University, region gather to honor Danforth

A memorial service in honor of Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth was held Oct. 2 in Graham Chapel. (All photos: Whitney Curtis/Washington University)

The Washington University in St. Louis community gathered in Graham Chapel on Oct. 2 to honor the legacy of Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth, MD, a leader who transformed the university, the region and the lives of countless students, patients, faculty and civic leaders. 

“Bill Danforth was a great leader,” said Emeritus Trustee John F. McDonnell, retired chairman of the board of McDonnell Douglas Corp. “He was the rare individual who could visualize both what would be needed for the future and what could be possible, articulate the goals in terms of lofty purpose and importance, marshal the required resources (human, intellectual and physical), and then, with wisdom and humility, convince others to take ownership and leadership.”

Danforth served as chancellor for 24 years, from 1971 to 1995. After his tenure, Danforth continued to serve the St. Louis region, helping create the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, a nonprofit research institute with a global vision to improve the human condition internationally and regionally, and working to launch the Cortex Innovation Community, a hub for biotechnology and entrepreneurship. Danforth died Sept. 16, 2020, at his home in Ladue, Mo., at age 94.

View a recording of the memorial service here. Read excerpts from the program’s speakers below.

Emeritus Trustee John F. McDonnell (right) said Danforth espoused and embodied the qualities of a great leader — honesty, courage and humility. The Rev. Gary Braun (left), director of the Catholic Student Center, officiated the service.

“It is no coincidence that the seeds of St. Louis’ innovation rejuvenation were planted in the late 1990s, shortly after Bill ‘retired’ as chancellor of Washington University. That was when he turned his powerful intellect and vision to how our region can become a leader in the 21st century, while at the same time making our world a better place. Out of that flowed many new enterprises — Cortex, BioGenerator, BioSTL, venture capital, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, as well as a Washington, D.C.-based organization advocating for more federal funding for agricultural research to help save the world. In the two decades since then, the many seeds he planted and nurtured have bloomed into strong organizations ably led by a number of the people here today.”

— Emeritus Trustee John F. McDonnell

“Bill was a surgeon, a healer, a philosopher, an administrator, a leader and a teacher. He did all these things extraordinarily well, with a spirit of optimism and humility that often bordered on self-deprecation. He always told me of how proud he was to serve as an administrator because this role was so often overlooked. In his 1988 (Thanksgiving) letter, he told the story of his youngest daughter, Beth, explaining what her daddy did. She said, ‘He used to be a doctor and make people well, but now he just goes to meetings.’

Bill clarified, explaining, ‘I am an academic administrator. I believe in administration. Without people who see to it that things run well, any institution would be in shambles. The creativity, perseverance and energy of my administrative colleagues have contributed more to Washington University than I can ever put into words. They are especially important because my own skills are limited — the product of on-the-job learning.'”

Andrew Bursky, alumnus, Board of Trustees vice chair and chief executive officer of Atlas Holdings

‘At my very best’

Poet Dakotah Jennifer, a Danforth Scholar and a senior majoring in English in Arts & Sciences, recites a poem she wrote, titled “At my very best.” Read it here.

“Bill Danforth loved the idea of a university, not just the institution — this institution — but the aspiration that runs ahead of all that we actually achieve, the community as diverse as all knowledge, as inclusive as the world in which we live, and yet singular, whole. He thought the university could exemplify what all communities should be. Thought difference could lead to discussion, disagreement to debate, argument to clearer thinking and more likely conclusions. In 1973, his most demanding challenge was to hold us together and help heal a deeply wounded institution. In the years that followed, it was to encourage and advance the fullness of the idea that motivated him, to increase the complexity of our challenges, both social and intellectual, while constantly reminding us of our common cause, our shared responsibility. Like his grandfather, he dared us to be more than we had thought to be.”

— Wayne Fields, the Lynn Cooper Harvey Distinguished Chair Emeritus in English in Arts & Sciences

“In the mid-1960s, race problems surfaced in many cities and universities. Among many issues, poor medical care in Black communities was a major problem. There were few Black physicians, and in our medical school, there were no Black students. A small number of faculty visited several historically Black colleges, talked with students and faculty about medical school. About a dozen students, selected by their and our faculty, were offered positions in the entering medical school class. One of our faculty taught these students in a summer tutorial at the medical school in order to increase their knowledge of premedical courses where there was a gap with white students. 

With a few bumps along the way, nearly all of these students completed the courses in the medical school and were awarded MD degrees, starting a program that has been very successful. By the year 2020, WashU had graduated 364 African American physicians. Bill Danforth felt strongly that racial equality in medical care can be achieved best by training more African American students to become physicians. He also used lessons learned from this program to guide racial programs at the main campus.” 

– P. Roy Vagelos, MD, former head of the Department of Biological Chemistry at the School of Medicine who co-founded, with Danforth, the Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences in 1973

“At an Eliot Society event in October 1983, he talked about the institution of Washington University — its mission, its importance in the region and the nation. How Washington University today is the product of all those thousands of people, mostly nameless now, who have lent their hands and talents and resources since 1853. How there are parts of the history of which we are not proud. But how Washington University has been resilient, has learned from its mistakes, has striven continuously to be better.

An image that always will be with me is of Bill standing and singing the alma mater at the end of Commencement or an alumni event. He knows the words. He is into it. Nodding to the beat, happy, proud. Thinking of his favorite institution. Thinking of its contribution to his home of St. Louis and to society. Thinking of the students, his ‘young people,’ he called them, how they will go on from Washington University to do great things for the betterment of humankind.”

Emeritus Trustee Robert L. Virgil, alumnus and dean emeritus of Olin Business School

Former U.S. Sen. John C. “Jack” Danforth, brother to William Danforth and an Episcopal priest, closes the service with a prayer of gratitude.

“Oh God, we give you thanks for Bill Danforth.

For this life well-lived, for what he meant to each of us.

For the lasting contribution he made to this university and this world.

And for his example of using talents to advance your kingdom.

We pray that you send us into the world to do good works as Bill did good works.

To try our best as he tried his best.

To use the blessings you have given us for causes beyond ourselves.

Let us go forth and change the world. 

Let us be people who try.


– Former U.S. Sen. John C. “Jack” Danforth

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