Dr. Danieley: Ever a teacher
We celebrate the life and legacy of President Emeritus J. Earl Danieley ’46, who devoted his life to Elon and generations of students.
We remember him as a highly principled leader, a loving husband, father and grandfather. A wise mentor and an ever-energetic advocate who embodied all that Elon stands for. A faithful servant who gave back to his church, community, state and country, and a compassionate and loving friend to thousands of people. A man whose hands were strong enough to steer Elon’s course as its sixth president, yet tender enough to care for the roses he grew in his garden. A man who grew up just a few miles from campus and spent his life in Alamance County, but who established the foundation for a university that would come to be known around the world.
As the Elon community grappled with the loss of J. Earl Danieley ’46, who died Nov. 29, hundreds shared reflections about the impact he had on the institution and those he touched in his 74 years at Elon. And though he served the institution with distinction in many roles, including his term as president, he never wavered from his core identity. “I decided in the second grade that I would be a teacher,” he often said. “All through the years, I continued to have that vocational objective.”
Indeed, teaching was always central to his life. He could readily recite the names of every teacher who ever taught him, from first grade through his college years at Elon. Regardless of the job at hand—postdoctoral researcher, professor, dean, president, fundraiser—he was always thinking about teaching. “The teaching profession is a noble profession,” he said. “It gives you almost unparalleled opportunity, almost unbelievable challenge to work with young people, to hopefully challenge them to a life of learning … [and] help them to enjoy the experience of learning.”
Danieley loved his discipline of chemistry and was passionate about sharing his knowledge with students. But the lessons weren’t limited to his course syllabi. He was invested in the personal development of his students—he never forgot their names and life stories and loved to stay connected with alumni and follow their successes with pride. He was also the No. 1 fan of Elon athletics and took a personal interest in the success of student-athletes in competition and in the classroom. “He has assuredly joined the company of heavenly saints,” President Leo M. Lambert said during a celebration of Danieley’s life held at Alumni Gym, a place where he waved his iconic white towel in response to the chanting crowd during basketball games. “I believe our love for him, our treasured times with him and our abiding and deep friendship transcend death. He is still cheering for us. While we will miss his physical presence dearly, he will continue to inspire us as long as we hold his memory in our hearts.”
In the following paragraphs, we share some of the memories former students and friends shared of the consummate educator who will forever be in our hearts. “I do not hesitate to say that I love most of my students,” Danieley once said. “Being with them is a joy without parallel—working with them, seeing them grow and develop and learn, and then following them as they go out into the world to serve and to be the kind of citizens that we want Elon people to be. I’m so grateful for the privilege that I have had of being involved in the lives of so many splendid people.”
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“I started out in Dr. D’s Elon 101 class, not knowing that he already had a connection to every student in the class and he hand-picked each of us because they meant something to him. I was one of the lucky ones. We hit it off like two peas in a pod. We ate breakfast and lunch together, attended [the] Anderson Cooper [lecture] together, played golf together, watered his roses together, attended basketball games together. My freshman year, he had never watched a volleyball game before. That year and every other year since, he was in the front row of every single one of my games—not because he loved volleyball or even knew what was going on, but because he was investing in me, and showing me how much he cared and believed in me. … He made it his mission to grow me from a little acorn to a large oak tree. I would not be who I am today without him. I cannot choose just one memory of us. My times with him, my four years at Elon, and even our times together since then, are moments I will hold close. He was the embodiment of Numen Lumen, a light.”
—Traci Stewart ’12, Raleigh, N.C.
“During my years at Elon, Dr. Danieley was my academic adviser and my organic chemistry professor. He was also my mentor and friend. He opened my mind to ways of looking at the world that I probably would have never considered without his nurturing. I’ve been teaching chemistry in community colleges for about 20 years. And still, after all those years, every time I pick up the chalk, I can’t help but recall his intellect and kindness. Dr. Danieley’s contagious enthusiasm for life and learning changed my life and I strive to share that same excitement with my students. I am honored (and humbled) to have been one of his many students.”
—Rainey Parker ’87, Salemburg, N.C.
“As a second-year student at Johns Hopkins University (1956-57), I was invited to take a semester of laboratory research instead of the usual organic laboratory course. I accepted the invitation and was assigned to a visiting professor from Elon College. He was a wonderful man—kind, caring, with a great sense of humor and a strong interest in chemistry. That professor was Dr. Danieley. The work was going well, but one day, in the spring of 1957, I came into the lab and he said we would have to complete the project immediately. He told me he had been called home. I said I hoped it wasn’t bad news. He said he wasn’t sure but he had been called home to become the president of Elon College. I wished him much success and a few years later, I asked him to write letters of recommendation for me for graduate school. He agreed and wrote them on presidential stationery. I never saw him again, but he left a lasting impression on me. I know he will be sorely missed.”
