Mr. Danforth, who died Monday in Washington, D.C., of congestive heart failure, devoted more than 40 years to Washington University in St. Louis, where he served as president from 1965 to 1989.
His presidency at Washington University included more than a few breaks from the straight-and-narrow president’s job, including a stint as a founding board member of the National Endowment for the Humanities and more than a decade on the boards of various humanitarian and civic groups, including UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders and Aids Action.
Mr. Danforth, who was born in Chittenango, N.Y., had a dual resume, drawn from his time in the Navy Reserve in World War II and a stint as a college president. The Navy is where he took a series of law school classes — class notes that are sometimes associated with his namesake law firm, the William K. Danforth Oratory, also of St. Louis.
Mr. Danforth was elevated to the high offices of three other presidents. As president of the College of New Jersey from 1946 to 1952, he signed an education law that required equal opportunity in the schools of color, and the initiative launched a civil rights campaign for minority students and faculty. After the civil rights movement, he served as a member of the civil rights commission created by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
From 1960 to 1965, he held his first high office, as president of the University of Missouri. During that period, he earned several honours, including the E. Milton Wright Award for Distinguished Service to Higher Education in 1963.
His second office came in 1964, when he was selected to serve as the first president of the National Endowment for the Humanities. After leaving the job in 1973, he served on numerous national committees and chaired the National Endowment’s Mental Health Advisory Committee.
In his early months in office at Washington University, he changed his title to honorary president. As a result, he became the university’s highest honorary title. As a tribute to his influence, he built a gallery on the fourth floor of the school’s Library building dedicated to his work.
He is survived by his wife, Louise J. Danforth; three sons, David S. Danforth and Nathaniel E. Danforth, both of St. Louis, and Joshua L. Danforth of St. Louis; a daughter, Lauren Milliken Dougherty, of St. Louis; and eight grandchildren.