From IWU Magazine, Summer 2012 edition

Robert and Nell Eckley, whom President Wilson described as “an indomitable team.”
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Presidential Reflections

President Richard F. Wilson reviews Eckley’s achievements and their lasting impact on Illinois Wesleyan University.

The following are remarks given by University President Richard F. Wilson at the April 19 memorial service for Robert S. Eckley held at Illinois Wesleyan’s Evelyn Chapel.

It is impossible to think about what has happened at Illinois Wesleyan over the last 44 years without recognizing the enormous impact and leadership provided by Robert S. Eckley. One of his most remarkable contributions in my mind is the stability and continuity of leadership that he provided for the 18 years he served in the presidency. His tenure was longer than any other president, a feat remarkable in its own right, but even more impressive when one considers the turmoil on college campuses during the 1960s and 1970s.

I received a note this week from an alum from that period who commented that he was one of President Eckley’s biggest problems as a student — and yet over the arc of his career had become one of Bob’s biggest fans. As I scan this audience, I think there are more than a few people who could claim that same distinction. Nell and I were talking about this on Sunday, and she reminded me of Bob’s response to these situations: “You have to remember that we are working with college students.”

During his tenure, a number of transformative events occurred at Illinois Wesleyan:

• The physical footprint of the campus was increased by 71 percent, from 34 acres to 58 acres, an effort that required purchasing a number of houses, but also a school and, if you can believe this, a canning factory.

• A landscaping plan for the Quadrangle was developed and implemented. Some of you may remember that the campus Quadrangle looked like ground zero for a tornado after the Dutch elm disease destroyed almost all of the trees. Bob and Nell’s efforts have restored the Quad and made it one of our most valuable assets.

• A number of campus buildings were constructed: Mark Evans Observatory, Dodds Hall, Fort Natatorium, the Alice Millar Center for the Fine Arts — and, of special importance to Pat and me, the President’s House.

• The endowment rose dramatically, from $6.6 million in 1968 to $47.4 million in 1986.

Beyond the significance of these events, I know that Bob derived the greatest satisfaction from three other accomplishments:

In April, family, friends and colleagues gathered at Evelyn Chapel to remember Robert Eckley’s life and many contributions. As president, he “devoted enormous time and energy to the design and construction of this chapel,” IWU President Richard F. Wilson noted at the service. (Photo by Marc Featherly)
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• First, the University’s budget and financial affairs were strengthened and stabilized. As everyone in this room knows, Bob’s background in economics made this work quite natural for him. His belief in building a solid financial foundation has paid enormous dividends to all of us who have followed.

• The second point of pride, one that he mentioned to me on several occasions, was the effort devoted to recruiting outstanding faculty members who could help move the University into the top ranks among liberal arts colleges in the country. Two of his early hires brought Bob Bray to Illinois Wesleyan from the University of Chicago and Mike Young from Harvard, faculty members who still serve this institution with distinction.

• Finally, Bob devoted enormous time and energy to the design and construction of this chapel. He and Nell traveled all over the East Coast looking at chapels before settling on this magnificent design. The chapel is a point of pride for the University and the community, and it is only fitting that Bob’s memorial service be held here.

Bob’s loyalty and commitment to Illinois Wesleyan continued unabated after he retired as president. He taught classes, counseled students in the portfolio management program, made scholarly contributions, participated in the work of the Board of Trustees, particularly the farm and investment committees, and made time for special events whenever the IWU flag was raised.

The Eckleys have been very generous donors to the University. Their gifts, along with those from friends and colleagues, have established the Robert S. Eckley Quadrangle, the Nell B. Eckley Lounge, the Eckley Family Scholarship, the Robert S. Eckley Professorship of Economics, the Robert S. Eckley Lecture in Economics and the Robert S. and Nell B. Eckley Scholars and Artists Program. The last two gifts, which were announced quite recently, came at a very opportune time and reflected, once again, Bob’s desire to help his university move forward on key priorities.

Although it is obvious that Bob cared deeply about the University, those of you who knew him well also know that he was devoted to his family. He and Nell were an indomitable team, a relationship grounded in mutual respect, support and affection and enriched with occasional offerings of unsolicited advice.

Bob took special pride in the education and accomplishments of his children:

• Robert George, award-winning fine art photographer in St. Louis, who travels frequently on assignment and has two of his marvelous photographs hanging in the President’s House.

• Jane Lennon, attorney practicing law in San Francisco and medical legal counsel to the University of California. Like the other children, Jane has provided enormous assistance to her father with the publication of his book on Leonard Swett.

• Paul, senior vice president for investments at State Farm and world traveler in search of the next Microsoft. Paul and Penny were the first couple married in this chapel after it opened.

• Rebecca Melchert, a concert-trained harpist, who has built the largest antique business in Wisconsin. The oak table in the Charlie Rose studio and, I might add, the dining room table in the IWU President’s House came from the Harp Gallery.

I don’t think Pat and I ever spent time with Bob without one or all of his children or grandchildren being introduced into the conversation — your recent projects, your honors, your travels, your college searches, and your time together. Speaking of family time together, as I listened to Bob talk about your many successes in life and considered your genetic heritage, I often thought it would have been great fun to be an observer during what I suspect were spirited discussions of almost any topic at the Eckley dinner table.

I would like to conclude my remarks with a few personal observations. I consider myself fortunate to have been Bob’s colleague and friend over the past eight years. He has provided me with invaluable counsel and support on a wide range of issues. I knew I could count on him for honest opinions — yes, even strong opinions — but ones drawn from his experience and offered with deference to my knowledge of current context. We truly enjoyed each other’s company and shared stories comprising the rich mosaic of being a college president. I treasure the time we had together and shall miss him.

To read about Eckley's words and writings, click here.

To read about Eckley's LIFE before and after his IWU presidency, click here.