Blog post written after Elon University's Spring Convocation 2014 for Reporting for the Public Good.
by Kristen Case | 4/3/2014
Storyteller. Professor. Friend. Dean. Student. President. Advisor. Elon graduate. Sports fan. These are just a few of the words that make up the man that is Dr. J. Earl Danieley, president emeritus of Elon.
Many students know him as the kind, older gentleman from basketball games who enthusiastically waves his towel in support of the Phoenix. Others know him as their funny chemistry professor who is chock full of interesting stories. Few, if any, realized that he is one of the main reasons that Elon is the wonderful, successful place it is today.
Dr. Danieley has been with Elon for 72 years. He is an Alamance County native who grew up in a farming community about five miles out from campus. He is a graduate of Elon College, circa 1946. He is a professor of chemistry, he was dean of the college from 1953–1956 and he became president in 1957 at the age of 32, one of the youngest college presidents in the nation at the time.
He stepped down as president in 1973, after 16 years as president, but during his tenure, he racially integrated the campus with his: “There was no doubt about it, we were going to do it,” attitude and he established early study abroad programs with his catchphrase: “Sounds good to me!”
Setting the Stage:
Many convocation speakers have been highly anticipated by much of campus. When Brian Williams moderated convocation back in 2011, the entire communications school was abuzz. And while many of these convocation speakers have seemed if they had been participating in a conversation, none have seemed more like a chat between two old friends as Dr. Danieley’s.
Dr. Danieley and current Elon University president, Dr. Leo Lambert, sat in matching chairs on stage, facing each other and sharing laughs over the Dr. Danieley’s third grade teacher and his fourth and fifth grade teacher, (“I loved the third grade teacher, she was a beauty. You notice I don’t mention the fourth and fifth grade teacher, she was the pits!”) the students that Dr. Danieley threw out for drinking, who Dr. Lambert still runs into, and his crazy decision to become president of Elon College.
The Quotable Moments:
On his first years at Elon: “I started out to be a teacher, after a couple classes, I knew I was going to be a history teacher. I came here and signed up for American History, and I learned that if you don’t have time to read the lesson, you’re in trouble. I never had time to read the assigned work, in the history course. As you know, looking at the transcript, I got a D!”
On telling his mom that he’d been offered a full-time job after dropping out of Elon: “My mother looked at me and she said, ‘Earl, when you go back to work tomorrow, you tell Mr. Love you’re not taking that job. You’re going back to school.’ She was determined that I would have the advantage of an education. So I came back to school, and I signed up for a course that I had never heard of before. Because back in high school, we didn’t have chemistry. I took to that chemistry like a duck to water.”
On getting a job as a professor at Elon College: “First of August, the phone rang in Chapel Hill. I had one phone call that summer. President Smith was calling me. Asked me to come back and talk to him. He offered me a job to teach chemistry at Elon College. Now if you ever thought about what it would be like to die and go to heaven, think about it. I had my ticket, I had my passport, I was invited to come back and teach chemistry at Elon.”
On being offered the job as president of Elon College: “We rarely had a phone call, but the phone rang. I went in to answer the phone. It was George Colclough. I thought somebody had died. We talked a little bit, then he said to me: ‘We elected a new president at Elon today.’ I knew that Smith was looking to retire. Truth is, he didn’t want to, but the board was going to see to it. Boards will do that sometimes. And I said, ‘Okay, who’s that?’ And he said, ‘You.’ Nobody had talked to me about being president, nobody had asked me if I wanted to, I didn’t apply for it. They just called me up and told me I was it. And I said, ‘George, you’re crazy.’ And I meant it.”
On being president of Elon College: “Just before I came here as a student, I heard a guy in Burlington say, ‘If you can’t go to college, go to Elon.’ That made me furious. When I took over the job as president, I said, I will shut that guy’s mouth. I will not hear that again.”
“I knew that I had to raise some money, but I had no idea how to do that. September came, school started and everything was going well, but I felt guilty. Every day I had raised no money, I hadn’t asked anybody for money.”
On Elon’s first donation: “I would go back to visit him in his home. He was a dear man, and he put Elon in his estate plans. We got our first money from Walter Franklin in the year of 1990, 100 years after he left school. Sometimes, you have to be patient.”
On his wife of 62 years: “Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a lady standing in her chair. I didn’t know her. I walked into the room and asked her, ‘Is something wrong?’ and that’s when she said, ‘I saw a mouse!’”
“I took her to a football game. Then I took her everywhere else from then on.”
On breaking up a party at Carlton House: “The rule was very, very strict, no alcoholic beverages on campus. I came to Carlton House and, man, the party was going on. I said, ‘Okay, every one of you who is drinking, go home now. You are suspended from college. Don’t you come by my office, I will sign you out, you are under suspension.’ A student came up to me as I was going into the next building and said, ‘Dean Danieley, I wasn’t drinking.’ And I said, ‘Gary, didn’t you hear what I said? I said everyone who has been drinking, go home. If you haven’t been drinking, that doesn’t apply to you.’ Several years later, I’m sitting in the president’s office and I get a letter. I open it up and it says: ‘Dear DEAN Danieley. I lied to you. Please forgive me.”
On his hopes for Elon’s future: “I have met several old folks, who sit around and gripe. Unhappy and fussing about the way things are going. I thank God I’m not one of those people. I enjoy seeing this institution grow and develop. I’ve developed a thesis that I give to everybody. There is no more remarkable story in all the history of American higher education than the growth and development in this institution. Nothing could please me more than to pick up my paper in the morning and see you scored another one, Mr. President. I want to see us as one of the premiere institutions in this nation. And I’ll just sit and be happy. I love to see all those people at Chapel Hill and Duke look at me and say, ‘I hope my children can come to Elon.’”
On being asked if he realized how much people love him here: “Do they have any idea what I think of them? It’s a wonderful place to be, a delightful community. It’s been a glorious ride.”
After a standing ovation for Dr. Danieley, Dr. Lambert ended convocation with asking the audience to join in and sing “Happy Birthday” to Dr. Danieley, who turns 90 in July. Dr. Danieley displayed his usual enthusiasm and love for Elon by taking out his handkerchief, in lieu of his usual Elon towel, and waving it above his head.