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William P. Tolley Papers

An inventory of his papers at the Syracuse University Archives

Finding aid created by: Dane Flansburgh
Date: 2018


William Pearson Tolley (1900-1996) was the seventh Chancellor of Syracuse University. He served as Chancellor for twenty-seven years (1942-1969) and under his tenure enrollments and endowments profoundly grew, several buildings were constructed, and the University was transformed into one of the nation's largest private universities.

Portrait of William P. Tolley, 1942

Tolley grew up in Binghamton, New York. He graduated from Binghamton High School as valedictorian of his class in 1918 and went on to attend Syracuse University. As a Syracuse University student he was heavily involved in extracurricular activities, including Glee Club, Boar's Head Dramatic Society, University Choir, Tanus Literary Society, Debate Union, and Senior Council. In his freshmen year Tolley joined the Student Army Training Corp (SATC) and served briefly under the federal military training program, until he was diagnosed with influenza, which nearly killed him. In order to support himself through college, Tolley worked part-time as a shoe salesmen. The shoe store fired him his junior year, though, when they found out that he was reselling shoes to Syracuse University students that he had ordered from his father (who was also a shoe salesmen). Desperate for money, Tolley formed the "Synful Syncopators" jazz band and played as saxophonist.

Upon graduating from Syracuse University in 1922, Tolley entered the Drew Theological Seminary in New Jersey and took classes at Columbia University and Syracuse University. In 1924, he earned a Master of Philosophy degree from Syracuse University and was ordained a deacon. In 1925, he married Ruth Canfield, with whom he had three children. The same year, he obtained a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Drew University and went on to earn his master's degree and his doctorate from Columbia in 1927 and 1930.

While serving as the first dean of Brothers College at Drew University, thirty-year-old Tolley was elected president of Allegheny College and became the youngest college president in the country. It was at Allegheny College that he developed a reputation for revitalizing colleges in financial trouble. He lifted the college out of debt, secured a large endowment, and made changes to the curriculum. For this reason, the Syracuse University Board of Trustees' nominating committee saw Tolley as an excellent candidate to replace Chancellor William Pratt Graham, who was stepping down in the midst of World War II and the resulting decline in college enrollment.

On November 14, 1942, Tolley was inaugurated the seventh Chancellor of Syracuse University, the second alumnus to serve in that capacity. Much of the first decade of Tolley's tenure was dedicated to adapting the University to meet the needs of students in the military and returning veterans. During World War II, Tolley established cadet training programs for men and women that addressed the war effort. After the war, Tolley welcomed returning veterans. With the assistance of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, or the GI Bill, enrollment at Syracuse University quickly accelerated. With expanded enrollment, Tolley worked to meet the demands of a larger student body. Under his leadership the University expanded academic offerings, bought additional real estate, and constructed several buildings. In order to pay for the expansion, he became an aggressive fundraiser. By the end of his tenure as Chancellor in 1969, the University was one of the largest private universities in America. Tolley retired in 1969 after nearly thirty years of service to Syracuse University.

After retirement, Tolley continued to remain active. He used his experience as an academic executive to transition into business leadership. In 1970, he became the chairman of the board for Mohawk Airlines. In 1971, when the airline struggled to make a profit, Tolley assumed the role of chief executive officer. The position was short-lived, however; the airline merged with Allegheny Airlines shortly after he took leadership. Nevertheless, Tolley served on the board of directors for several other companies, including New York Telephone Company, Key Bank of Central New York, and the Excelsior Insurance Company.

When Tolley was not busy with business activities, he focused his time on more scholarly and leisurely pursuits. Tolley rededicated himself to studying ancient philosophy and religion, two disciplines he majored in as an undergraduate. In 1977, he published The Adventure of Learning, a book of essays about continuing education through all stages of life. Tolley also devoted himself to writing his memoir, and worked with a researcher to flesh out his life's work. In 1989, he published his memoir, At the Fountain of Youth: Memories of a College President. Tolley was an avid rare book collector, in particular the first printings of Rudyard Kipling, and devoted more time in collecting later in life. In order to stay active, he played tennis daily, and he took regular fishing trips with friends, a hobby of his since young adulthood.

Note: Much of the material in this biographical note were drawn from Syracuse University: The Tolley Years, 1942-1969 by John Robert Greene (1996), and At the Fountain of Youth: Memories of a College President by William Pearson Tolley (1989).

Scope and Content Note

The William P. Tolley Papers are the personal papers of the seventh Chancellor of Syracuse University. Materials include correspondence, financial documents, photographs, manuscript drafts, articles, essays, and sermons. The collection has been separated into six series.

The Academic materials series documents Tolley's life as a college student and teacher. The series is separated into two subseries. The first subseries, Student work and materials, comprises college essays, notes, and course materials. The second subseries, Teaching materials, comprises documents related to Tolley's time as a college professor and includes course notes, lecture notes, and other course materials.

The Biographical materials series contains resumes, interviews, memoir drafts, and genealogical materials. The bulk of the series are materials for Tolley's memoir, At the Fountain of Youth: Memories of a College President (1989), including drafts, chapter outlines, and interviews. Interviews, conducted by Alexandra Eyle, are recorded on audiotape and transcribed onto floppy disks. Eyle's notes of her interviews with Tolley are also included in this series.

