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September 8, 2011

Memorial Service for USM Founding Chancellor John S. Toll


Tribute by Freeman A. Hrabowski, III
President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)

Each of us has special memories and stories about John Toll – from his younger years at College Park and Stony Brook, to when he headed the Maryland System, to his later years at Washington College. As varied as those experiences may be, everyone in this room would agree that Johnny Toll is perhaps the best example of the quality “neoteny.” Some of you may have read the book, Geeks and Geezers, focusing on some of the best leaders in our country under 30 and over 70. According to the book,

"Every one of the geezers who continues to play a leadership role has one quality of overriding importance: neoteny. The dictionary defines neoteny as ‘the retention of youthful qualities by adults.’ Neoteny is more than retaining a youthful appearance, although that is often part of it. Neoteny is the retention of all those wonderful qualities that we associate with youth: curiosity, playfulness, eagerness, fearlessness, warmth, energy… Our geezers have remained much like our geeks – open, willing to take risks, hungry for knowledge and experience, courageous, eager to see what the new day brings… Neoteny is a metaphor for the quality – the gift – that keeps the fortunate of whatever age focused on all the marvelous undiscovered things to come."

Johnny Toll personified “neoteny.”

Some here today remember a rather infamous New Year’s Eve party given by the Langenbergs some years ago. The party’s theme was Saturnalia (the ancient Roman festival). Johnny came to the party – courageously some would say – dressed in a toga. He was amazingly believable both as a Roman “citizen” – someone who considered it a privilege and an obligation to contribute to society – and as a civic leader in the 2nd century BC. In fact, he was an authentic citizen and leader whose personal qualities mirrored the best of human behavior and leadership even centuries ago.

When I was being interviewed to work at UMBC 25 years ago, my soon-to-be-boss at the time, Michael Hooker, told me I was to interview with John Toll, the head of the System. Though I had known John Toll from a distance, I had not had any substantive conversations with him. What struck me first during our interview was his intensely engaging look – from his eyes to his smile. What came through were his insatiable curiosity, his constantly asking unexpected questions, his authentic interest in the UMBC campus (a young institution at the time), and finally, the genuine way in which he was trying to figure out who I was and whether it would be good for the University – and for me – to go there. From that time on, I found those same qualities and strengths magnified over and over.

Johnny had the ability, on the one hand, to be tough enough to make the hard decisions and never to take matters personally; on the other hand, he was always civil in the best sense of that word. He focused on taking the high road, ever courteous and gracious. He loved big ideas and solving problems. When Michael Hooker and I were facing a major student protest in the late ’80s, I recall Johnny’s talking on the telephone with us, telling us not to take the matter personally, that difficult situations happen to the best of us, that we should rise above it and not allow ourselves to become angry, and that “this too shall pass.” It was clear that he had been through these kinds of challenges himself, and he was showing us his confidence in our ability to lead.

In fact, through both his words and actions, John Toll taught all of us how to lead and how to live. He was passionately committed to higher education. In an interview with Washingtonian Magazine in 2000, he spoke with conviction about the roles college and university presidents play and the value of American higher education. Presidents, he said,

“…keep the institution improving to meet the needs of students and enlarge opportunities for discovery and service. [Presidents have] lots of responsibility and no authority…Yet the president does have a bully pulpit…[They get things done] by selecting good people...with good ideas…[and]…getting people to cooperate…Nothing can be done alone. You’ve got to do everything cooperatively…A president presents a vision, which must be shared by others, or you’re wasting your time. [Being president] is a fabulous job if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

He was committed not only to attracting good people with good ideas, but also to encouraging and empowering them, and to finding the resources they needed to excel. He knew that nothing takes the place of excellence in research and teaching. When asked by Washingtonian, “What three ideas do you have for [America’s] next President?” Johnny responded, “First, enable every American to have the opportunity for higher education…Second, find more money for research…Third, increase student and faculty exchanges abroad.”

Even as a giant in his profession, he constantly worked to take the emphasis off himself and to place it on the ideas and give others support. I was always surprised at his unexpected telephone calls or notes to me over the years, when he saw something about my campus. He called or wrote to express his care and support. Perhaps the most challenging questions he asked me over the years were these: “How do you create a vision for a young university that pushes everyone beyond where we think the institution might go? And then how do you build that university, elevating it to a level of excellence?” He struggled alongside my colleagues and me to address these questions because he had already had that experience. In fact, during the first years of the University System, he was still actively engaged in decisions about faculty promotion and tenure because he was committed to the highest academic standards. He envisioned what others could not imagine. I can still hear him saying with great optimism and confidence, “Freeman, we can do this – keep pushing.” He could speak with such authority because we knew he was always pushing himself even beyond the limits expected. He was an irrepressible force – his “can-do,” “nothing-is-impossible,” “let’s-get-it-done” attitude was palpable. Johnny showed what authenticity, brainpower, and selfless, unrelenting determination can accomplish – he built institutions and careers.

Cicero’s essay, De Senectute (On Old Age), written in the first century B.C., debunks the negative picture of old age that most people have. In the essay, Cato, the Roman statesman, comments – as if speaking about Johnny Toll –

“Those who allege that old age is devoid of useful activity adduce nothing to the purpose, and are like those who would say that the pilot does nothing in the sailing of his ship…It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment… The crowning glory of old age is influence…When the preceding part of life has been nobly spent, old age gathers the fruits of influence at the last – a life well spent and…many deeds worthily performed.”

Perhaps the most important lesson Johnny Toll taught us about leadership and life – through his boundless energy and giving spirit – was that we are most productive and at our best, as human beings, in collaboration with others. So many of us appreciated the model that Johnny and Debby Toll presented – both individually and together. I recall times when I’d be at a reception, and Johnny was suggesting something to me in one ear, and ten minutes later, Debby was making a suggestion to me in the other ear. They have been a remarkable team.

Years ago, when we were all much younger, we knew that Johnny was brilliant. But as we’ve all grown older, we’ve also come to realize just how valuable his wisdom and advice have been to us. And for that gift to us, we are forever grateful.

John Toll lived his life to the fullest. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, he will always inspire us.

I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed greatly,
Have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone…
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, government…
I am a part of all that I have met.

...Come, my friends.
’T is not too late to seek a newer world...
For my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
it may be we shall touch the happy isles...
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and...
That which we are, we are–
one equal temper of heroic hearts,
made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Posted by dwinnick at September 8, 2011 1:12 PM