—Gerald Putterman, Hamden, Conn.
“I was hit by an automobile in 1972 and Dr. Danieley was instrumental in getting me in Elon to take some courses. Four years later, I graduated with a double major in chemistry and English, was president of the SGA and went on to a successful career in business. Dr. D was my academic adviser, supervised my research and always had a kind word for me, anytime we met, over our 40-plus year relationship. We compared notes on growing collards (he was ‘the collard king’), commercial chemistry and Elon. The last time I hugged him was at a local ‘fish house’ [in 2015], where he was dining with a group of students. There are too many stories to relate on the impact this man made on my life. I will miss him.”
—Sam Moore ’77, Elon, N.C.
“I think it’s safe to say that it would be tough to find an individual more committed, more synonymous to their institution than Dr. Danieley was to Elon. He loved the campus. He cherished the history. He adored the students. He mentored the faculty. He never missed a College Coffee. He devoted his life to Elon. He has forever changed the meaning of the term president emeritus. For him, it wasn’t an honorary title or a plaque on the wall. For him, it meant teaching at age 91 against his doctor’s wishes. It meant giving walking tours of campus to prospective families when he could barely walk anywhere. It meant bringing energy to the athletic field during a losing season when he often lacked the energy to get out of bed. It meant pouring everything he had into the place he loved. Long live Elon. Long live James Earl Danieley.”
—Jayson Teagle ’08, Atlanta
“My first memory of Dr. Danieley was taking chemistry my first semester at Elon. I absolutely loved that class, partly because of the content, but mainly because of the professor. Dr. Danieley had a way of making things come to life in his delivery of everything he said. He was so focused on every student succeeding and grasping the material, that it made you want to work hard and do well. My favorite parts of class were when he would weave stories of Elon’s history into the chemistry lesson. He would often talk about the days when McMichael parking lot used to be grass, and his backyard. It is so incredible to think how much of Elon’s history is wrapped up in Dr. Danieley’s existence. I feel blessed to have taken his class, regretful I wasn’t able to get into his Winter Term ‘Elon: Past, Present & Future’ class, and sad to think of an Elon without him. Fortunately, now that I work at Elon, I get to walk to and from my car in McMichael parking lot every day, thinking about what it must have been like when it was just grass, and how, thanks to Dr. Danieley, Elon is what it is today.”
—Aisha Mitchell ’12, Durham, N.C.
“We shall miss his smile, his wit, his passion for this place, his roses, his birthday card, his handshake—it wasn’t just firm but it warmly enveloped your hand. Growing up in this town, living in this town, the sound of the train persists and the ringing of the class bell not as often but still, at least once a day, are part of the background of the music of your life here. Like the sound of that train and the lilt of the college bell, his love of this place will echo in this grove of oaks long after we bid farewell to Dr. James Earl Danieley.”
—Noel Allen ’69, Elon trustee
About J. Earl Danieley ’46
- Graduated from Elon with a chemistry degree in 1946. Later that year, he joined the Elon faculty to teach chemistry.
- Received a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and did post-doctoral research at Johns Hopkins University.
- Following three years of service as dean of the college, he was named Elon’s sixth president in 1957 at age 32, making him one of the youngest college presidents in the nation at the time.
- Retired from the presidency in 1973 and returned to the classroom to teach.
- Served as director of planned giving from 1987 to 1992 before going back to his first love, teaching, something he continued doing until spring 2015.
- Guided the college to new levels of quality during his 16-year term, making improvements in academic standards and faculty credentials. His tenure also marked a period of unprecedented growth in campus facilities.
- Served 12 years on the University of North Carolina Board of Governors and was a trustee at East Carolina University for six years.An active member of the Republican Party, he served a term as member of the Alamance County Board of Commissioners.
- In 1972 he and his wife, Verona, created the Daniels-Danieley Award for Excellence—Elon’s highest teaching honor—as a tribute to their parents.
- Was preceded in death by wife Verona Daniels Danieley ’49, who passed away in 2011, and sister Frances Danieley Wood ’55, who passed away in 2016. He is survived by three children: Ned Danieley, Mark Danieley and Jane Shutt; his sister, Faye Conally ’61; and seven grandchildren, Jonathan ’05, Daniel ’10 and Michael ’14 Shutt, Robert and Sara Danieley, and Sean and Jason Pifer.