Former chancellor Danforth wins St. Louis Award for service

| News Editor

Matt Mitgang | Student Life

Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth speaks in Graham Chapel at the dedication of the Danforth University Center.

Former Washington University chancellor William H. Danforth II, whose legacy at the school lives on through its culture and the ubiquitous presence of his family name around campus, received the 85th annual St. Louis Award last week.

The award recognizes the “resident of metropolitan St. Louis who, during the preceding year, has contributed the most outstanding service for its development.”

For Danforth, who retired as chancellor in 1995 but has remained an active presence in St. Louis through his involvement with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, named for his father, it can be considered more of a lifetime achievement award.

The grandson of Ralston-Purina founder William Danforth I and older brother of longtime Missouri senator John Danforth, William Danforth II became chancellor of the University in 1971.

His tenure set forth its transformation from a regional school to a nationally-recognized institution, said his successor, current chancellor Mark Wrighton.

As a near-lifelong St. Louisan, Danforth aided the transition for Wrighton, who previously served as provost at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Coming from St. Louis originally, [Danforth] really knew this community extraordinarily well,” Wrighton said. “One of the things that was very fortunate for me is he was able to introduce me to St. Louis and to the community in ways that would not have been possible by me just coming in from outside, and he was a terrific mentor.”

Neither MIT nor Wrighton’s graduate alma mater, California Institute of Technology, had medical schools, and he credited Danforth with strengthening his grasp of academic medicine.  

Danforth oversaw the growth of a $1.72 billion endowment and the construction of numerous buildings, and student scholarships tripled under his tenure, according to his biography on the University’s website.

But more importantly, said Provost Ed Macias, he built a community of mutual respect on campus.

“I worked with Bill Danforth for many years when he was chancellor, and since that time, and he has set a tone for Washington University that still remains today,” said Macias, who is retiring at the end of the 2012-2013 academic year. “It was one of caring—caring about the students, caring about colleagues and making the university the best it can be.”

Danforth, 86, has remained active in St. Louis affairs since stepping down as chancellor.

“You would think a person who spent as much time as he did in his life in leadership roles at Washington University, that he would be ready for retirement,” Wrighton said. “But in his years following his chairmanship here at the university, he was one of the critical leaders who contributed to the founding of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, which positions St. Louis as one of the world’s leading, if not the leading, center for plant science.”

Danforth has dedicated himself to plant science as a means for solving global hunger issues, and he addressed this passion in his St. Louis Award acceptance speech Jan. 8 at the Danforth Plant Science Center.

“We St. Louisans are helping use bioscience to write a new chapter in human history and in the story of our community,” Danforth said.

He has also been involved with St. Louis public schools and has contributed to “infrastructure for innovation and entrepreneurship” through venture capital firms and start-up companies, Wrighton said.

Past winners of the St. Louis Award include Blueberry Hill founder Joe Edwards and environmentalist Peter Raven, a collaborator on the plant science project.