Earl Danieley, former Elon president, dies at 92

Earl Danieley, president emeritus of Elon College, in a 1997 photo.
Earl Danieley, president emeritus of Elon College, in a 1997 photo. AP

Earl Danieley, former president of Elon University and longtime higher education champion in North Carolina, died Tuesday at the age of 92.

Danieley led then-Elon College from 1957 to 1973 and later returned to the chemistry classroom and the students he loved. But he was also an advocate for public higher education in the state, having served on the UNC Board of Governors from 1983 to 1995. He worked as a special assistant and legislative lobbyist for former UNC system President C.D. Spangler Jr. from 1994 to 1996. He also served on the Board of Trustees at East Carolina University.

“Elon’s greatest oak has fallen,” Elon President Leo Lambert tweeted Tuesday.

“He was a remarkable person, truly one of a kind,” Lambert said later. “Students loved him with a passion.”

Danieley was a treasured figure at Elon. An enduring presence at basketball and volleyball games, he would stand and swing a towel above his head, to the delight of the crowd. “Dr. D” taught for nearly 70 years, well into what would have been a quiet retirement for most academicians. He retired from the classroom only last spring.

When his wife, Verona, died in 2011, Danieley couldn’t bear to go home for lunch anymore, so he stuck a signup sheet on his door, inviting students to lunch, Lambert said. He could remember a former student’s name decades after graduation.

Elon’s greatest oak has fallen.

Elon President Leo Lambert, about Earl Danieley

James Earl Danieley was born on a farm in Alamance County in 1924 and started his education at a two-room schoolhouse. He enrolled in Elon to study chemistry just after World War II and in 1957 became one of the country’s youngest college presidents at the age of 32.

At the time, he had been working as a postdoctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins University, where he studied trace substances in crude oil. The senior researcher on the project walked into the lab one day and said, “Earl, you’re not happy without a student.” Two undergraduates were sent into the lab to work with Danieley.

The young professor soon got a phone call from a trustee who said the college had just elected a president. “I said, ‘Who?’” Danieley recalled in a 2006 interview. “He said, ‘You.’”

Danieley’s presidency was marked by growth and a boom in new campus buildings. After 16 years, he returned to the classroom and later served as director of planned giving in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Though he said his time in administration was rewarding, he was energized by teaching. Danieley and his wife created the Daniels-Danieley Award for Excellence in Teaching, Elon’s highest teaching honor, in 1972 to honor their parents.

He had served on various educational commissions, appointed by former North Carolina governors Terry Sanford, Dan Moore and Robert Scott. An active member of the Republican Party, he served on the Alamance County Board of Commissioners from 1974 to 1978. He was secretary of the state Republican convention in 1971 and was an alternate delegate to the national Republican convention in New Orleans in 1988.

He was involved in Elon Community Church since 1948, where he was a deacon from 1949 to 1991 and a longtime Sunday school teacher.

Lambert said Danieley became president after the Depression and a war, but began to put into place the basic foundation for what university would become. “It was the beginning of the Danieley presidency that marked the turn of a new page for Elon,” Lambert said.

In 2006, Danieley described his time at Elon as “an incomparable blessing.”

“To see the institution go from an also-ran to national prominence in many areas,” he said. “We just sit back and say, ‘Boy, oh boy!’”

Memorial contributions may be made to either the Danieley Scholarship Fund or the Daniels-Danieley Teaching Award at Elon University, c/o Office of University Advancement, 2600 Campus Box, Elon, NC 27244.

A small funeral will be held at Danieley’s church on Saturday morning, followed by a public memorial service at 2 p.m. at Elon’s Alumni Gymnasium. His casket will be on display from noon to 8 p.m. Friday at the university’s Numen Lumen Pavilion.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill