President emeritus: 'No more remarkable story' than that of Elon

The campus celebrated a special Spring Convocation on April 2, 2014, when President Emeritus J. Earl Danieley ’46 shared reflections from more than half a century of service to his alma mater as a student, professor, dean and president.

President Emeritus J. Earl Danieley '46 with Elon President Leo M. Lambert
It would be an understatement to say things weren’t looking up for Elon College in 1957 when J. Earl Danieley agreed to serve as the school’s sixth president. Overdue federal loans had been left unpaid. Campus facilities were crumbling. Faculty taught in overcrowded classrooms with outdated equipment for salaries well below what colleagues made elsewhere in North Carolina.

Elon, however, had always been a point of pride for the Alamance County native. He graduated from the college in 1946 with a degree in chemistry, and he had both taught and served Elon as dean of students in the intervening years. In fact, Danieley, determined to make undergraduate research a stronger feature of the college, had temporarily moved to Maryland for post-doctoral work at Johns Hopkins University when he got the call to tell him of his presidential selection by the board of trustees.

“Now nobody had talked to me about being president. Nobody asked me if I wanted the job. I had not applied for it,” Danieley recalled Wednesday afternoon. “My wife looked at me and with all the love in her heart said, ‘Poor Earl.’ And she meant it!”

But he didn’t say “no.”

"We were very convinced that this institution was doing great things for its students," Danieley said of his decision to accept the presidential appointment by Elon's board of trustees in 1957.
“As we looked at this, we began to see that the job of heading up this institution was not just a job. This was not just another place to work. This was in every sense a mission,” Danieley said. “We were very convinced that this institution was doing great things for its students. We realized this institution was in need of some leadership … and we felt like we couldn’t turn it down.”

The story of Earl Danieley’s lifelong ties to Elon – as student, professor, dean and president – was the theme of a special Spring Convocation on April 2, 2014, as the campus community gathered in Alumni Gym to honor “Dr. D” as part of the university’s yearlong quasquicentennial celebration.

Current Elon President Leo M. Lambert joined Danieley onstage and led a conversation that discussed Danieley’s love of teaching, his interest in chemistry, the challenges of fundraising, campus integration and the origins of the university’s nationally ranked Study Abroad program.

Danieley recounted how many former educators inspired his love of teaching. For most of his early life, from grade school through college, he found mentors and role models who demonstrated the positive influence that a teacher can wield over students. “Being involved in the lives of young people is probably the noblest calling that a person can respond to,” he said. “I never had any doubt about what I wanted to teach.”

Earl Danieley waves a towel – his trademark cheer at campus athletic events – as Spring Convocation drew to a close on April 2, 2014.
There were times when that almost didn’t happen. His mother forced Danieley to return to Elon after a brief hiatus running the family farm and working part-time for the federal government. Though he set out to be a school teacher, low pay convinced Danieley to seek a graduate degree in school administration, which would bump up his salary. He got a call from Elon while studying at UNC Chapel Hill with a job offer to teach college classes for $600 more per year than he’d make in the schools.

That, he said, was “what it might be like to die and go to heaven.”

Beginning his career as a chemistry instructor, Danieley served from 1953 to 1956 as dean of the college before being named president at age 32, making him one of the youngest college presidents in the nation at the time. He stepped down in 1973 to dedicate the next years of his life to teaching and has been the Thomas E. Powell Jr. Professor of Chemistry since 1982. Danieley 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 in order 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 of the college.

As president, Danieley returned Elon to solid financial footing, in part by learning to be a fundraiser. He told his Alumni Gym audience of a trip to Florida where he solicited a gift from an old man he thought to be an Elon alum. The man, owner of a successful hardware store, had actually attended Graham College, Elon’s predecessor institution in Alamance County.

Many members of the Elon University community greeted "Dr. D" in a Moseley Center reception following Convocation.
The two grew to be friends and Elon was left in his estate plan. The money from that plan was received in 1990, a full century after the man had attended Graham College. “Sometimes, you have to be patient!” Danieley said to a round of applause.

Danieley also spoke of welcoming Glenda Phillips Hightower to campus in 1963 as the first African-American student Elon had ever enrolled and the strategies he employed to achieve the milestone. He also explained the development of the Study Abroad program in the late 1960s as faculty casually approached for permission to take students overseas as part of winter courses.

For a man who has witnessed the growth of a campus for more than half its existence, there was only one conclusion to be emphasized.

“There is no more remarkable story in all the history of American higher education than the growth and development of this institution,” Danieley said. “Got it? Look at the 4,000 institutions in the country and there is no more remarkable story in all of those histories. We have grown. We have developed. We have taken our place on the national scene.

“It’s a wonderful community and a delightful place to be. I cannot imagine anything better. … It’s been a glorious ride and wonderful time. I’m one happy guy.”

Students afterward expressed gratitude for the perspectives Danieley shared about university offerings they said are today taken for granted.

“I didn’t know, for instance, that he was the one who integrated campus and started Study Abroad,” said Kyle Maher, a junior journalism major from Connecticut. “We learned a lot about how much Dr. D has done for this school.”

Elon seniors Tessa Mossey, Whittney Levitt and Maria Castine together attended Spring Convocation and a Moseley Center reception for Danieley immediately following the program. The trio agreed that such a Convocation wouldn’t necessarily be as popular at larger institutions where attention to institutional history and staying “true to our roots” isn’t prioritized.

J. Earl Danieley '46 and his family
“You don’t see this kind of community at every college,” said Levitt, a finance major from Miami. Added Castine, an anthropology major from Vermont: “He remembers everyone’s name from his life? That shows how great a person he is and how much he cares.”

Spring Convocation included a rendition of the university’s newly expanded alma mater, recognition of the Class of 2014, praise for students on the president’s and dean’s lists, public appreciation of faculty and staff, gratitude to university donors and – to end the program – a “happy birthday” song for Danieley, who turns 90 in July.

“I would like to congratulate each and every one of you for your commitment to academic excellence and your great contributions to building this institution through your commitment,” Lambert said. “Every single person in this room today is an important part of our history, and together, we are going to help shape the next 125 years of Elon.”