Lyndon Johnson called him "Bull," an apt nickname for Wilson Homer Elkins. He picked up the moniker as a star athlete at the University of Texas, and when he came to College Park in 1954 to succeed Harry Clifton "Curley" Byrd as president of the University of Maryland, Dr. Elkins needed a bull's strength and single-mindedness.
The university's academic accreditation was threatened because Byrd had emphasized athletics over scholarship. Restoring a healthy balance was one of football star Elkins' first moves. It infuriated the state's sports establishment. But a year later, accreditation was reaffirmed, and construction began on a new library.
Wilson Elkins guided the university for 24 years. He was not wildly popular with students, who demonstrated, occupied campus buildings, blocked U.S. 1 in College Park several times and hurled epithets at him during Board of Regents meetings. (Dr. Elkins was to say later that the decision to close the university during the riots of 1970 was one of the toughest of his presidency.) He never gave in to students, never pampered and seldom glad-handed, even in Annapolis, where legislators who were university alumni longed for the glory days of Curley Byrd.
During Dr. Elkins' remarkable tenure, enrollment and budgets soared, schools of social work and architecture were founded, the university was decentralized, research activities multiplied and the Baltimore County campus sprouted in a Catonsville corn field. "It was not the location I would have chosen if money had not been a factor," Dr. Elkins was to say in his memoirs. But the UM president, who had been a Rhodes Scholar as well as a quarterback, understood the relationship of money and politics. That was one of the reasons for Wilson Elkins' professional longevity; he outlasted all of his fellow presidents, handing out more than 150,000 degrees over 40 consecutive years as a college president in Texas and Maryland.
In retrospect, Maryland needed a bull in 1954 -- and in 1970. All Wilson Elkins did for the state was drag its flagship university into the 20th century. In the wake of his death at 85 this week, Marylanders can be thankful.