WILLIAM H. DANFORTH, FOUNDER
William H. Danforth was known to the American business world as a rugged pioneer of a new industry and the founder of the far-flung Ralston Purina Company, but the youth of America will long remember him as a special friend and counselor, a benefactor, and a magnificent example of the philosophy of life he sponsored.
From the time Mr. Danforth was a sickly farm boy in the Southeast Missouri swamp country and was "dared" by his school teacher to become "the healthiest boy in the class," he built his life on the proposition that to live is to dare. How well the "dare" idea served him was witnessed by his success in pioneering the commercial feed industry, and in being his Company's active Board Chairman and a tireless traveler and leader of youth until his death on Christmas Eve 1955 at the age of 85.
Ralston Purina Company, which Mr. Danforth founded, is the world's largest producer of dry dog and dry and soft-moist cat foods and a leading producer of cat box filler in the U.S. and Canada. At one time, the Company was one of the 100 largest corporations in America, and it currently ranks in the top 250. Mr. Danforth was also a director of several large corporations, but his work with and for American youth was the source of his great satisfaction.
Upon graduating from Washington University in St. Louis in 1892, young William Danforth found a job in the brick business. Since building material sales were seasonal, he was not satisfied. With characteristic directness he observed that "animals must eat the year round," so in 1894 he went into the business of mixing formula feeds for farm animals.
The year 1894 was doubly important to Mr. Danforth, for it was in that year that he was married to Miss Adda Bush. In the succeeding years two children were born, Dorothy, the late Mrs. Randolph P. Compton, and Donald, now deceased, former President and Chairman of the Board of the Ralston Purina Company.
For all of Mr. Danforth's heavy executive schedule over the years and his "daring" for high stakes in the business world, he avoided letting business crowd out a happy balance of living. This represented the essence of his personal philosophy, the "Four Square" life.
Mr. Danforth outlined his philosophy in a number of books, the best known of which is entitled "I Dare You," now in its 28th edition. He believed each person has not one, but four lives to live, and to illustrate he would draw a familiar "checkerboard" on a piece of paper. On the left side of the checker he would write "Physical"; at the top he would write "Mental"; on the right-hand side he would write "Social"; and at the base of the checker he would write "Religious." A man's ingredients for life are a body, a mind, a personality and character, Mr. Danforth would say, and all four must grow in balance with each other. The mind should not be developed at the expense of the personality, nor the body at the expense of character.
Mr. Danforth made no secret that he took his health seriously. He would proudly relate that he had never lost a day at the office on account of illness. He walked his mile a day because it made him feel better, and his rule was to get eight hours of sleep a night with the windows open. He ate moderately and kept his weight down.
Always interested in Christian leadership principles, Mr. Danforth and a group of friends organized the American Youth Foundation in 1924 to train young men and women in Christian ideals and help them prepare for a life of responsibility and leadership. As president of the American Youth Foundation, Mr. Danforth helped establish Camp Miniwanca, a 300-acre campsite near Shelby, Mich. For more than 30 years, up to the time of his death, he spent his summers at Camp Miniwanca where he met, counseled and inspired thousands of young men and women.
In 1927, Mr. and Mrs. Danforth established the Danforth Foundation as a national educational philanthropy. The Danforth Foundation has extended help in the form of fellowships or scholarships to many college students and teachers. In addition, the Foundation has helped to build 24 meditation chapels on college campuses and in hospitals.
During the First World War, Mr. Danforth served the Third Division, American Expeditionary Forces. His keen sense of sales promotion, which characterized his entire business life, followed him to the battlefields of France, where he observed the enthusiastic connotation that the word "chow" brought to soldiers in the field. Rations labeled "chows" seemed to out-taste and out-satisfy just plain food, so when he returned to his business after the war, he applied the name "Chow" to all livestock and poultry feeds that his company manufactured. Thus came into being the famous "Purina Chows," known to farmers throughout the United States and in Canada and other foreign lands.
Another manifestation of Mr. Danforth's sales promotion genius was his early realization of the value of a distinctive trademark. In a time when standard packaging was practically nonexistent, he bagged his Chows in sacks marked vividly with a uniform red and white checkerboard pattern. He remembered the children of a family in his boyhood who were always clothed from the same bolt of checkered gingham. The checkerboard shirt or dress quickly identified each member of the family, and Mr. Danforth thought it would work with the products he manufactured. The Purina Checkerboard has become one of the most famous and effective trademarks in American business.
Mr. Danforth's life-long adventure to "dare" for new and bigger stakes was anchored in, and stabilized by, a few unchanging fundamentals he considered basic. For nearly 40 years, he wrote an inspirational "Monday Morning Message" each week for his associates and employees.
In a 1955 Monday Morning Message, while he was in his 84th year, he pointed out the significance to him of some of these unchanging fundamentals. "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; a Purina man for over 60 years.
"Four-Square principles have been pillars of strength in my life," he continued. "I have never had cause to change. The longer I live with such fundamentals, the more valuable they become."
From a solid base of unchanging fundamentals, Mr. Danforth flung his "dare" in many directions. His living monument stands in the hearts of American Youth who remember his magnificent challenge to them: "Aspire nobly, adventure daringly, serve humbly."