Centennial Spotlights

Robert Lee Flowers

Robert Lee Flowers was a fixture at Duke University for 52 years.

Born 1870 in Alexander County in North Carolina, Flowers was the son of George Washington and Sarah Jane Haynes Flowers and the eldest of nine.

He attended the U.S. Naval Academy and completed the requirements for his commission in 1891. However, he opted not to pursue a naval career. Instead, he took a job as a professor in electrical engineering and mathematics. This was while Duke was still known as Trinity College and was in Randolph County.

While the new university was being constructed in Durham, Flowers’ first responsibility was to wire the new buildings for electricity. Once built, he was one of only four faculty members to move from Randolph County to Durham in 1892. His students knew him as “Professor Bobby.”

Over the decades, Flowers served in numerous capacities. In the fall of 1924, Flowers worked personally with philanthropist James B. Duke and his advisers to hammer out the details to create the Duke Endowment and transform Trinity College into Duke University.

Flowers working at his desk, pen in right hand

In 1925, shortly after Trinity became Duke, he became vice president of the business division. A year later, following the death of James B. Duke, Flowers succeeded Duke as a trustee of the Duke Endowment. The next year he was named to the Board of Trustees of Duke University.

In 1941, Flowers, who was now in his 70s, was named president, following the sudden death of former president William Preston Few. He held that position for seven years.

In 1948 he announced plans to retire and was named to the newly created post of chancellor, an advisory position he held until his death in 1951.