Happy 125th birthday, Elon University!

The university’s three living presidents were honored at a special Founders Day College Coffee and tree planting on Tuesday as the institution celebrated its quasquicentennial with students, faculty and staff wearing maroon and gold as part of “A Day for Elon.”

On March 11, 1889, the North Carolina legislature issued a charter for a four-year co-educational institution to be located near Burlington, N.C., along a fledgling railroad line connecting farmlands and manufacturing hubs across the state.

Seventy-six students enrolled in the first class of the new Elon College, a school whose Hebrew name for “oak” was inspired by the grove of oaks its founders discovered on the land chosen for their project. In 1891, Nathaniel G. Newman, C.C. Peel and Herbert Scholz became Elon’s first three alumni.

Over the next century, Elon College would witness a devastating campus fire, the Great Depression, two world wars, social and technological upheavals, and dangerous dips in enrollment that periodically threatened its very existence. Solid footing was finally found in the mid 1940s, and ever since, the visionary leadership of its administrators and faculty would set a course for the national stature Elon University enjoys today.

That path to prominence was celebrated Tuesday morning as Elon marked its 125th birthday in special fashion with a Founders Day College Coffee and tree planting that recognized its three living presidents: J. Earl Danieley ’46, J. Fred Young and Leo M. Lambert.

Hundreds of students, faculty and staff – many sporting Elon apparel or the school’s maroon and gold colors – crowded Phi Beta Kappa Plaza for the event, which was led by Student Government Association President Welsford Bishopric. The morning featured several birthday cakes and a rendition of “Happy Birthday” led by the campus a cappella group Twisted Measure.

“Presidents Danieley, Young and Lambert – on behalf of the Elon community, I would like to say, ‘thank you.’ Because of your leadership Elon has grown fourfold in terms of enrollment, and so much more than that in terms of academic rigor, experiential value and national significance,” Bishopric said in remarks to the crowd. “It is largely due to the leadership of these three presidents that Elon has and will continue to define the lives and educations of each of its students.”

Founders Day coincided with “A Day for Elon,” an initiative to make March 11, 2014, the greatest day of giving in the university’s history. Gifts of all sizes and designations will count toward the total given during the campaign, and gifts will support a range of areas within the university including the Phoenix Club, academic departments and student scholarships.

About the Founders Day 2014 honorees:

A native of Alamance County, J. Earl Danieley graduated from Elon in 1946, later receiving graduate degrees in organic chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and conducting post-doctoral research at Johns Hopkins University. Beginning his career as a chemistry instructor at Elon, he served from 1953 to 1956 as dean of the college before being named president of Elon in 1957. Danieley stepped down in 1973 to dedicate the next years of his life to teaching. He was elected to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors in 1983 and served in that capacity for 12 years. In 1987, Danieley agreed to reduce his teaching hours to serve as Elon’s director of planned giving in the development office, a position he held until 1992. In that year he was named president emeritus and ever since has taught classes as a member of the faculty of the Department of Chemistry.

J. Fred Young, a native of Burnsville, N.C., was educated at Mars Hill College, Wake Forest University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Columbia University. In 1973 Young was named the seventh president of Elon and served until 1998, making him one of the longest-serving presidents in Elon history. During the 25 years of his tenure, the college more than doubled enrollment to 3,685 and became one of the premier undergraduate institutions on the Eastern seaboard. New academic offerings included masters programs in business administration, education and physical therapy; a new general studies program; and new majors including communications, computer systems, sports medicine and leisure/sport management. The Elon campus expanded from about 145 acres to more than 500 acres during Young’s presidency. Young has been named President Emeritus by the Elon Board of Trustees.

Since becoming Elon University’s eighth president in 1999, Leo M. Lambert has advanced an ambitious agenda to establish Elon as a top-ranked liberal arts university and a national leader in engaged teaching and learning. The university has accomplished broad improvements in academic and student life programs while continuing to expand a beautiful residential campus. The academic climate of the campus has been strengthened through special initiatives to shelter a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and maintain top accreditations for Elon’s professional schools. In 2001 Elon College became Elon University, and Lambert led creation of the NewCentury@Elon strategic plan, advancing Elon’s position as a national model of engaged learning. Upon that plan’s completion, he led creation of the current strategic plan, the Elon Commitment, which will guide the university’s development through 2020. During Lambert’s presidency, the university has added more than 100 buildings with nearly 1.5 million square feet of space.