When William H. Danforth was 12, his self-made grandfather handed him a pair of scissors and told him to cut out the word “impossible” from his dictionary. He wanted his grandchildren to feel they could change the world, as long as they gave back.
Young Bill absorbed the lesson. He went on to become chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, overseeing its blossoming from a commuter campus into a national research institution, and helped found a plant science center to fight world hunger. (His three siblings also received their grandfather’s message: John became a three-term United States senator from Missouri; Donald Jr. was a business executive who served as board chairman of the American Youth Foundation and helped build the Brain Injury Association of Missouri; and Dorothy Danforth Miller was a philanthropist.)
During Dr. Danforth’s 24-year tenure at Washington University, which started in 1971, people associated with the university won 10 Nobel Prizes and two Pulitzer Prizes. Two faculty members became the nation’s poet laureates.
He established 70 endowed professorships, constructed dozens of buildings and tripled the number of student scholarships. The endowment grew to $1.72 billion, the seventh-largest in the country at the time. A highly selective university, it now stands at No. 16 in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of the nation’s best colleges.
Dr. Danforth died on Sept. 16 at his home in Ladue, Mo. a suburb of St. Louis. He was 94.
His son, David, said the cause was complications of a fall.
Dr. Danforth was more than a leading educator; he was also a major philanthropist. As president of the Danforth Foundation, the family philanthropy founded in 1927, he funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to thousands of recipients, many of them organizations in the St. Louis region.