William Danforth was a man who embraced change, yet held fast to certain values. Both attributes came into play in 1945 when he gave ASU seed money to help build a meditation chapel on its Tempe campus. Without Danforth's willingness to take a risk, there would have been no Ralston Purina Co.—and no money for chapels. And without his devotion to his church and his religious life, he would have seen no need for a campus chapel.
Danforth, who was born in 1870, graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 1892. He found a job in the brick business, which he soon discovered was a seasonal occupation. So, he decided to find something that would provide him with a steady income. Observing that "animals must eat the year round," he and two partners began a business of mixing formula feeds for farm animals.
Later, because of Danforth's interest in healthful foods, the company branched into whole-wheat cereal, then into dog and cat food, and later into soy protein, dry cell battery products and cat-box filler. As Ralston Purina prospered, Danforth and his wife, Adda, established the Danforth Foundation in 1927 as a national educational philanthropy.
Part of the foundation's mission was to help build meditation chapels on college campuses and in hospitals. Before Danforth died in 1955 at the age of 85, he had constructed 24 chapels, including ASU's.
Danforth was familiar with ASU – then Arizona State College at Tempe—because he often spent winters at the San Marcos Hotel in Chandler, and he had a friend on the faculty—English professor Ronald Bridges, who also was a Congregational layman. Noting that ASU did not have a chapel, Danforth offered $5,000 to help build one, then challenged the college to raise the rest of the money. For two years, the students held dinners, carnivals and other events to help with the estimated $15,000 cost of the building, according to Dean Smith, author of "Men to Match our Buildings: A History of Arizona State University Told in the Biographies of Its Builders." The goal was soon met, and Danforth Chapel was dedicated on Feb. 26, 1948. That Danforth would offer seed money for the chapel, then challenge – or dare – the students to raise the rest, is not surprising, given his philosophy. A teacher dared young Danforth, as a sickly farm boy in Missouri, to become "the healthiest boy in the class," according to Ralston Purina's biography. He accepted the challenge, and built his life on the proposition that to live is to dare.
But his life was grounded on sure foundations.
The year before he died, he said, "Some folks are continually making changes," he said. "I flatter myself that I like new ventures and new experiences. But when it comes to fundamentals I believe in finding the right foundations and building on them. I'm a poor changer. For instance, here are some of the fundamentals I have never changed: I have been a church member for over 60 years, married to one wife for over 60 years, a lodge member for over 60 years, and a Purina man for over 60 years."