‘Poor Earl:’ Elon’s living history book

Dr. Earl Danieley teaches a chemistry class in McMichael Sciend Building. Danieley has been a student, professor, dean and president of Elon University, but his favorite aspect is teaching.

by Andie Diemer
Dec. 5, 2008

He remembers the day crystal clear, even 51 years later.

It was February 1957 and Earl Danieley, then a graduate and professor at Elon who was living in Baltimore completing his doctoral research in chemistry, received a call from George Colclough, who was on the Elon Board of Trustees.

A personal friend, Colclough’s call came as a surprise since the telephone was normally only used for urgent matters. But when the phone rang after dinner one night, Danieley was informed that the Board had chosen a new president.

“I said who’s that?” Danieley said. “And he said, ‘You.’ Now what they had done — without my being consulted — they had just up and elected me president. I was not an applicant. I did not know I had been nominated or considered.”

Danieley said his response was simple and honest: “George, you’re crazy.”

He was given instructions to seriously consider the proposition, discuss it with his wife, Verona, and report back to the executive committee.

Verona, who was in the kitchen washing dishes, immediately asked Danieley what was wrong, since the news had been delivered via phone.

“I said, ‘Well, they elected a new president today,’ and she said, ‘Who’s that?’” Danieley said. “There was a little moment of silence before I could get myself together, and I said, ‘Me.’ And she said — and I remember exactly what she said — ‘Poor Earl.’”

Another Surprise Around The Corner

Verona had acted as secretary to Elon’s current president, Leon Smith, for six years and was in tune with the stresses, problems and difficulties the president encountered on a daily basis, he said.

“She really didn’t want to have to see me do that and wasn’t looking forward to going through it herself,” he said.

But despite the drawbacks, Danieley became Elon College’s sixth president on July 1, 1957 at the age of 32.

While he reined for 16 years and one month, his relationship with the university began quite some time earlier, when he started down his path at Elon in 1941 as a freshman.

After graduating as chemistry major in May of 1946 with the intention of becoming a high school teacher, his plans were cut short when he realized the state of North Carolina was only paying teachers $1,438 a year.

While Danieley “always liked the idea of having a family,” he knew he wouldn’t be able to support one on such a minimal amount, so he enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill the next month to begin chipping away at a master’s degree in education.

His dream was to one day be a high school principal, but little did he know much more was in store for him.

Student Today, Dean Tomorrow

On Aug. 1, 1941, Danieley received a phone call from Smith, asking him to return to Elon to teach chemistry.

“So, I was here on the faculty teaching three months after I graduated,” he said.

After he started teaching he realized he needed to complete graduate work in chemistry, so he began summer school at UNC. After completing four education classes, he received a master’s degree in education in 1949 but knew he needed to work towards a doctorate in organic chemistry.

In June of 1950 he moved his family to Chapel Hill to start working full time towards his doctorate. It was during this time he was named dean of the college, after Smith came to visit him at home on a Sunday morning after church.

“He said ‘Earl, I want you to be dean.’ I said I haven’t even finished my doctorate!” Danieley said. “[Smith] said I understand that, but the dean is leaving and I’ve talked with some of the senior faculty and they’re in agreement that you should be dean.”

So in the fall of 1953 — at the age of 29 — Danieley began to serve as acting dean.

He held the position for three years and was under an “unbelievably heavy workload,” which included being dean, teaching chemistry and raising two small boys at home.

“It was a tough time and I knew that it was not for me,” he said.

He moved his family to Baltimore in May of 1956 so he could study at Johns Hopkins. While he planned to eventually return to Elon, he only wanted to do so purely as a professor.

But it was just a few months later the fateful call from Colclough arrived.

During his time at Elon, Danieley has taught chemistry, public speaking, algebra, debate, trigonometry, biochemistry, physical science, physics and problematic procedure.

“About the first 12 years were pleasant, enjoyable, challenging,” Danieley said about his time spent as president. “We did a lot of things that I wanted to see done, but I was ready to retire. It is an all-consuming job. You are never free. I mean really never free.”

After a long, tedious 16 years as president, Danieley finally handed the reigns over to James Young in 1973 and was “liberated.”

“I went home and for the first time in 16 years I didn’t have anything to do,” he said. “It was such a different feeling.”

