FEATURE — Fall 2006
   

 

Danforth Campus

Washington University chooses a name to honor a family legacy.

By Judy H. Watts

Then-Chancellor William H. Danforth (left), the late Elizabeth Gray Danforth, and former U.S. Senator John C. Danforth gathered on the occasion of Senator Danforth's being the keynote speaker at Commencement on May 19, 1995.

For many, to stroll through Brookings Quadrangle, bounded by red-granite and limestone under the dome of the sky, is to sense a continuum: the bequest of past generations to a prolific present that flows into a hopeful future. The campus that sits west of Forest Park is central to Washington University. Its design combines formality and ease—embracing both its noble purpose and its people, whose ideals and efforts define it. The medieval architectural style in the tradition of the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge universities suggests aspiration and limitless possibility. Building details—ornamental garlands, animals, people, magical beings—reflect the creative spirit of the stonemasons who carved them early in the 20th century.

When Robert S. Brookings, then-Board president, in 1893 helped secure for Washington University the acres of countryside on which these buildings would rise, planners compared the hilltop site to the Athenian Acropolis. Over the decades, the campus has become a place of greatness: a research and teaching institution of the highest order; a center of learning and ideas; a disseminator of discoveries and service to humankind; a nurturer of ideas, aspirations, and hopes; a community of inclusion; a domain of mutual respect. All this is the heart of the University, an institution shaped and strengthened by the Danforth family.

Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth, now a life trustee, was chancellor for 24 of more than 50 years of service. He and the late First Lady Elizabeth Gray Danforth, with faculty, alumni, and friends, led the University into an era of accomplishment in higher education, scholarship, and clinical care, fulfilling the dreams and aspirations of its forebears. The larger Danforth family has for generations provided inspiration by example and through continuous service and generosity; the Danforth Foundation has a long history of philanthropy that significantly stimulated increased giving at critical times during the University's growth and has been essential to its progress.

As an expression of the Washington University worldwide family's deep appreciation and joy—and in what Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton calls "a tribute to a man, a family, and a foundation"—the hilltop home of Washington University in St. Louis will forever be known as the Danforth Campus, beginning on September 17, 2006.




 

Bill and the late Ibby Danforth on Ibby's birthday, 1994.

A man who, along with his late wife, Ibby, dwells in the heart of each person who knows him, William (Bill) H. Danforth personifies the soul of Washington University. A certain boyish quality—a hint of shyness, an unpretentious demeanor, the utter earnestness, a quick wide grin, and happy laugh—has been much remarked upon throughout his career, and glints show through photographs of Danforth taken over the decades. His youthful traits and attributes are intact even in his 80th year—as is his capacity for deep attentiveness that is among his greatest strengths.

And Danforth still cuts a "Lincolnesque figure of granite laced with steel and wrapped in velvet"—as described in the bygone St. Louis Globe-Democrat, words that say as much about his character as his presence. Strong ethical principles, the quest for improvement, and concern for others—also guiding principles of the late Elizabeth Gray Danforth and extended family—define the 13th chancellor. Buoyed by a faith in simple virtues, he has always led with the optimism that hard work and a sense of purpose can effect positive change.

"I believe that Washington University is one of this community's contributions to mankind. A successful university is a noble institution. It is a statement of faith; that human beings can be educated and that human thought is worthwhile, that the thinking, analyzing animal called man can use his unique talents for the benefit of himself and his fellows; that we can learn from our past, that we can change; that by intelligence we can improve our lot and the lot of our children and their children."
--William H. Danforth, Founders Day Address,"Washington University: Continuity and Change," 1972

In his 1991 Thanksgiving letter to the University community, written four years before he retired, Danforth observed a reality his leadership had helped create: "I see students," he wrote in part, "as idealistic and bright as ever, learning, growing, and maturing in a complex and difficult world, many giving voluntary service to the elderly, the disabled, the poor. I see the young successfully wrestling to understand each other across racial and cultural gulfs. I talk with parents who have sacrificed to give their children a Washington University education and are thrilled with the results. I note the increased internationalism of our campus, young people from all over the world coming to learn, and increasingly our students going off to [other countries] in order to study and to work. ... I rejoice with professors recognized nationally and internationally for advances in knowledge and understanding ... The great issues are debated as they should be; I could never even imagine suppression of free speech at Washington University."

The culture of academic freedom, inclusion, integrity, collaboration, and accomplishment that Danforth painstakingly tended as chancellor from 1971 until 1995 had much to do with what he and the thousands of individuals he inspired were able to accomplish. (In recognition of Danforth's unflinching support of academic freedom, he received in 2000 the Alexander Meiklejohn Award from the American Association of University Professors, AAUP, the major professional organization for faculty. The award, which is given only in years when a truly outstanding candidate is nominated, is the highest honor the AAUP bestows. Former University Chancellor Ethan A.H. Shepley received the award as well, and Washington University is the only institution to be so honored twice.)

