John W. Yolton, LLD: former acting president of York University

The influence of John W. Yolton is forever woven into the fabric of York University. The former acting president of York (1973-74), who died at 83 in Piscataway, New Jersey, on Nov. 3, was also the founding Chair of the Philosophy Department and a professor of philosophy at the University from 1963 to 1978. (Professor Emeritus Yolton would have been 84 today.) He was described by friends and colleagues as being absolutely loyal, forthright and dedicated to York University – someone who believed he should always put the best interests of the University first.

“John Yolton’s contributions to York over 15 years and his special leadership in the presidency at a crucial moment in our history were highly significant to York’s development,” said Lorna R. Marsden, president and vice-chancellor of York University. “I have benefitted from his friendship and advice and will always remember his optimism and commitment to our great future.”

Left: John W. Yolton

An internationally-renowned scholar, Prof. Yolton dedicated his life to studying, writing, and educating others about John Locke, known as “the father of liberal democracy”. Prof. Yolton was considered one of the world’s leading scholars on Locke, having contributed to, co-edited and authored over 60 comprehensive books and numerous journal articles on the 17th-century philosopher.

Originally from the United States, Prof. Yolton taught during his 40-year teaching career at such institutions as Stanford University, John Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and Rutger’s University. Invited to York by president Murray Ross in 1963, he played a pivotal role in the formation of the University, remaining until 1978. He left hundreds of books to the Philosophy Department after his departure.

From January 1973 to June 1974, Prof. Yolton served York University as acting president. During that time, he worked closely with incoming president H. Ian Macdonald.

“John was a renowned scholar and a dedicated servant to York University,” said Macdonald, president emeritus, professor of economics and public policy and director of the Master of Public Administration Program at York. “He served York during a difficult time in its history. He was quiet, fair-minded and respected and exactly right for the University during those troubled times. He worked with me during the eight months before I took over as president and he was a perfect colleague, he consulted with me on every important decision. He was always thorough and he made sure the transition was smooth.

“Early in my presidency, I appointed an internal commission on the goals and objectives of the University. John Yolton worked very hard on that commission and was very clear about what he thought was important to York,” said Macdonald. “I would describe John with one old fashioned word – loyalty. He believed you should serve the institution well. He was never a push-over, always open and forthright.”

Prof. Yolton, even after leaving in 1978 for a position at Rutger’s University in New Jersey, maintained his contact with York. On Oct. 23, 2003, he returned to the University to donate his rare collection of antiquarian books on John Locke. The collection now resides in the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections in York’s Scott Library and is considered to be one of the finest in the world.

His wife, Jean Yolton, was pivotal to his work and to compiling his collection of books on Locke. She often combed antique bookstores and libraries for rare Locke texts. Aside from helping to amass a one-of-the-kind collection, her work resulted in the publication of a definitive Locke Bibliography, which is used as a key resource by Locke scholars around the globe.

York honoured Prof. Yolton with an honorary doctorate of laws in 1974, and to celebrate his contributions to the University, a biennial lecture series titled, “Weighing the Scales of Locke” was created. The next lecture is scheduled to take place later this year.

Prof. Yolton leaves his wife Jean, their daughters Karin Griffith and Pamela Smith, two grandchildren, Emily and Jane Griffith, and son-in-law, Bryant Griffith.