As any Kansas Jayhawk knows, visiting the University of Kansas campus, particularly at Commencement time, is a sacred experience. One of my nephews graduated from KU on May 16, 2010, so of course I made the holy pilgrimage! The weather was overcast, threatening rain, but we enjoyed the day with little more than a sprinkle.
The KU campus in the city of Lawrence is one of the loveliest in the country. If you don’t believe me, just ask another Jayhawk! KU is perched on Mount Oread, adorned with a jewel of a lake and landscaped with native and ornamental trees, shrubs and flowers. I took an urban botany class while a KU student and got to know many of the trees personally. We still keep in touch.
Bernadette Gray-Little, the new chancellor, addressed the graduates, reminding us what a treasure our university is as she told us about her first year on The Hill. We have one of the most recognizable mascots — the Jayhawk. Come on, admit it, you’ve seen a Jayhawk, even though it’s a mythical bird.
Our chant is notable, too. Rock Chalk Jayhawk, KU. Teddy Roosevelt called it his favorite college cheer. Maybe he was shouting it when he charged up San Juan Hill!
The march down the hill is very festive, almost like a carnival, with some graduates turning cartwheels, walking arm in arm or holding the hand of their child. Many wore accessories like feather boas or leis or messages on their mortar boards. Many carried balloons. One graduate carried a fake ficus tree in a pot. What was that all about?
One young woman tossed off her cap and gown and was wearing a “Where is Waldo?” outfit. I kept looking for her in the stands. Even in that costume, she was hard to spot among the thousands of graduates. The whole procession takes a little over an hour.
I walked down the hill as a graduate years ago. We all made it into the stadium and were seated when it started to rain. The chancellor declared us all graduated, and we all left. But the best part of the ceremony is the walk down the hill anyway.
More serious graduation ceremonies were held earlier for the various schools and departments.
We are happy to celebrate the success of this great university, forged during the Civil War.
The city of Lawrence was founded in 1850s by abolitionists from Massachusetts who knew they wanted to start a university. Here’s what the Commencement program had to report:
“Lawrence’s early days were violent, the most deadly being the 1863 raid led by pro-slavery guerrilla William Quantrill and his band of ruffians from neighboring state Missouri. During the bloody ransacking, the town was virtually destroyed, and nearly 200 men were murdered. The pre-dawn attack continues to spawn conversation today.”
This conversation is called the border war and breaks out especially during football and basketball season. KU has some mighty fine teams. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, was KU’s first basketball coach. KU has won twelve National Championships: five in men’s basketball (two Helms Foundation championships and three NCAA championships), three in men’s indoor track and field, three in men’s outdoor track and field, and one in men’s cross country. On April 7, 2008, the Jayhawks defeated Memphis 75-68 in overtime to win the 2008 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. The KU football team has played in the Orange Bowl three times: 1948, 1968, and 2008.
The Commencement program stated: “Joyfully, just three years after the horror of the Quantrill raid, KU opened for business.” Tuition was $30 per year.
Quantrill’s raid is vividly depicted in Ang Lee’s “Ride With The Devil.”
Various KU websites list notable alumni and faculty. I’ve been lucky to meet or interview a few of them for articles. One is internationally known paleontologist Larry D. Martin, who with David Burnham, discovered in 2009 a venomous, birdlike raptor that thrived about 128 million years ago in China. In 1975, I met Dr. Martin at a dig of Pleistocene mammals, The Natural Trap, Wyoming. In 2004, I visited Dr. Martin at a dig of Jurassic dinosaurs near Newcastle, Wyoming, and will post about that in the future. Another person I was privileged to interview was Cora Downs, a professor of microbiology, who developed the flourescent dye that is used to identify and trace bacteria and viruses. I also interviewed Takerua Higuchi, a KU professor, known as the “father of physical pharmacy.”
Among notable alumni are Elmer McCollum, who discovered Vitamins A, B and D; Walter Sutton, who discovered that chromosomes come in pairs and carry genes; Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered the recently demoted Pluto, now a dwarf planet; doomsayer Paul Ehrlich (“The Population Bomb”) and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, formerly Kansas governor, whom non-Kansans may know as the official who recently taught a reporter how to sneeze into his elbow at a press conference on the flu.
Click on famous University of Kansas faculty and alumni for a more complete list. (I’m not on the list, ha, ha.)
My post on the KU Museum of Natural History.