The Correspondence-subject files series includes Tolley's personal correspondence as well as materials relating to his Rudyard Kipling collection, rare books collection, finances, and special events he attended. Highlights of this series are correspondence with Gordon Hoople relaying Tolley's appointment as Syracuse University Chancellor; a letter from Syracuse University Chancellor Charles Flint, dated December 1925, regarding a potential job for Tolley; and a rare letter from Tolley to his wife, Ruth. Also significant is a letter from Warren Tsuneishi, a Japanese American student who attended Syracuse University during World War II. In 1943, Tolley seized the opportunity to quietly admit to Syracuse University roughly one hundred Japanese Americans from internment camps. In the letter, dated July 4, 1983, Tsuneishi wrote, "Your act of moral courage in the face of opposition immeasurably strengthened my own belief and confidence in American democracy. I knew then that despite temporary setbacks under extreme provocation in wartime, the champions of constitutional rights, equity, and fair play for all Americans would in the end prevail."

The Memorabilia series contains Tolley's awards, academic robes, reunion garb, plaques, scrapbooks, and photographs. Awards and recognition items include his honorable discharge from the United States Army (Tolley served in the Student Army Training Corps in 1918), several honorary degrees, his college degrees, and his high school diploma. Items also worth mentioning are a button-studded bathrobe that Tolley wore to Syracuse University reunions and pep rally events; photographs of a young Tolley as well as his wife and their children; and Tolley's high school yearbook.

The Printed materials series comprises publications that Tolley collected. Most of the material regard the schools he was involved with, namely Syracuse University, Drew University, and Allegheny College.

Finally, the Writings series is the largest in the collection. His writings are separated into four subseries: Addresses and speeches; The Adventure of Learning; Articles and essays; Dedications, eulogies, and tributes; and Sermons. A majority of these writings are dated between 1925 and 1942, and written either as a minister, dean of Brothers College, or president of Allegheny College. The series comprises mainly unpublished drafts of his addresses, speeches, articles, essays, dedications, eulogies, and sermons. It also includes drafts of his book, The Adventure of Learning (1977). His addresses and speeches often discussed current events, including the Great Depression, the New Deal, rise of Hitler, prohibition (Tolley was pro-prohibition), World War II, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. His articles and essays, on the other hand, confront trends in higher education. Note that his memoir drafts can be found in the Biographical materials series.


Access Restrictions:

Please note that the collection is housed off-site, and advance notice is required to allow time to have the materials brought to the Reading Room on campus.

Please also note that an oversize box of honorary degrees are restricted due to their fragile condition.

Access to recordings and electronic media requires advance notice to produce a use copy.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from the Syracuse University Archives and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Related Material

The University Archives originally held one collection for Tolley. In 2018, Tolley's chancellor records were separated from his personal papers and are now the Chancellor William P. Tolley Records.

Records relating to Brothers College at Drew University while Tolley was dean at the institution were removed from his papers and transferred to the Drew University Special Collections and University Archives. Likewise, records relating to Allegheny College were also removed and transferred to the Merrick Archives at Allegheny College.

The Archives holds an extensive clipping file on Tolley as well as several portrait files. The Photograph Collection also features items related to Chancellor Tolley.

Selected Search Terms


Kipling, Rudyard, 1865-1936.
Lubin, Joseph.
Mestrovic, Ivan, 1883-1962.
Poister, Arthur, 1898-1980.
Tipple, Ezra Squier, 1861-1936.
Tolley, William Pearson, 1900-1996.
Tsuneishi, Warren M. (Warren Michio), 1921-2011.
Allegheny College (Meadville, PA)
Drew University. Theological School.
Mohawk Airlines.
Syracuse University -- History.


College campuses.
College students.
Depressions -- 1929.
Japanese Americans -- Evacuation and relocation, 1942-1945.
New Deal, 1933-1939.
Religion and politics.
World War, 1914-1918.
World War, 1939-1945.
College administrators.
Higher education.

Types of Material

Academic addresses (documents)
Academic costume.
Commemorative plaques.
Degrees (academic)
Doctoral dissertations.
Eulogies (documents)
Film clips.
Floppy disks.
Manuscripts for publication.
Speeches (documents)

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

William P. Tolley Papers,
University Archives,
Special Collections Research Center
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

The materials included in the William P. Tolley Papers were transferred and donated to the University Archives in a series of acquisitions between 1959 and 2004. Most of the materials were placed in the Archives in the period following Tolley's retirement. In 1993, materials from the Tolley Room (now the Plastics Pioneers Reading Room) at Syracuse University's Bird Library were placed in the Archives. Upon Tolley's death in 1996, his daughter Katryn Tolley Fritz donated additional materials from his office.

Processing Information

This collection was fully processed in 2018 by Dane Flansburgh. Materials were placed in acid-free folders and boxes. Photocopies were made of original newspaper clippings, which were then discarded. Oversize items were placed in oversize boxes.


The collection is arranged alphabetically.

Table of Contents

Academic materials

Biographical material

Correspondence-subject files


Printed materials