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Catching Up With UAA Co-Founder and Washington University Chancellor Emeritus William Danforth

Catching Up With UAA Co-Founder and Washington University Chancellor Emeritus William Danforth

"We saw a need at Washington University and began talking about it," recalled William H. Danforth, the institution's chancellor from 1971-1995. That need was the right fit for student-athletes at the school and Danforth became one of the driving forces of the formation of the UAA.

Washington began competing in men's collegiate athletics in 1890 and prior to World War II, male student-athletes received specialized financial assistance for their participation in intercollegiate athletics. In 1946, the institution's former Wayman Crow Professor of Physics and Head of the Department of Physics, Arthur Compton, was hired as chancellor and did away with athletic scholarships. Chancellor Compton, who had spent the previous 22 years as a physics professor at University of Chicago and was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1927, wanted intercollegiate athletics, but he wanted them on terms that would contribute to and not weaken the educational development of the individual student - essentially the NCAA Division III model. 

After entering Division III, Washington athletic teams played many fine academic institutions, but most were smaller schools less involved in graduate education. "The change was good for the institution, but not very exciting for the students," Danforth stated. "We thought we would get more interest in the school, have more fun, and increase school spirit if our competitors' institutions and students were more like ours."

In 1978, Danforth hired Harry Kisker and charged him with improving student morale on campus.











Chancellor Danforth at the Edwards-Fahey Court dedication on Feb. 12, 2016

"Washington University went from a local to a national student body in the late 1950s. Soon most students were living on campus. Student organizations and traditions had to adapt. While that process was underway the radical movement brought different priorities to undergraduates who lost interest in many established groups and organizations and in creating replacements," Danforth remembered. "A vibrant student life had to be recreated. Harry understood young people. He loved working with students, lived near the campus and worked countless hours day and night at the job. Moreover he was plugged in to what fascinated students and was imaginative, fun and funny. Activity picked up - new organizations were formed. The Athletics Department was enlarged and changed - old facilities were modernized and enlarged."

Danforth and University of Rochester President Dennis O'Brien initiated conversations with other top research institutions about forming an athletic league based on academic similarities. Danforth and Kisker were the Washington representatives at the first UAA meeting in Rochester on Oct. 7, 1985. "There were a lot of wonderful presidents," Danforth commented. "Some of them liked the idea immediately and some did not. It was a lot of fun having those discussions. NYU's president Jay Oliva saw the advantage right away and was particularly helpful."

The UAA was just the right fit for Washington and its student-athletes. "It has worked out so well," Danforth said. "You never know how these things will turn out." Danforth reached out to other institutions, including Vanderbilt University. "I wrote to the chancellor (Alexander Heard) and suggested he join our league. I got a two-sentence response: 'I can't. Count your blessings.'"

Another major hire in 1978 was John Schael as new athletic director. "He was a terrific AD," Danforth said. "He always told me that the key to success was recruiting coaches and he did a great job with that." In Schael's 36 years at the helm of the program, the Bears captured 169 UAA titles and 19 national championships.











Chancellor Danforth at the 2009 Washington Hall of Fame Breakfast with HOF inductee Stephanie Habif (Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photos)

Success for the Bears began quickly after the founding of the UAA and the first NCAA title was right around the corner with Teri Clemens and the volleyball program in 1989. "Teri was amazing," Danforth said in appreciation. When she interviewed for the job, she said she could have a national championship team in five years and she did just that. Parents loved her, players loved her. That was the first time we had ever won a national championship in any sport. She set the standard for everybody. She changed our expectations and was an inspiration to other coaches."

"Dr. Danforth is the finest example of dedication and loyalty I have ever seen," Clemens said. "He is a huge reason my loyalties stayed with Washington University throughout my career. I asked him in his office after I had received a very fine offer from a large university, 'Just what keeps you at Washington U, Dr. D?' He looked me in the eye and said, 'Teri, it’s a very old-fashioned thing called commitment.' He had me. I stayed for the rest of my career."

One of Clemens' most enduring memories of Danforth's support for athletics happened in the mid-1990s when the Bears and their longtime rival University of California-San Diego were playing a match in California with the teams ranked 1-2 in the national volleyball poll. 

"The gym was packed, wall-to-wall people with a band so loud no one could hear any call," Clemens remembers clearly. "We were warming up and I looked over to see Dr. Danforth walk in the gym. I was flabbergasted. He flew all the way to San Diego to see us play." The Bears lost the first two sets decisively and were down in the third set when there was a five-minute break.

"We went to the locker room and I exploded," Clemens said. "We had never played so poorly. I asked them if they realized Dr. Danforth had flown all this way to see us." Washington returned to the floor and eventually fought off 12 match points and won the deciding set 15-13 to win the match. They remained as the #1 team in NCAA Division III the rest of the season. "For years, Dr. Danforth asked me what I said to my team in the locker room. It was all him and the love and respect my team and I had for him."

Washington has hosted more presidential/vice-presidential debates than any other institution in history and Danforth recalls the first one in 1992 with President George H. Bush, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and independent candidate Ross Perot. "It was a great boost for morale," Danforth remembered. "We weren't even on the original schedule and got a call asking if we wanted to host a debate. We had just one week to prepare. We determined that all tickets we had would go to the students. It was a really good event and our people said ‘we could send a rocket into space if we had a month!'"











Chancellor Danforth at the 2009 Washington Hall of Fame Breakfast with HOF inductee Kevin Folkl (Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photos)

Danforth's legacy will certainly never be forgotten at Washington University, which renamed its main campus Danforth Campus on Sept. 17, 2006, but he will also be remembered as one of the founders and greatest supporters of the University Athletic Association.

"He is the greatest mentor and I have watched his lead for years," Clemens remarked. "Any measure of his life that I can mirror is my greatest gift. I hold him in higher esteem than anyone."