It is with immense sadness that I share the news that Chancellor Emeritus William H. “Bill” Danforth passed away on September 16, 2020. Bill served Washington University for more than 65 years, including 24 as our 13th chancellor, from 1971-1995.
Throughout his nearly seven decades of leadership and service, Bill forged a profound and indelible legacy that will remain in our community in perpetuity. Most notably, we will remember Bill for taking the university from what was once known as a commuter campus to the world-renowned institution it is today, including raising the prominence of the School of Medicine — Bill’s academic “home” and the place where his leadership and service at Washington University began. During this time of loss, I encourage you to visit the William H. Danforth Tribute website to learn more about his many achievements, which are far too many to recount in one communication alone.
In addition to his innumerous accomplishments, we will also remember Bill for his passion for our mission, his relentless pursuit of excellence, and his abiding appreciation for and commitment to the people who make up our Washington University community. Indeed, anyone who has ever been in the presence of Bill Danforth knows how special he was and how much he cared for this place and the people who have resided, studied, and worked here.
On a personal note, I remember vividly the times when I was in Bill’s presence as a student at Washington University from 1994 to 1998, Bill’s last year as Chancellor and his first three as chair of the Board of Trustees. Our paths didn’t cross often during that time, but when they did, the feeling and energy in the atmosphere always seemed to change — the feeling you get when you are in the presence of greatness. During those four years, I always admired Bill’s strong desire to be present and engaged with students. His investment in the student body was authentic and palpable, and it is a quality I continually aspire to emulate in my own role as Chancellor.
I’m deeply honored and grateful that I had the chance to spend more time with Bill since I returned to the university as Chancellor. Having him by my side when I was inaugurated is a memory I will cherish forever, and our regular meetings, both on campus and around town, have given me even more insight into the type of leader I hope to become. In fact, I’ll never forget the time during the search process when, after a long and grueling day of meetings and interview sessions, Bill called me toward him and said this:
“If St. Louis goes, so goes Washington University.”
This quote sums up a lot of things for me — Bill’s investment in Washington University certainly, but also his keen understanding of the intrinsic link between this place and our surrounding community. Throughout his life and career, Bill championed St. Louis. His impact went far beyond the campuses of Washington University as he utilized our mission, along with his own time and resources, to address the most pressing needs. Most notably, we remember Bill’s role in establishing the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center here in St. Louis among many other significant regional initiatives. Because of his leadership, we have come a long way to be in, for, and with St. Louis. His legacy and momentum is something upon which I am firmly committed to building today and well into the future.
There are many more things I could say about Bill — his love for his family, the way he so eloquently used words to move people and communities, and his abundant spirit of humility and gratitude to name just a few. Undoubtedly, we will spend a lot of time these next few days, weeks, and months remembering Bill. To that end, I challenge each of us not only to remember Bill, but also to continue to embody his legacy, gratitude, and kindness through our own lives and work.
In that sentiment, I’d like to close with another quote from Bill, taken from a letter he wrote to an alumnus in 1988, which reads:
“What we give away always outlasts what we keep. Pythagoras and Euclid are alive because of what they traced in the dust. We have forgotten the names of tyrants who erected monuments in their own image, but we remember Percy Shelley’s poem. Your part in the university’s mission never takes a holiday, and its effects will be at work somewhere when every other resource is history.”
Though William H. Danforth has now passed from this earth, his name and the legacy he built will continue to endure — because of all he gave away in order to advance our Washington University mission and the greater St. Louis region. Let us continue to remember his words in the days, weeks, months, and years to come as we honor and celebrate Chancellor-Emeritus Danforth, our greatest and most fervent leader.
Andrew D. Martin