Observers have marveled at his genius for grasping the interconnectedness of the university with the local, national, and international communities—and for reaching out to his many constituencies. A cardiologist by training, Danforth had, some say, the deportment of an old-fashioned country doctor—soft-spoken, gentle, trustworthy, patient, and caring. He also possesses a physician's sense of the importance of the parts to the whole and their effects on its overall health. As Danforth puts it, being a physician provides "a deepened understanding of one's fellow human beings, their hopes, their strengths, their fragilities, and especially, the common humanity we all share."

William H. Danforth became chancellor in 1971. On the campus inspired by Frederick Law Olmsted—creator of New York City's Central Park—and designed by architects Cope & Stewardson, it first served as headquarters for the World's Fair and host to the Western Hemisphere's first Olympic Games in 1904. Later, the campus housed soldiers being trained for and returning from two World Wars, and by the late 1960s, it had suffered wrenching schisms over issues of civil rights and the Vietnam War (as so many universities did). At that time, Danforth traveled frequently from the Medical Campus to provide counsel and support to then-Chancellor Thomas H. Eliot, and during those sessions and through service on major planning committees, he gained an extensive knowledge of the University.

During his tenure as chancellor, William Danforth oversaw significant improvements in undergraduate student retention, and he made it a priority to build rapport with all students.

The Vietnam War with its attendant student unrest was still going on when William Danforth was inaugurated in 1971, and two additional problems faced Washington University—the income had not kept up with spending and the demonstrations over the Vietnam War had shaken confidence in universities nationwide. Many in St. Louis felt estranged from the University. Danforth seized the earliest opportunity to reach out to the community: In his first official address on Founders Day 1972, he conveyed a native son's empathy for his city and called for reconciliation. The town-gown tension had arisen from "a failure to know one another well," the new chancellor said, moving on to speak of the University as one of St. Louis' contributions to humanity (see quote above). In this way, he helped his audience to identify with the University's achievements and discover their genuine stake in its future progress. At that time, he began to rebuild the strong relationship between the University and the St. Louis community that flourishes today.

Danforth was equally fast to act on the University's financial problems. He launched a fund drive in 1973 with a $60 million endowment challenge grant from the Danforth Foundation (see sidebar below). Numerous early milestones included the establishment of the joint Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences, a visionary and now much-copied educational consortium of faculty affiliated with 29 basic science and clinical departments on the Danforth and Medical campuses. In the late '70s, he announced a plan emblematic of his administrative approach: the Commission on the Future of Washington University, comprising 10 task forces for the schools and major service areas, chaired by trustees with outstanding credentials. "Having wonderful, smart people was very, very important," Danforth says today of the talented leaders he brought to the table throughout his chancellorship. "I talked with them about their ideas, and always felt I was doing the right thing if I backed the convictions of people I knew were wise."

The commission's work not only provided a map for the 1983-87 ALLIANCE FOR WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY campaign—which raised $630.5 million and was then the most successful university fund-raising effort in national history—but also heralded Danforth's establishment five years later of the 10 national councils, one for each school, the Libraries, and Student Affairs, to expand the analysis, insights, and dialogue. Each chaired by a member of the Board of Trustees, the councils are made up of alumni, parents, and leading national and local academic, corporate, and civic leaders, who bring expertise and objectivity to institutional planning.

"Universities in particular have a heavy responsibility. [They] still bear the burden of seeking truth and enlarging our understanding; they remain the reservoir of intellectual and technical resources that are necessary to confront the new and untried. It is within the universities that students who will soon have the major responsibility for the American heritage are asking the basic and most difficult questions. It is here that reside the variety of talents necessary for society's unending task of civilizing itself, that of bringing wisdom and perspective, moral sensitivity and aesthetic appreciation to the problems that confront us."
—William H. Danforth

During his tenure, Danforth oversaw the establishment of 70 new faculty professorships, significant improvements in undergraduate student retention and minority student recruitment, a tripling of scholarships, and a strong financial foundation of a $1.72 billion endowment. Other landmarks included the formation under his leadership of the University Athletic Association, a conference for scholar-athletes; a historic university-industry research agreement with Monsanto Corporation; buildings such as John E. Simon Hall for the Olin School of Business and Anheuser-Busch Hall for the School of Law; and soaring numbers of research grants, clinical breakthroughs, and new initiatives. The School of Medicine, for example, was one of the few world centers for the Human Genome Project. Again using his broadly inclusive strategic planning approach—and enjoying "the comradeship of working side-by-side with others who share visions which we hold dear" —Danforth instituted Project 21 to prepare the University to realize its potential in the 21st century. After these new proposals were developed, the Campaign for Washington University, which Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton would announce publicly in 1998, exceeded its original $1 billion goal, providing $1.55 billion to implement the plans.

