Story by TIM OBERMILLER
As a college student at Bradley University in his hometown of Peoria, Ill., Robert Eckley showed unusual drive. Packing four years of college work into three years, he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1942. The next year, he added an M.B.A. degree from the University of Minnesota. After military service, he finished both his master’s and doctorate degrees in economics at Harvard University in three years.
Eckley kept up this brisk pace his entire life. Although his most prominent public role was his 18-year tenure as Illinois Wesleyan’s chief executive, Eckley was considered one of the nation’s top business economists. A respected Abraham Lincoln scholar, he was also a church and civic leader whose contributions spanned decades.
In World War II, as an assistant U.S. Coast Guard engineer aboard the Navy vessel USS Davenport, Eckley obtained the rank of lieutenant while serving in the North Atlantic on convoy escort and weather-patrol duty. When the ship briefly docked in Houston in 1944, he met Nell Mann at church. They wed in 1947, a year after Eckley enrolled at Harvard, where he was also a teaching fellow in economics.
In 1949, Eckley joined the economics faculty at the University of Kansas, where his students included a future Nobel laureate in economics, Vernon Smith. From 1951 to 1954, he served as chief industrial economist at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City before accepting an offer from Caterpillar Tractor Co. to become the industrial giant’s first
In his 14 years at Caterpillar’s Peoria headquarters, Eckley oversaw economic research, pricing, production scheduling and product control. He also established Caterpillar’s business economics department and developed successful strategies to create long-term employment stability. He often traveled overseas — including the Far East, Australia, and Latin America — to promote the company’s access to foreign markets vital to its continuing growth.
A lead article by Eckley published by the Harvard Business Review in 1966 solidified his reputation as a top business economist, but he was better known in Illinois Wesleyan circles for his strong United Methodist connections. A University trustee who knew Eckley through his work as lay leader of Peoria’s First Methodist Church suggested he apply for the job to replace Lloyd Bertholf, who retired as IWU president in 1968.
It took Eckley time to warm up to the idea — he was happy at Caterpillar and felt he still had much to accomplish there — but the challenge proved irresistible. In his acceptance remarks as Wesleyan’s new president, Eckley admitted the decision to take the job had not been easy for his family, which had grown to include four children. However, in the end, it was a decision “enthusiastically reached by all members of the family — not just me. You have six acceptances, not one.”
Before he departed for Bloomington, a reporter bluntly asked Eckley why he was trading the distinction of being the top economist for a major U.S. company for presiding over a relatively small university. Eckley answered that Illinois needed a liberal arts college of the quality of Carleton in Minnesota or Oberlin in Ohio, and Illinois Wesleyan was poised to be that school.
“Secondly,” he said, “an institution of this size is responsive to leadership. There is an opportunity to be personally effective in a small university not found in a large multiuniversity or corporation. … Thirdly, there is a need for both responsible management as well as innovative and new ideas. I hope to be helped by my background in business and economics in this sense.”
A decade into Eckley’s administration, results from his combination of careful management and bold innovation were clearly visible. To mark the Eckley presidency’s 10th anniversary, John Cribbet ’40 — then dean of the University of Illinois Law School and future U of I chancellor— spoke at the 1978 President’s Convocation. Eckley, a “unique blend of businessman and educator,” had “given the university a sound fiscal base, provided a stimulus for substantial, yet realistic, campus development plans and furnished leadership for a sound program of instruction and research,” said Cribbet.
While overseeing every aspect of Wesleyan’s development, Eckley never lost sight of his business and economic roots. As president and after his retirement, Eckley taught courses in international business and portfolio management to IWU students over three decades. Interviewed about his 1991 book Global Competition in Capital Goods: An American Perspective, Eckley said it was his teaching at Wesleyan that “keeps me up to speed regarding changes in world economic practices.”
After retiring as president in 1986, Eckley made clear he had no intention of slowing down, starting a one-year appointment as a visiting fellow in economics at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He remained in demand as a consultant in both K-12 and higher education. His vast experience was also sought in his role as a director of State Farm Insurance Cos. for 27 years and as a board member of several other companies and nonprofit groups. In addition, Eckley provided leadership as president of the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church and first vice president of the Illinois Council of Churches.
Eckley also focused special attention on America’s 16th president. He served as president of the Springfield, Ill.-based Abraham Lincoln Association (ALA), a national organization devoted to scholarship and public education concerning Lincoln’s life and times. In 2007, Eckley was presented ALA’s Logan Hay Medal. Given infrequently, it is the association’s highest honor.
As a Lincoln scholar, Eckley helped renewed awareness of lawyers and judges associated with Lincoln’s years as an attorney practicing on Illinois’ Eighth Circuit Court — men who later became key players in securing his presidential nomination and election. Among them was David Davis, the famed Eighth Circuit judge who later served on the Supreme Court, and Leonard Swett, a young Bloomington lawyer.
Of particular interest to Eckley was Swett, who shared an enduring friendship with Lincoln that began while the two practiced in the Illinois court circuit in the 1850s. Swett later counseled Lincoln on the formation of his cabinet and remained a close, though unofficial, advisor during his presidency.
During the Evelyn Chapel service, Jane Lennon quoted from an 1887 speech by Swett that she said captured “an unusual and unique characteristic existing in both my father and in Abraham Lincoln.”
A “very remarkable and useful trait” of Lincoln’s character “was that of mental equipoise,” said Swett. Never diverted from the path he had marked out, Lincoln prosecuted the war “simply from a sense of duty, and not from belief in its success, yet he kept right on and was neither depressed by disasters nor elated by success. … He was a monument of strength … and the great men at Washington all learned to gain renewed courage from his calmness and to lean upon his own great arm for support.”
As to which among Eckley’s myriad professional and scholarly pursuits was his favorite, that question was firmly answered by his wife Nell in her 2009 interview with then-student Walter Farris ’10 that is now posted in the oral histories section of IWU’s Digital Commons website. “We feel it was a great privilege to have been part of IWU,” said Nell, later adding, “He has always said that this was his favorite job.”
In the last years of his life, even while coping with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), Eckley continued to attend Wesleyan events, including a trustees meeting in February where he and Nell received a standing ovation after the announcement of their endowment of the Robert S. Eckley Lecture in Economics and the Robert S. and Nell B. Eckley Summer Scholars and Artists Program.
Also during his later years— with assistance from his daughter Jane and other family members — Eckley completed a 336-page biography of Leonard Swett. To be published in October by Southern Illinois University Press, Lincoln’s Forgotten Friend, Leonard Swett serves as a fitting final statement from a man who, like Lincoln, never wavered in his calm yet avid pursuit of the path he had marked out, wherever it might lead.