CHESTERTOWN John Sampson Toll, an internationally renowned physicist and pioneering educator who culminated his career at Washington College, passed away Friday, July 15, of natural causes at Fox Hill Assisted Living in Bethesda. He was 87.
Toll is credited with redefining Washington College as one of the nation's premier institutions of higher education. During his presidency, he elevated Washington College's reputation, strengthened its academics with new programs and general education requirements, invested in the physical plant, and directed the single largest fundraising campaign ever conducted by any undergraduate college in Maryland.
Before Toll arrived in January 1995, the college had experienced three straight years of budget deficits. Toll balanced the budget every year he was in office and by the end of his tenure had more than quadrupled the endowment.
By his own account, his decade at Washington College (1995-2004) ranked among the most professionally productive and personally rewarding of a career in higher education that spanned six decades.
At 71, the former Chancellor of the University of Maryland System agreed to serve as acting president at Washington College through a transitional period. The Board of Visitors and Governors later asked him to stay on.
Toll proved adept at raising money. With an original campaign goal of $72 million, the Campaign for Washington's College surpassed its target by nearly 44 percent, bringing in total contributions of $103.4 million. Under his leadership, the college's endowment assets grew from just under $27 million to more than $112.4 million.
Jay Griswold, who served as chairman of the college's Board of Visitors and Governors during Toll's tenure, remembers him as "one of the greatest presidents of Washington College, and a great man. He was a totally dedicated, selfless individual who taught me a lot about how to treat people and how to raise money for Washington College."
Gerald L. Holm, chairman of The Hodson Trust, said Toll was "known for his intellect, strong leadership, gracious manner and commitment to education. He was, above all, a visionary."
Former Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes said Toll possessed a rare combination of intelligence and modesty. "He did a marvelous job as head of the University of Maryland and later at Washington College. He was greatly interested in students and was one of the finest human beings I ever met. He will be greatly missed I was proud to consider him a friend."
As president, Dr. Toll initiated the Washington Scholars program, a successful experiment in student recruitment. His academic initiatives included the addition of five new majors, a certification program in elementary education, a general education program featuring a set of innovative first-year seminars, and the introduction of fine arts, foreign language, and quantitative requirements.
Dr. Toll rejuvenated Washington College's physical campus as well, with the addition of several academic, recreational and residential facilities including Daly Hall, Goldstein Hall, the Schottland Tennis Center and, as a final tribute to him, the John S. Toll Science Center.
Two new academic centers the Center for Environment and Society and the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience were established on his watch, as were ambitious initiatives to internationalize the curriculum.
Joachim Scholz, professor of German emeritus, served as Provost and Dean of the College under the Toll administration. "Working for Dr. Toll was an ongoing and exciting learning experience. He was a man of infinite positive energy as a leader, and of infinite kindness as a person who refused to say a negative word about anybody."
About Dr. Toll, former U.S. Congressman Wayne Gilchrest said: "We worked on a lot of issues together, had dinner together and had great conversations about politics and science and the origin of the universe, quantum physics and quantum mechanics, and the only thing we had a slight disagreement on was climate change. But we loved to talk about it.
"He was a gentleman scientist, a thinker, I guess everything that Socrates and Plato would want in a human being. It's sad that he's gone."
Gilchrest said Dr. Toll succeeded in growing Washington College and in improving its finances by making the college an interesting place to go.
"The key, according to Dr. Toll, was to make this such an interesting place, such a fascinating place, that people are going to search it out," said Gilchrest. "So Dr. Toll integrated sciences with poetry and literature and politics."
Gilchrest first came to know Dr. Toll when the Aberdeen Proving Ground was considering incinerating its stockpile of mustard gas.
"I was working on that issue and he was concerned about that," said Gilchrest. "They ended up not incinerating the mustard gas. They had a huge stockpile over there and they ended up just boiling it in water and it rendered it neutral. That shows when you hook up with somebody that knows what they are talking about, and is a great physicist, which is what he was, you can solve those problems."
As a physicist Dr. Toll is known for his work in dispersion theory, elementary particle physics and quantum field theory. He began his career in higher education at Princeton University in the early 1950s where he helped establish Project Matterhorn, a top-secret Cold War effort to control thermonuclear reactions.
In 1953, at age 29, Dr. Toll became the head of the physics department at the University of Maryland. He was responsible for a major increase in size and quality of the department, and the current physics building in College Park is named for him.
In 1965, he became the first president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, now Stony Brook University, a position he held until 1978. Dr. Toll is highly regarded for his work at Stony Brook, a school he built from the ground up into one of the nation's best research institutions. In 1988, he returned to the University of Maryland and headed up the merger of Maryland's public universities.
Prior to his appointment at Washington College, Dr. Toll served as President of Universities Research Association, a consortium of universities with research programs in high-energy physics that is the primary contractor for the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. When Congress proposed to build the Superconducting Super Collider, URA was asked to expand its role to include oversight of that project. When budget pressures led Congress to cancel the project, Dr. Toll returned to the University of Maryland where he served as chancellor emeritus and professor of physics.
A University of Maryland colleague, Rita Colwell, remembered him as an extraordinary leader, mentor and friend. Colwell served as Toll's academic vice president at the University of Maryland System; together they developed various biotech centers and research programs for the system.
"He was a visionary who always liked challenges," Colwell said. "He never wanted to sit back and let things happen. He wanted to make sure there was always forward progress. He loved innovation, and was really fun to work with. He was just wonderful. I will miss him so much."Dr. Toll was a fellow of the American Physical Society, the New York Academy of Sciences and the Washington Academy of Sciences, and a member and former national chairman of the Federation of American Scientists. He served as chairman of three advisory panels for the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment, and as chairman of advisory panels in physics for the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Born Oct. 25, 1923 in Denver, Colo., Toll was the son of Oliver Wolcott and Marie D'Aubigne Sampson Toll. He earned his high school diploma at Putney School in Vermont and graduated with highest honors from Yale University in 1944. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he completed his post-graduate studies at Princeton University. He worked in the Theoretical Physics Division of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory and as associate director of Project Matterhorn before turning to teaching.
In addition to his wife of 40 years, Deborah Taintor Toll, he is survived by daughter, Dacia and her husband Jeffrey Klaus; daughter, Caroline and her husband Nick Vetter; and a grandson, John Blaese Toll Klaus.