While he wanted to take a year off between his presidency and returning to teach, he only spent a month out of the office before he began to teach chemistry full time.

But his previous responsibilities followed him around campus, especially when Young asked him to notify him when he made a mistake.

“I said, ‘Whoa, hold it. I will be here, if you need me you call me, if I can help you in any way I will, but I will not volunteer advice,’” he told Young.

It was the first time since receiving his doctorate that Danieley finally became what he was most passionate about: being a full-time chemistry teacher.

While the staff gossiped and questioned some of Young’s moves, Danieley said he always stayed out of it.

“The former president, if he’s smart, will stay out of what’s going on with the current president,” he said. “I have enjoyed immensely seeing all the progress that’s been made as Elon has climbed from where to were to where we are. It’s been amazing, the transformation that’s taken place. I’ve enjoyed it tremendously.”

Born-and-Bred Phoenix

Danieley grew up just four miles away from today’s campus on a tobacco farm, where his family was greatly connected to the region. His father was a chairman of the Alamance County Republican Party, his grandfather was the mayor of Elon and his great-great grandfather was a minister in the Christian Church that originally founded Elon.

After enrolling in Elon, he met Verona on campus in the fall of 1946 when she was working in the president’s office and they regularly ate in the dining hall together. After marrying in September of 1948, they had two sons and a daughter.

He also has seven grandchildren scattered across North Carolina, one of which is currently enrolled at Elon.

Senior Daniel Shutt said since he was a child he has had a very close relationship with Danieley.

“I’ve become closer to [my grandfather] by trying to understand how he sees the world,” Shutt said.

Shutt considers his grandfather one of his “favorite people” and considers himself lucky to have such a strong relationship with him.

“He’s like my idol,” Shutt said. “There’s no person who I would rather spend time with. People often can’t understand how we can even talk to each other, but it’s never been an issue.”

Still A Familiar Elon Sight

Despite his many roles at Elon, teaching has always been Danieley’s favorite. Aside from his concentration in chemistry, he has taught public speaking, algebra, debate, trigonometry, biochemistry, physical science, physics, problematic procedure — which he taught for 61 years — as well as coaching the debate team.

Today, Danieley teaches chemistry part time in the fall and spring as well as a class on the history of Elon during January.

He keeps a book with the signatures of every student he taught during his first year as a faculty member at Elon on the bookshelf next to his desk. Going down the list, he names the individuals, their background, personal details and what they are doing today, since staying in close connection to his former students is one of his passions.

“The relationships are something that I treasure highly,” he said.

But even though he has truly lived Elon through and through, Danieley said he isn’t planning on going anywhere anytime soon.

At 84-years-old, he doesn’t plan to retire until teaching becomes work.

“I have so much fun coming to school. I have some unbelievably interesting students and seeing them and working with them is such a pleasure,” Danieley said. “I know how old I am and I had few relatives to live this long but I don’t spend any time thinking about how old I am. It’s wonderful to have so much to do that I don’t have time to think about being an old man.”

Instead, what he focuses on is that next chemistry lesson coming up, what story he is going to share with his Elon 101 class and when he is going to see his grandson at East Carolina next.

Cultivating Elon From The Ground Up

Danieley has seen outstanding national figures appear at Elon, including Presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton — twice — and Al Gore. But one of his favorite things to do is watch Elon grow and unfold before his eyes.

His response to each national recognition Elon receives is “just joy and satisfaction.”

“It’s so fantastic that you really have to say this is real, this is for real, this is not a joke were playing,” he said in regards to two national top ten ranking Elon recently received. “When I was in high school there were people that were ugly enough to say ‘If you can’t go to college, go to Elon.’ I’d like to find every one of those guys and make ‘em eat this without ketchup.”

Campus today is neither the Elon Danieley presided over nor the one he dreamed about.

“I never had a dream this big. You can’t really dream something you can’t imagine,” he said. “I could never see us at this point with this recognition. They say Elon is really doing things and I just grin real big and say, ‘You’re right, we are. We surely are.’”

Watch to see the best advice Danieley has ever received:

One thought on “‘Poor Earl:’ Elon’s living history book

  1. Janna

    Lovely profile. I really enjoyed the video clip, too. It makes it so much more meaningful to SEE adn HEAR Earl saying these things. It really is an important slice of Elon history to get this clip!

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