John Sampson Toll, a gifted physicist and founding chancellor of the University System of Maryland, died Friday of heart failure at the Fox Hill assisted-living Facility in Bethesda. He was 87.
Dr. Toll, an indefatigable worker who led three institutions of higher learning in his six decades in education, was credited by friends and colleagues with bringing national recognition to each of the colleges and universities he had a hand in steering.
"Maryland higher education is now nationally known because of the foundation he and others laid decades ago," said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
William E. "Brit" Kirwan, the university system chancellor who worked with Dr. Toll off and on for 30 years, said Dr. Toll had a clear vision of what he wanted the Maryland system to become and he never stopped talking about it.
"He was very self-effacing. He was very warm and gracious but always deferential to others," Dr. Kirwan said.
He also was seen as a giant at Washington College in Chestertown, which he led for a decade. An accomplished fundraiser, he moved Washington College from an institution with three years of deficits to one that balanced its budget and tripled its endowment.
"He lifted the profile of the college dramatically. We raised the largest amount of money raised for a private college in Maryland with the exception of Johns Hopkins," said Jack S. Griswold, who was chairman of the board of trustees when Dr. Toll was recruited to become president.
He exceeded the fundraising goal by more than 40 percent, increasing the endowment from $27 million to $112.4 million, according to the college.
Born on Oct. 24, 1923, in Denver, Dr. Toll attended the Putney School in Vermont, then graduated from Yale University with a degree in physics. He served in the Navy during World War II and earned a doctorate in physics in 1952 from Princeton University, where he helped to establish what is now known as the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.
He joined the faculty at the University of Maryland in 1953 and became chairman of the physics and astronomy department, leading it to become one of the first nationally known academic departments there. Dr. Kirwan said Dr. Toll recruited outstanding faculty in physics.
"He did such a good job that he was recruited away to become a president" at State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1965, Dr. Kirwan said, adding that such a leap from department chair to president of a university was highly unusual.
Dr. Toll took Stony Brook from a small campus with 1,800 students to a state research university with 17,000. He recruited elite researchers and scholars, including Nobel Prize recipient C.N. Yang, to develop competitive academic departments, according to the university.
For his contributions to the university, Dr. Toll was listed among "100 Who Shaped the Century" by Newsday.
Dr. Toll returned to Maryland in 1978 and began a 10-year tenure as president of the five-campus University of Maryland, guiding its merger with the six campuses of the Maryland Board of Trustees of State Colleges and Universities to form the University System of Maryland.
In 1988, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed Dr. Toll to serve as the first chancellor of the new system.
"He just worked tirelessly toward the vision he espoused. His energy and enthusiasm were galvanizing. Faculty and staff and alumni got behind what he was trying to do. Because of his efforts, the university moved quite far along that path toward eminence," Dr. Kirwan said.
Dr. Toll stepped down as chancellor in 1989 and was named chancellor emeritus. He was appointed the next year to head the Universities Research Association.
In 1995, at age 71, Dr. Toll was recruited to become interim president of Washington College. He stayed 10 years, working late into the night to increase the academic offerings of the college and bring it financial security, said Mr. Griswold, who praised him for his sense of humor and good judgment. "He was totally selfless, a humble man, not impressed with himself in any way."
Dr. Hrabowski remembers being interviewed by Dr. Toll when he was chosen as president of UMBC. "He was clearly a visionary, someone who understood the importance of higher education to Maryland, for both the good of the citizens and the state's economy.
"He was indefatigable. The man kept going and going and going. He had this amazing vision of what was possible and was always pushing to make us better," Dr. Hrabowski said.
Dr. Kirwan said Dr. Toll and his wife entertained constantly, and because he had worked with "some of the intellectual giants" of his time, he often engaged them in discussions about how to build a better university. "His expectations and his demands could at times bother or irritate people, but you couldn't help but love and admire the man," Dr. Kirwan said.
After leaving Washington College in 2004, he went back to College Park and the physics faculty, working in a building that had been named after him in 2002.
"Johnny was unfailing polite, and always purposefully on the go, to build, to educate, to advance science. But he was essentially lovable because he was also very kind," said his wife of 40 years, Deborah Taintor Toll of Bethesda.
A memorial service is being planned for early autumn.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Caroline Toll of Minneapolis and Dacia Toll of New Haven, Conn.; a brother, Daniel R. Toll of Chicago; and one grandchild.