Also during his tenure, Chancellor Danforth oversaw improvements in minority student recruitment.

In these and hundreds of other significant ways, William and the late Elizabeth Danforth transformed Washington University. A quietly powerful presence behind the progress, Bill Danforth helped lay what he called "the cement of mutual confidence" and created stability in every area. His rare combination of enormous vision and concern for the individual and his manifest integrity fostered the cooperation essential to advancement. He was the linchpin for the energetic alumni programs, treasuring his contact with former students from every decade. As members of the campus community are fond of recalling, Danforth has often remarked: "Young people come here to learn; they fall in love; and they go on to lead productive lives and contribute in important ways to their community."

(Above) Chancellor Danforth was active in many community service organizations, learning from his grandfather's prescription: "Catch a passion for helping others, and a richer life will come back to you." (Below) He was also one of the student-athletes' biggest fans.

Danforth legends abound. Undergraduates had their own terms of endearment, "Uncle Bill" and "Chan Dan," for the chancellor with the ready smile who was a welcome presence in their campus lives. Danforth is famous for his "Bedtime Stories" delivered during Freshman Orientation on the South 40. As St. Louis magazine reported in 1987, some 700 freshmen sitting on blankets applauded the student emcee's affectionate—albeit exaggerated—introduction of the 6' 4" chancellor: "Ladies and gentlemen, the former center of the Los Angeles Lakers! Here is your chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, William Danforth, our own 'Uncle Bill'!" Some former students recall that the chancellor visited the dorms during a flu epidemic, with black medical bag in hand; legions remember the green WU sweatshirt he wore under his windbreaker to Bears sports contests. (A former varsity volleyball champion says hearing the Danforths cheering was almost like having her parents in the stands.)

Danforth made a point of being available to students—to listen to their concerns and help them figure out a course of action. (A well-meaning administrator once complained, "Students think they can just waltz into his office any time.") "Bill wouldn't say 'no' to a student," Ibby Danforth would say.

His door was also wide open to faculty, nearly all of whom he knew on sight and who in turn were well aware that they could call on him directly—and that he would patiently listen.

And the treasured recollections continue. Faculty members who underwent surgery would wake up to find the chancellor sitting by their bedside. University employees who worked late would say, with admiration and surprise: "The lights in the chancellor's office were still on when I walked by Brookings Hall last night!"

Because of the humanity that shines through such stories, Bill and Ibby Danforth's legacy includes not only the dedicated and caring worldwide community they helped create—in an age when so many seem to long for purpose and shared pursuit of the highest ideals—but also the sheer happiness of participation. One memory captures some of that quality of belonging: It is a traditionally sun-drenched Reunion weekend. Tables are set for luncheon. Alumni are embracing and exclaiming, some through tears, sharing news from the years they've been apart. Suddenly the conversations grow softer. "There's Bill!" several former students say, grown up now. A gentle man has quietly walked into the room; already he is leaning over in welcome.

Judy H. Watts is a free-lance writer based in Santa Barbara, California, and a former editor of this magazine.

Living Exceptionally Tall
The Danforth Family of Washington University
In the decades since the first William H. Danforth, M.T.S.1887, M.E.1892, enrolled at Washington University's original downtown campus, he and his family in word, deed, and example have become part of the fabric of the institution and the communities it serves. When Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton announced that on September 17, 2006, the Hilltop Campus would forever carry the Danforth name, Wrighton spoke of the contributions of these remarkable people and of the Danforth Foundation—whose trustees included William, John, and Donald, Jr., and their father and grandparents.

The Danforth family has a long-standing association with Washington University, dating back to the first William H. Danforth's attending the University in the late 1800s. (Above) At a family gathering in 2000, Bill and the late Ibby Danforth (standing, center of back row) pose with family members. They had four children and 15 grandchildren. (Right) The Danforths were an integral part of hundreds of University events, including Reunion.

Founding father William Henry Danforth was highly committed to his family, to St. Louis, and to Washington University, of which he was a trustee for 25 years. His personal philosophy was based on precepts that he lived by and shared with his family and his employees at Ralston Purina, the pioneering feed company he founded just two years after graduating from the University. Chief among these: "My own self at my very best, all the time," and "I dare you to stand tall, think tall, smile tall, live tall."

The family accepted his challenges—to the benefit of countless people. His son, Donald, built the family company into a worldwide business and helped raise four children in a happy home: William (Bill); Dorothy; Donald, Jr., B.S.B.A. '55; and John. They exemplified the family's commitment to education and service and to the personal quest for excellence. John C. Danforth, for example, now partner at Bryan Cave LLP, served as attorney general of Missouri, as U.S. senator for 18 years, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and as the president's special envoy to Sudan. A frequent visitor to campus events, he chairs the Danforth Foundation (see sidebar below).

