St. Lawrence was the brainchild of Thomas Jefferson Sawyer, an influential Universalist minister from Massachusetts. He was the first leader of the institution and, as the chief fund-raiser and a principal donor, was named president of the corporation, a title that was later changed to chairman (now chair) of the Board of Trustees. There are those who say, however, that John Stebbins Lee (1859-1868) was the first president of St. Lawrence; his title was in fact Principal of the Preparatory Department, an essentially “remedial” program that gave students the academic tools to go on to Theological School study. His daughter, Florence Lee Whitman, is said to haunt 1 Lincoln Street in Canton.
Richmond Fisk (1868-72) initiated Tree Holiday, a day off from classes for students and faculty in an effort to plant trees on the barren, windy hill upon which the single-building college sat. This continues as Moving-Up Day, a late-April ceremony recognizing student and community leadership and achievement.
Absalom Graves Gaines (1872-88) taught numerous courses during which he expounded against evolution. He took his dog to class, where, Gaines said, “He behaves like a well-bred gentleman.” President Gaines is credited, in the formative years of the college, with making it "efficient, and worthy, to win for it loyal support, to establish its standards, to build it up for a sound tradition."
Alpheus Baker Hervey (1888-94) reportedly spent much of his time peering through a telescope he had mounted in Herring Library, although he did establish the University’s first endowment. Under his tenure, there was a significant advance in the numbers of students from outside the North Country, including recruit Owen D. Young '94, who would become chairman of the Board of Trustees and leader in business and government.
John Clarence Lee (1896-1899) was the son of John Stebbins Lee. He introduced such innovations, radical for their time, as elective courses and honors seminars. He also persuaded the students to form a football team, but thanks to lack of competition it did not catch on. President Lee also built the college's first gymnasium.
Contrarians might argue that the first president of the true St. Lawrence University was Almon Gunnison (1899-1914), for he was the first to preside over both the Theological School and the College of Letters and Sciences after their respective administrations merged at the start of his tenure. His was a tenure of much vitality, with new buildings erected, much travel across the country to visit alumni, strong fundraising, and the integration (until, the 1960s) of Brooklyn Law School as an asset of the University.
Frank Gallup (1916-18) was the first president to use a telephone at work, but it wasn’t in his office; it belonged to the dean, and it was on a party line.
Richard Eddy Sykes (1919-35) grew up on a farm near Canton, and as his first job at St. Lawrence tended the woodstoves in Richardson Hall when he was 9 years old. He graduated from St. Lawrence in 1883. President Sykes, in partnership with Chairman of the Board Owen D. Young, led a transformational period of the University. When he assumed the presidency, college property was worth $500,000; at his retirement, it had grown to $2.5 million.
Laurens Hickok Seelye (1935-40) introduced an innovative, interdisciplinary freshman seminar focused on world issues and communication skills. It was the ancestor of today’s First-Year Program.
Millard H. Jencks (1940-44), a 1905 St. Lawrence graduate, presided over a Navy training program on campus; many participants returned after World War II as students on the GI Bill.
Eugene G. Bewkes (1945-63), St. Lawrence’s longest-serving president, oversaw the period of post-World War II expansion, not only in enrollment but also in the physical plant and in the curriculum. The co-author of a widely-used freshman textbook on Western philosophy, he was also actively involved in numerous community and regional affairs such as the development of the
St. Lawrence Seaway. His name is honored in one of the University’s science buildings.
Foster S. Brown (1963-69), a 1930 graduate of St. Lawrence, built stronger ties between “town” and “gown.” Brown Hall, currently (2008) housing the geology department, memorializes him.
Frank P. Piskor (1969-81) further strengthened the relationship between the University and the local community while carefully modulating tensions between the two brought on by such controversies as the Vietnam War. A scholar of wide interests, he was a political scientist who loved literature and was a personal friend of Robert Frost, whose wife was a St. Lawrence alumna. He and his wife, Anne, remained in Canton upon his retirement, becoming involved in a host of civic projects and philanthropies.
W. Lawrence “Lawry” Gulick (1981-1987) oversaw a flowering of the arts on campus, bringing to St. Lawrence such groups as the esteemed Alexander String Quartet for annual residencies. He was as comfortable narrating Copeland’s Lincoln Portrait in a tuxedo with the Albany Symphony Orchestra in the theatre that would later be named in his and his wife’s honor as he was wearing lederhosen and playing his accordion in Canton’s senior citizens’ home.
Patti McGill Peterson (1987-1996), the first woman to lead St. Lawrence, was a strong advocate of international education, environmental responsibility, and the application of technology in teaching. Study programs in Costa Rica and India were added during her tenure, and Launders Science Library and Computing Center was constructed. Because of her leadership in moving the university toward greater substance and commitment to pluralism, international education and curricular innovation, St. Lawrence named the Center for International and Intercultural Studies in President Peterson's honor.
Daniel F. Sullivan began his duties on July 1, 1996 and retired June 30, 2009.
Under President Sullivan’s leadership, St. Lawrence launched several major initiatives in academic programs, including expansion of the faculty and the addition of new major fields and international study programs; in regional economic development and community relations; and in facilities renovation, expansion and construction.
New or renovated buildings on campus during his presidency included Newell Field House and Stafford Fitness Center; the Student Center; Brewer Bookstore; Steiner Student Residences (townhouses for qualified seniors); Dana Dining Center; Newell Center for Arts Technology; and Johnson Hall of Science, the largest single construction project in St. Lawrence’s history.
President Sullivan was a founding member of Project Kaleidoscope, a foundation-funded partnership of liberal arts college presidents, deans and faculty devoted to reform and improvement of undergraduate science and mathematics education. He was (2008) chair of the American Association of Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees.
A 1965 mathematics graduate of St. Lawrence, Sullivan played three sports and was elected to the academic honorary Phi Beta Kappa. He received the Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia University, where he was an Edward John Noble Fellow and a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow. While at Columbia, he also served as an instructor in sociology and research associate at Barnard College. Prior to returning to St. Lawrence, Sullivan was from 1986 to 1996 president of Allegheny College, in Meadville, Pa. From 1971 to 1986, he was at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., in a variety of positions, including assistant professor of sociology (1971-79), dean of academic development and planning (1979-81), and vice president for planning and development, secretary of the college and associate professor of sociology (1981-86).
President Sullivan furthered St. Lawrence’s ties with Canton by spearheading the Canton Initiative. The Board of Trustees committed $2 million to the Initiative, to co-invest and allow the University to act as a catalyst in the enhancement and beautification of the community.