Friends, Colleagues gather to Celebrate Life of John Toll
By Emily Blackner
A black and golden yellow academic dress robe draped over a chair attracted the eyes and reverence of the Washington College community during the memorial service for former WC President John Sampson Toll, who passed away July 15.
The ceremony was held on Sept. 15 in Decker Theater, where a majority of the seats were filled with WC staff, faculty, alumni, and members of the Board of Visitors and Governors. Notable attendees included WC President Mitchell Reiss and his wife Elizabeth Reiss, Chief of Staff Joe Holt ’83, M’98, John Moag, Jr, ’77, visitor emeritus, board of visitors and governors, former WC President Baird Tipson, and former Dean and Provost and Professor Emeritus Joachim Scholz.
Also in attendance were several members of Toll’s family, including his wife Deborah Toll and a nephew, Stephen S. Dunham, who is vice president and general counsel at Johns Hopkins University.
Music from Meredith Davies Hadaway M’96 on the Celtic harp and Rebekah Hardy ’05 on the oboe filled the theater as attendees found seats for the 4:00 p.m. memorial. Reiss opened up the service with some opening remarks revolving around the famous phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants.”
“We are all fortunate to have been carried by John Toll,” he said.
The ceremony continued with a slideshow of Toll’s life. It was entitled “What a Wonderful Life” and contained pictures from various periods in Toll’s life, although it focused on his time at WC. The slideshow was set to Louis Armstrong’s song, “What a Wonderful World.”
The speakers at the memorial praised Toll’s accomplishments in their remarks. Holt called Toll a man of “transformational leadership” who did much to bring WC to national prominence. He added that Toll “never lost sight of the mission during his tenure,” which was nearly ten years, from Jan. 1995 through June 2004.
Toll was unanimously approved as president of WC at the age of 71, but age did not slow him down; he “accelerated the transformation of campus,” Reiss said. Under the leadership of Dr. Toll, WC added 12 residence halls, the John S. Toll Science Center, Daly Hall, Goldstein Hall, and the Schottland Tennis Center. Toll also presided over the founding of the C.V. Starr Center and the Center for Environment and Society, as well as the chartering of WC’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
Adjectives like hard-working, loyal, energetic, and devoted were used repeatedly to describe Toll. Moag called him a “genius” and said he was “very well-known in higher education circles.” Before becoming WC’s president, Toll worked at Princeton University to establish what is now known as the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. He also taught physics at the University of Maryland and became Chancellor of the University System of Maryland when it was created.
But Toll was also “humble,” said Reiss. “He cared little for his own needs, but much for the needs of others.” Sheryl Kerr H’04, member emerita of the board of visitors and governors, said, “[Toll] had a wonderful smile and saw the best in people.”
Scholz said that Toll was “easy to describe in anecdotes because he was colorful without intending to be so.” Several speakers shared some of these anecdotes, like Reiss’s about the “Michelin man” jacket Toll would wear as he went around campus. Moag shared a story about the time Toll went to see Maryland Representative Steny Hoyer in DC and “asked for nothing except how he could help” the congressman. That impressed Hoyer so much that he made every effort to help Toll in the future. Scholz himself talked about the first time he met Toll, when the then-president was about 45 minutes early for his appointment at Scholz’s house.
Several speakers mentioned Toll’s tendency to work late into the night seeing to College business. Dunham said that Toll would frequently be working on proposals related to the various schools at which he worked during family gatherings throughout the years. These stories served to demonstrate the passion Toll had for teaching; “his true calling was as a teacher,” Moag said.
Toll loved the students of WC as well. He “felt comfortable eating lunch with them in the dining hall,” said Moag; just as comfortable as he was with men like J. Robert Oppenheimer, whom Toll knew. Toll frequently attended sports games and concerts on campus, often at the invitation of students.
It was clear that all of the speakers cared deeply for Toll. “Because his heart and mind were always in the right place, you wanted to follow him and do good,” said Moag. Holt credited Toll’s example for his current success. Several speakers and audience members became tearful during the course of the service.
President Reiss also offered a few remarks about the late President’s impact on the community.
“When I look around campus, I see John’s legacy everywhere. In buildings, in the faculty that were hired while he was here, in the administrative support staff, as the college grew and expanded and became more prominent. We are all operating in the shadow of what this man accomplished. He made the college much more prominent and a much better place than when he arrived, which is one important hallmark of how he should be recognized.”
The service itself concluded with a rendition of “Amazing Grace” by Sue Dunning Matthews ’75, who said she was happy “to sing for Dr. Toll one more time.” Afterwards, members of the WC community were invited to join the Toll family for a reception in Underwood Lobby.
Reiss’s closing remarks were directed towards Toll himself. In a nod to the way Toll ended his correspondence, Reiss said, “On behalf of all you’ve done, Washington College thanks you.”