Story by TIM OBERMILLER
A 1983 Argus article headlined “Reporter takes personal look at Eckley” asked, “Beyond the office: Just who the hell is Bob Eckley?”
Further down, it stated: “Without meaning to detract a solitary iota from his importance, the average student would likely find Dr. Eckley a rather boring, or at least unexciting individual.”
If he read the piece, Eckley likely responded with a wry smile of appreciation for the writer’s politely phrased candor.
In a book he wrote about his years as Wesleyan’s president, Pictures at an Exhibition, Eckley noted: “If my genetic inheritance endowed me with an austere and reserved appearance, those who got beneath the exterior probably found me unintimidating, firm but gentle, deliberate not facile, and eager to find some humor amid the irony.”
In fact, Eckley’s calming approach was likely a plus when he arrived on campus during the late 1960s, when civil rights, the sexual revolution and the Vietnam War were rallying points for the college-aged generation.
In 1970, the president was invited by the Argus to write a guest editorial that showed he held an open mind in considering students’ social and political perspectives. “We have the opportunity to participate together in a critical period of change,” he wrote. He included students in formulating future plans for the University while regularly meeting with representatives of groups such as the Student Senate, Argus and Black Student Union to hear and respond to their questions and concerns.
It was a typical approach for Eckley, according to his son, Robert George Eckley, whose remarks about his father were read at the Evelyn Chapel service. “It has been said that the test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and retain balance,” observed Robert, noting that his father “possessed a beautiful mind.” Favoring “flexibility over rigidity, it did not overreach. It sharpened itself by discipline and practice. It accepted what it could not change.”
At the same time, Eckley never lost his faith in education’s power to effect change. One of his favorite Lincoln quotes opens the first chapter of Pictures at an Exhibition. “Upon the subject of education,” the quote reads, “I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.”
In 1968, just prior to becoming IWU’s 15th president, Eckley was asked by a reporter to give his philosophy of education. “First,” he responded, “I believe in the ultimate significance of an individual as the basic cornerstone of educational philosophy. Second, there is a liberal arts core of knowledge that every person needs to function effectively in this day and age — language and other communication skills, mathematics and science and the background of history, religion and the cultures.
“Finally, I think the world is the university. We retreat into colleges and universities to concentrate, not to avoid contact with the world.”
As chief economist for Caterpillar, Inc., Eckley himself had traveled the world. Beyond his academic focus on business and economics, he was also an avid reader of history, philosophy, literature and religion — knowledge demonstrated in the 1978 speech he gave at the President’s Convocation marking his 10th year at Wesleyan.
Titled “Through a Glass, Darkly,” the speech begins with a recollection of shattering events coinciding with Eckley’s first year as president — including escalation of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, widespread riots in America and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. “The year did end on a positive note with the successful Apollo 8 mission around the moon,” Eckley noted, “an ironic contrast of our technological ability alongside the chaos of our political and social life.”
It was a year, Eckley said, that also prompted a shift in his own worldview — “not by the particular events of 1968, tragic though they were, but by the gradual realization that the accumulation of events was unraveling the consensus in Western society.” He traced this unraveling back to World War I and the subsequent rise of Hitler’s Germany, which Eckley called “the epicenter of the disintegration of Western society.”
One result of “the emphasis on individualism and the increasingly secular and pluralistic drift of Western society is the paucity of our spiritual lives,” Eckley said. “Whether we emphasize loneliness, meaninglessness, a feeling of powerlessness, cultural or self-estrangement, the notion has found widespread response in the present generation.”
Yet he sighted a beacon of hope within the educational framework of universities like Illinois Wesleyan. Indeed, he listed “hope” among the vital elements that an effective educational philosophy can yield. The link between hope and action toward just, positive change was knowledge — especially the kind of broad knowledge conveyed through the liberal arts. It is a hope partly born from Santayana’s warning, quoted in Eckley’s speech: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Another source of hope could be found in embracing “our own resilience, individually and collectively, informally and voluntarily, to reverse trends and find solutions to vexing problems,” he said. Eckley urged students to take stock in values derived from family and community and to seek wisdom in “ethical tenets of the world’s great religions, which have survived the empirical testing of centuries.”
During the Evelyn Chapel memorial service, these themes were echoed in a selection of Bible verses, poems and hymns to which Eckley often turned for inspiration. His grandson William read from “East Coker,” the second from T.S. Eliot’s poetry series “Four Quartets.” The poem reflects on the transience of life (“Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires, / Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth”). Yet the poet reveals a deeper purpose to the cycle of life and death in his concluding lines:
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise.
In my end is my beginning.
The service concluded with “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” Also known as “The Navy Hymn,” it harkened back to Eckley’s World War II service in the North Atlantic, and his enduring love of the sea. Its last verse is a reference to Psalm 107, a hymn of praise to God, who has delivered his people from distress and gathered all who were lost:
O Trinity of love and power!
All travelers guard in danger’s hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them wheresoe’er they go;
Thus evermore shall rise to thee,
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.
Sung by family, friends and colleagues inside the chapel built under Eckley’s watchful presidential eye, the hymn served as both a benediction and a pledge of endurance. It also evokes principles and purpose built into Wesleyan’s historic framework — values articulated and acted upon during his years of service and beyond.
One way to answer the question, “Who was Robert Eckley?” is to simply gaze upon the modern, successful university that was transformed by his firm yet gentle — and unwaveringly hopeful — vision.