Bill Danforth interned and completed his residency in medicine at Barnes Hospital, then became professor of medicine at the School of Medicine and vice chancellor for medical affairs. At the University, he also held one of the longest chancellorships in U.S. history. The day after he retired he became chairman of the Board of Trustees, and today he is an active life trustee and chancellor emeritus. His continuing leadership includes the creation of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis and his help in building its strong relationship with Washington University as St. Louis becomes a leader in the plant sciences. He is a past "St. Louis Man of the Year" and a leader in civic organizations including the St. Louis Christmas Carols Association, which his grandfather founded.

The late Elizabeth Gray Danforth, in Chancellor Wrighton's words, "was one of the great citizens of Washington University and of St. Louis." She hosted and took part in hundreds of University receptions and events around the world, and worked extensively with the Women's Society of Washington University, which renamed its scholarship fund for community college transfer students in her honor. Her name is permanently linked to endeavors that reflect her exceptional spirit and commitment: the William H. and Elizabeth Gray Danforth Scholars Program, which honors students at all levels of study who, like the Danforths, are of outstanding character and deeply committed to service. The list also includes the Elizabeth Gray Danforth Scholarship; the Elizabeth Gray Danforth Butterfly Garden; and the Elizabeth Gray Danforth House for freshmen. Two professorships also have been endowed in her honor. And in acknowledgment of unstinting, in-person support, both Danforths are members of the University's Sports Hall of Fame.




Danforth Foundation Gifts
Making University Progress Possible
Established in 1927 by William H. Danforth, Sr., and his wife Adda B. Danforth, the private, independent Danforth Foundation has given approximately $1 billion to education, science, and civic projects. In 1997, the foundation trustees began to focus their support exclusively on metropolitan St. Louis, concentrating on economic development and on neighborhood redevelopment and downtown revitalization.

The Danforth Foundation has generously supported Washington University on several significant occasions—including the largest gift commitments received in the ALLIANCE FOR WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY and the Campaign for Washington University in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively. Over the course of its history, the Danforth Foundation has provided nearly $400 million in support to the University and has inspired countless others to follow its example of philanthropy. Simply put, says Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton, "The University's progress to date would not have been possible without the Danforth Foundation's support."

The foundation's challenge grants stimulated enormous corresponding dollar totals and helped build a strong donor base. Here are highlights of the foundation's gifts on behalf of Washington University in St. Louis:
1965-70: >$4 million—Added to the Seventy by 'Seventy campaign, which allocated $56 million for the Hilltop (now Danforth) Campus. $1.5 million helped add able and imaginative faculty, boosted undergraduate applications, increased geographical diversity of the student body, and strengthened graduate programs.
1970: $15 million over five yearsOf that amount, $2 million each year supported the Hilltop Campus' operating budget in difficult financial times for higher education.
1973: $60 million challenge grantEndowed the $3 million annually that the University was receiving under previous grants that had ended. $60 million from the Danforth Foundation transferred to the University endowment to stabilize the gains of the '60s and prevent deterioration.
1982: $45 million 3-for-1 challenge grant to be matched by the end of 1987—Helped provide the impetus to launch the $300 million ALLIANCE FOR WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY campaign.
1986: $100 million—Given on the occasion of the University's having reached its $300 million goal in the ALLIANCE campaign two years early, the gift reinvigorated the campaign.
1986: $55 million—Buoyed the campaign until it ultimately raised a total of $630.5 million—then the largest amount among universities in national history—increasing the endowment to seventh largest in the nation.
1998: $100 million—For the Campaign for Washington University , which transformed the direction and strength of future research and service. Allocations were made for endowments in American culture studies and humanities in Arts & Sciences; for the John B. Ervin Scholars Program; for a distinguished service professorship; for social sciences in Arts & Sciences and social work; for basic sciences in medicine; for plant science in biology and chemistry, both in Arts & Sciences; for the new Department of Biomedical Engineering; and for development of a University Center to provide an area to enhance community. (Construction on the University Center is expected to begin in 2008.)
2005: $100,000—For the Elizabeth Gray Danforth Scholarship Endowment. As JoAnn Sanditz, president of the Women's Society of Washington University, commented at the time: "[Ibby] would have been delighted to know the Danforth Foundation is keeping the dream of a Washington University education alive for so many deserving students in our community."
2005-06: $6 million—An additional commitment to support BioMed 21, so named because of its potential to redefine how biomedical research will be conducted and medicine practiced as the 21st century unfolds.

Such a list unavoidably passes over the inspiring details of the professorships and the faculty holding them, the leading-edge academic programs, the research supported, and the scholarships for extraordinary and talented students.