1885, in Double Shoals Community, Cleveland County, North Carolina. He graduated from North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (later North Carolina State University) in 1909 with a bachelor's degree in engineering. In 1915 he received a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the same school. From 1909-1934 Harrelson served as instructor, assistant professor, associate professor, professor, and eventually department head of mathematics at North Carolina State College. In 1934, he was appointed Dean of Administration at North Carolina State College. That title was changed to Chancellor in 1945, and Harrelson held this position until his retirement in 1953. There were two breaks in Harrelson's tenure at the college. The first was during his military employment in 1917-1919. The second was during the period 1929-1933 when he served as the Director of the State Department of Conservation and Development. Throughout his life, Harrelson was active in the civic and religious affairs of Raleigh, North Carolina. He served on many governmental and private boards, commissions, and councils. He died in Raleigh on March 12, 1955.