Spring Convocation honored one of Elon University's most beloved figures. At “A Conversation With President Emeritus J. Earl Danieley,” President Leo Lambert asked Danieley to share some of the stories he collected in his 72 years with Elon.
Students, faculty, alumni and friends of the university gathered in Alumni Gym to hear Elon’s former president share how he transformed the university from a small local college into a nationally recognized institution.
An expert storyteller, Danieley kept the crowd engaged with stories about his time at Elon and the surrounding community. Danieley recalled growing up in rural Alamance County, where he met teachers who inspired him to develop what he calls “the soul of a teacher.”
“Dr. Danieley harkens back to a time when Elon was a much smaller place and we drew from the local area," said Anne Simpkins, assistant professor of art. "It’s nice to see Elon as a small place that you got to grow in and shape into what you want it to be. I’ve seen it change a lot in my 20 years, and I just can’t imagine what it will be 70 years out."
Danieley played an instrumental role in creating the modern-day Elon. He is as much a former president and faculty member as he is a symbol of the university’s growth. He said never intended to become president of Elon — he never even applied for the job. Danieley recalled the night he got a call from George Copeland notifying him that he had been elected president.
“He said, ‘We elected a new president today,’ and I said, ‘Well who’s that?’ and he said, ‘You,'" Danieley said. "Nobody had talked to me about being president. No one asked me if I wanted the job. I never applied for it…. And I said, ‘George, you're crazy.'"
Danieley said he was not going to take the job because he was doing postdoctoral work at Johns Hopkins University, but after talking about it with his wife and professor, he decided he had to take the job.
“We began to see the job of heading up this institution was not just a job," he said. "This was not just another place to work. This was, in every sense, a mission," he said. "We were convinced this institution was doing great things for its students. We realized this institution was in need of leadership with a dedication for quality. I couldn't turn it down.”
When Danieley took on the role of president in 1957, Elon was underfunded and plagued with problems. With outdated equipment and low enrollment, Elon was in need of a strong leader.
“Just before I came here, I heard a guy in Burlington say, ‘If you can’t go to college, go to Elon.’ That made me furious,” he said. “When I took over the job as president I said, ‘ I will shut that guys mouth, and I will not hear that said again.’"
Determined to make Elon a nationally recognized and competitive university, Danieley worked hard to raise money for the academic programs and attract students from all over the country.
“When you listen to Dr. Danieley talk he mentions all the names of the people that he has spent time with, and they're the names of the buildings here at Elon,” said SGA President Joe Incorvia. “We can learn a lot about how his work ethic made Elon the place we know today.”
The first study abroad program was approved under Danieley, and he encouraged Elon to admit its first black student during integration.
Senior Rebekah Brown, an international student from Jamaica, said she is grateful to Danieley for pioneering the study abroad program.
“I hope in the future there will be no typical Elon student,” she said. “Danieley encouraged experiential learning and engaging with people who are different, and I hope we continue that throughout Elon’s development.”
Danieley also shared stories about his wife of 63 years, Verona Danieley, who he met while rescuing her from a mouse in an Elon classroom.
“I was so brave,” he said. “I walked in and saved the little damsel. I took her to a football game and then I took her everywhere I went.”