Feb. 16, 2017
The generosity of two former East Carolina University faculty members will soon provide $1.2 million for student scholarships.
The gift comes from the estate of Eleanor and Paul Toll, who taught at ECU between 1937 and 1978.
The funds will provide scholarships for students in the School of Music, where Eleanor Toll taught piano, and the sociology department, where Paul Toll was a faculty member.
“I really and truly think that she would love to help somebody that had financial troubles trying to get through school because she had to struggle through the (Great) Depression,” said Fonda (Smithwick) Sanderlin ’64, a former student. “(She) knew what it was like to work and go to school and for her family to sacrifice to go to school.”
Eleanor Toll died last April at the age of 103, but she had taken steps 30 years ago to make the gift to ECU.
According to her will, the school and department each will receive $600,000 to establish scholarship endowments in the names of Paul A. Toll and Eleanor Etheridge Toll for students demonstrating financial need and scholastic ability.
“Generations of students will be helped through her generosity,” said Chris Ulffers, director of the School of Music.
The Department of Sociology is looking at a unique approach for its share of the scholarship funding — boosting its graduate program.
Dr. Bob Edwards, sociology chair, said the gift alone could increase the number of sociology graduate students by 25 percent. There are currently 16 graduate students.
“Six thousand dollars a year from the Toll fund, for four different students, for an example, could be the difference between four people being able to go to grad school to get a degree or not,” Edwards said.
According to ECU archives, the Tolls met after Paul “Pat” Toll began teaching in ECU’s sociology department in 1937 and Eleanor Toll joined the music faculty in 1942. They married in 1946, and Eleanor Toll left ECU to teach private piano lessons at home before returning to the School of Music in 1952. They didn’t have children.
Both retired after 30 years at ECU. Pat Toll died in 1984.
Those who knew the Tolls say they were kind, unassuming teachers at ECU. However, their dedication to the university and to their students ran very deep.
In the summer of 1960, Sanderlin was about to start freshman orientation and her future husband, also a music major, suggested that Fonda meet Eleanor Toll. She found the Tolls’ address in the phonebook and showed up on their 8th Street doorstep – it was the first encounter of a relationship that would grow for the next 56 years. Not only would Toll become Fonda’s piano teacher, but she also was the teen’s advisor.
“She was very calm, patient and encouraging, but she also set pretty strict standards, and she could tell if you practiced or not,” Sanderlin said. “You had [such] respect for her, so you made sure you got the work done.”
Sanderlin was a public school music teacher for 34 years. After Sanderlin’s mother died, Toll became her surrogate mother. “We kind of adopted each other – that was the way we felt for each other.”
As Toll’s health deteriorated, she eventually moved into a rest home, but Sanderlin continued to visit weekly.
After Toll's death, Sanderlin received the contents of Toll’s home and her 1904 Steinway Piano – something she uses all the time.
“I usually go in and sit down and play a little bit most every day, but the sentimental value of that piano, money just cannot buy – really and truly,” Sanderlin said. “It is a piece of furniture probably to a lot of people, but to me, it’s my connection to her.”
Sanderlin still remembers the lessons Toll taught her.
"There were just some things that were automatic when you sat down at the keyboard that she taught you that you thought about when you played the piece,” Sanderlin said. “Make sure the dynamics are strong enough so that the audience will know the difference between soft and loud, make sure you exaggerate enough so that they can hear it, make sure you bring the melody out with your right hand and make sure that you go down deep into the keys when you play.”
Gladys Howell, an associate professor emeritus of sociology, remembers Paul Toll as a kind and learned man.
“I think he would be really honored that the sociology department was significantly included in the legacy that (Eleanor) gave,” Howell said.