To the Williams community,
Williams College has lost a giant of our history. It is with a heavy heart that I write to say that John Wesley Chandler, our 12th president, who served from 1973 to 1985, passed away peacefully early this morning, just a few weeks shy of his 99th birthday.
A quiet and strong leader and a lifelong advocate for the liberal arts, John’s presidency at Williams was one of great distinction. After serving as provost under his predecessor and friend, President John Sawyer, Class of 1939, during the abolition of fraternities and preparations for coeducation, John became president in 1973. Over the next 12 years he helped set us on the path that we continue to chart today. John’s presidential accomplishments include overseeing the final stages of our move to coeducation and expanding the size of the college. He introduced significant new programs in sociology, theater and computer science, and launched what are now the Williams-Mystic and Williams-Exeter programs. A champion for the arts, he brought us Bernhard Music Center and expanded both the Adams Memorial Theatre and Williams College Museum of Art. He guided creation of the college’s Alumni Center and Sawyer Library, and oversaw plans for the athletic center that was later named in his honor.
None of these accomplishments was foreordained. John’s life story—captured in his memoir, “A Special Kind of Boarding School: Growing Up In An Orphanage During The Great Depression”—is a tale of resilience and overcoming long odds. He was born in Mars Hill, N.C., in 1923, to parents who were subsistence farmers and raised burley tobacco. His father was 52 when John was born, his mother 25. The farm failed after the tobacco market collapsed during the Great Depression and his father soon passed away from pneumonia. John and his brothers were left in the care of his mother, who struggled with mental illness. She found homes for herself and the boys with a series of relatives. However, as the Depression ground on, it took a toll on the family, and they reluctantly placed the three boys in a local Baptist orphanage called Mills Home.
In the hard years of the 1930s, not all orphanages offered loving homes or stimulating education. And not all children thrived. Happily, Mills Home was a happy place for John and his brothers. As he wrote in his memoir, “We who lived at Mills Home were surrounded by cultural and educational influences and opportunities that were far superior to what we had known earlier or had any prospect of experiencing. It was not surprising that the college-going rate among us was much higher than that of the general population at that time.” In later years, John often talked about the importance of this early experience to his values and views on leadership, especially his commitment to the transformative power of education.
From Mills Home, John went on to spend much of his adult life on college and university campuses. After graduating from Wake Forest College, he earned his Ph.D. in the philosophy of religion from Duke University, then taught philosophy at Wake Forest before joining the Williams faculty in 1955. As a professor (later the Cluett Professor of Religion) and department chair, he established our major in religion. In addition to teaching, he served as acting provost and the college’s very first dean of the faculty under President Sawyer. John left Williams in January 1968 to become president of Hamilton College, where he remained for five years.
Even during this absence, however, Williams remained a central part of John’s life: He served as a trustee before returning as president in 1973. In an interview with the Alumni Review, he said, “I have felt at home at Williams from the time I arrived…. I have learned a tremendous amount from my faculty colleagues and from the students whom I taught over a period of 13 years. In many ways I feel that I grew up at Williams.”
Charles Dew ’58, now the Ephraim Williams Professor of American History, Emeritus, joined the Williams faculty during John’s presidency. “John had the personality, values, academic and intellectual chops that a great president needs at a place like this,” Charles says. “He was kind, he was smart, he was attentive to the needs of faculty, staff, students and the broader Williams community. I think of him in the pantheon of great Williams presidents.”
Speaking personally, I shared this admiration for John, including his profound commitment to the liberal arts and his love for Williams, both which permeated the conversations we had after I arrived at the college.
John also had a lovely, gentle sense of humor. Charles Dew recalls John being pleasantly amused by the naming of the gym in his honor, since he imagined himself the least athletic president in Williams history. “But John loved the idea of that,” Charles said. “It was characteristic that he could see the humor in it.”
After serving as Williams president, John again set out on a new adventure, becoming president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities. There he devoted himself to integrating the liberal arts into engineering curricula and improving the experience nationwide of female students, faculty and staff nationally. One of his proudest achievements was supporting Nannerl O. Keohane’s rise to become the first woman president of Duke University in 1993.
Nan recalls, “John was chair of Duke’s presidential search committee and visited me in Wellesley to discuss the search. I’ll always recall that conversation, on a little sofa in a sunny window overlooking the rose garden. I was dubious that a female liberal arts college president would be chosen to head a major research university. But John was very persuasive; he convinced me that my accomplishments would be taken seriously and that my Southern background would be a plus. His championship for my cause made all the difference in persuading the Trustees of Duke to make this appointment. John then continued to chair the Board during my first year as president. He was wise, witty, gently critical and deeply supportive. Like many other people, I can say with assurance that my life was shaped by his thoughtful guidance and unwavering support at a pivotal moment.”
Over his career, John was recognized with an impressive 16 honorary degrees, evidence of his continuing influence on higher education through his work consulting with and serving on boards of trustees—including at Duke University, where he was board chair—on issues of governance and presidential leadership. A Fulbright Scholar, he lectured around the world on the topic of American higher education through the United States Information Agency. His passion for education and leadership also inspired his books, including The Rise and Fall of Fraternities at Williams College: Clashing Cultures and the Transformation of a Liberal Arts College and On Effective Leadership: Across Domains, Cultures, and Eras, co-authored with G. Donald Chandler III.
“Self-education began very early for John—and it worked,” says Williams Trustee Martha Williamson ’77, a longtime friend. “There was always something that he didn’t know but wanted to find out. John showed us that the journey never ends—that you are never too old to keep asking questions.”
In 2001, John and his wife, Florence Gordon Chandler, moved back to Williamstown. The Williams trustees named him the Class of 1948 Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership Studies. In that capacity he taught courses in the Leadership Studies Program for two years and then continued to offer Winter Study courses for several additional years. Well into his nineties, John continued to write and publish articles as well as meet with friends for intellectual discussions.
President Chandler is predeceased by Florence Gordon Chandler, his wife of 60 years, and by his brothers Baxter Chandler and Calvin Chandler. He leaves his wife Joyce Lazarus of Williamstown; his brother Dr. E. Ted Chandler of Hickory, N.C.; his four children, Alison Chandler of the Bronx, N.Y.; John W. Chandler Jr. of Longmeadow, Mass.; Patricia Chandler Finn of Deering, N.H.; and Jennifer Chandler of Haydenville, Mass.; his five grandchildren, Lydia Finn Jopp, Emily Finn, Christopher Chandler, Owen Marks and Thomas Chandler; and his great-grandchild, Phoebe Jopp.
A memorial service to celebrate the life of John W. Chandler will be held in the Thompson Memorial Chapel on the Williams College campus at a date and time to be announced. Private burial will be in the Williams College Cemetery. There are no calling hours. Memorial contributions may be made to Williams College via the Office of College Relations.
Our thoughts are with John’s family, colleagues and friends.
Maud S. Mandel
Professor of History; Program in Jewish Studies