Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Honesdale, Wayne County
Tolley's love of books began at Syracuse University and after he became Chancellor there, the library significantly benefitted from his great love.
William Pearson Tolley, born in 1900, led a life of learning, faith, and work in education. He grew up in Binghamton, New York, and later received an undergraduate degree and MA from Syracuse, his Bachelor’s of Divinity from Drew Univeristy, and a Doctorate in Philosophy from Columbia University. The lifelong scholar pursued a career in education. He served as a college president to Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, as well as Chancellor at Syracuse University. He was the Dean of the liberal arts college at Drew University as well. He was truly well respected and admired for his achievements in education. Tolley died at the age of 95 on January 26, 1996.
On September 13, 1900, future writer, college dean, and university president William Pearson Tolley was born in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. His parents, Adolphus and Emma, raised their five children on very limited means. The family found great joy in music, literature, and in their faith. The Tolley’s moved north to Binghamton, New York when they relocated the family’s shoe business. Young William later remembered feeling bored in most of his elementary classes, eager to move along faster in his subjects, an early sign of his determination to make the most of his education and learning experiences.
Throughout grade school and high school, Tolley helped his father at the shoe store business, supplemented by selling newspapers and taking other small jobs to help the family make ends meet. Tolley was president of his senior class when he graduated from Binghamton Central High School. Throughout his later life, he continually praised the effect that the efforts of his teachers and superiors had on him, from revered professors to his mentors in the business world. He often put into practice many of their methods in his own life. Tolley notes his appreciation of these guiding lessons in his book of memoirs as a college president, At the Fountain of Youth. Tolley wrote regarding a misunderstanding with one of his later colleagues: “this was an important lesson for me to learn. I had a number of experiences later in my career as a college administrator that allowed me to apply this lesson.” He was constantly learning from others’ experiences and advice.
After public schooling, William Tolley followed older brother Harold to Syracuse University to continue his educational journey. While at Syracuse, he became very involved in many aspects of campus life. He served as the Supply Sergeant in the Student Army Training Corps (SATC), and was an active brother of Pi Kappa Alpha, a service fraternity. In his senior year he was elected president and general secretary of the local YMCA, which was a strong community religious establishment at the time. At Syracuse he continued honing his capacity to utilize every learning experience as a life lesson, and created lasting relationships with his mentors. This connection and loyalty was to come full circle in his life when he was asked to return many years later as the University’s chancellor. After graduation from Syracuse, Tolley took summer courses to complete a few remaining classes necessary to earn his Masters of Arts degree in 1924.
At the urging of a professor, he decided to attend graduate school at Drew Theological Seminary in New York City, where his marks were straight A’s. While there, he worked at the People’s Home Church and Settlement House, not only to support himself during school, but also because he was drawn to this good cause. The house provided a church home for new immigrants while they adjusted to their new life in the United States. He remembered his father’s experiences as a struggling immigrant and believed this was worthy of his time. He received his Bachelor’s of Divinity from Drew in 1925. Shortly after, he married Ruth Canfield, his high school sweetheart and lifelong confidante. Their family later included three children: Nelda, Bill, and Katryn.
While in the New York City area, he also proceeded to get his doctorate in philosophy at Columbia in 1930; this would mark an amazing feat of completing four degrees in eight years. The People’s Home Church and Settlement House was located near his Columbia classes, so it was not difficult for him to take classes and work there as well. During this time he was serving as assistant to the president of Drew, and alumni secretary. After receiving a considerable donation, Drew Seminary established Brother’s College, a liberal arts division of the school. Tolley’s colleagues talked him into serving as the college’s dean in 1929, at the ripe age of twenty-eight. At this time he wrote The Idea of God in the Philosophy of Saint Augustine.
In 1930 young Dean Tolley, although reluctant to leave Drew because of his works in progress developing the college, relocated to Allegheny College where he accepted the position as school president at the age of thirty. The country was in the midst of the Great Depression, and Allegheny needed help. In efforts to save money, Tolley cut the football program and promoted major fundraising. His various efforts paid off, and the college was able to survive economically and keep developing. During this time he served as president of both the College Presidents of Pennsylvania and the Association of American Colleges. In 1932 he was appointed to the University Senate of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He later served as the president of this organization, where he helped Methodist colleges select their presidents. Many years later, his devotion to his faith also led him to create the United Methodist Higher Education Foundation in 1965. The foundation raises money to promote and develop Christian education.
Tolley hesitantly decided to leave and return to his alma mater, and take up an offer as Chancellor of Syracuse University (SU) in 1942. At this time he made tremendous attempts to help the war effort by bringing the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) to the school. This boosted the student population and provided higher education to soldiers. Like his previous experiences in guiding, William Tolley hoped to expand SU. He proposed new buildings, increased faculty salaries, and increased fundraising overall. SU’s culture in art and music developed further, including the foundation of the Syracuse University Library Associates in 1953. During Tolley’s tenure at SU, the school became nationally renowned for its graduate and research programs. It was also recognized as a member of the American Association of Universities in 1967, a distinguished honor. The university’s enrollment grew from 5,600 to 16,000 during his 27-year stay. In 1969 Tolley retired as chancellor, a year before the school’s centennial anniversary.
After retirement he served as president of both the Pi Kappa Memorial Foundation and the Century Club of Syracuse. As Chancellor he had the opportunity to meet many celebrities, including General McArthur, President Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, President Dwight Eisenhower, President John F. Kennedy, and President Lyndon B. Johnson. Tolley had a love for rare books, which was revealed in the many libraries he had constructed at SU. His lifelong love, however, was for his wife, Ruth, who passed away from Alzheimer’s disease in 1988. He spent his final years enjoying tennis, and stayed active. He continued to make every experience something to learn from. This was expressed in his book, The Adventure of Learning, written in 1977:
Learning is something we do for ourselves. Instruction is important. Experience and the voice of caution have their value. The adventure, however, is ours. The responsibility is ours. The thinking is ours. The excitement is ours. Education is a solo flight.
Tolley passed away on January 26, 1996 at the age of 95. Many awards are dedicated to him at Syracuse University, honoring his many years of loyalty and the accomplishment of guiding the small liberal arts college into a growing, contemporary, and distinguished major university. He is continually remembered at SU with great affection and admiration.
Alumni Record of Drew Theological Seminary. Madison: Drew Theological Seminary, 1929.
Preface to Philosophy. New York: Macmillan, 1947.
The Idea of God in the Philosophy of St. Augustine. New York: R. R. Smith, 1930.
The Transcendent Aim: Selected Addresses. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1969.
The Meaning of Freedom. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1969.
The Adventure of Learning. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1978.
At the Fountain of Youth: Memoirs of a College President. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1989.