Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

French's Toast

He is perhaps best known for immortalizing the quiet dignity and unshakable firmness of the nation’s Great Emancipator by sculpting the immense seated figure inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Yet at KU, Daniel Chester French’s crowning achievement may be the less grand, but no less skillful, way in which he immortalized the University’s first Law dean and campus icon, James Woods “Uncle Jimmy” Green. After Green’s death in 1919, students and alumni formed the Jimmy Green Memorial Association and set about recruiting French to create a fitting monument, believing that “only the finest American sculptor would be capable of justly portraying our beloved ‘Uncle Jimmy.’”

Their telegram reached French’s Manhattan, New York, studio in January 1923. But French was enormously popular and had a packed schedule. The famous sculptor politely declined the request from Kansas. Undaunted, the Association launched a massive petitioning campaign, involving students, alumni, state legislators, even Kansas congressmen, to try to convince French to reconsider. The intense interest and abiding commitment and affection expressed for “Uncle Jimmy” finally convinced French to visit KU. Once here, after speaking with scores of people about Green, he confessed that he had “never seen such love for a man – unless it be in the case of Abraham Lincoln.” French promptly changed his mind, agreed to the project, and on Commencement Day, June 9, 1924, his sculpture was unveiled, appropriately, in front of the original Green Hall (then home of the Law School, now present-day Lippincott Hall).

A native of the Northeast (born in New York and educated in Massachusetts), Green had moved to Olathe in 1870 at the age of 28 and joined the law practice of a local judge. He worked there until 1877, when he relocated to Lawrence. A year later on the same day in November 1878, Green was elected Douglas County attorney and accepted the position as head of the University’s newly created Law Department (it would not become a full-fledged school until 1889). This launched a 40-year reign during which “Green was the Law School,” according to KU historian Clifford Griffin. “There were other faculty members, but he shaped the school to suit himself, and its spirit was the one he breathed upon it.”

Over such a long tenure, Green inevitably had his share of run-ins with University administration and the Regents over how the Law School should be operated; and his inclination to view the School “as his private fief” caused occasional friction. Indeed, for four decades, his unswerving insistence that admission to the School should not be predicated on students possessing a college degree, a high school diploma, or anything more than a solid understanding of the English language, left him open to the oft-repeated charge that he presided over an inferior program, at least when compared to those of leading eastern institutions. Moreover, Green fostered an atmosphere of extreme clannishness among his law students by declaring the Law library and Green Hall off limits to undergraduates. He also jealously guarded the School's independence from what he considered the administrative encroachments of other University officials, among whom numbered two chancellors, Francis H. Snow and Frank Strong. It was only after his death that the Law School was able, according to Griffin, "to recover from forty years of stodginess and low standards."

In spite, however, of his reputation as an “egocentric reactionary” in the minds of many University and state authorities, Uncle Jimmy's most important legacy at KU is intimately and inextricably linked to his law students, or his “boys” as he called them. “Most of them liked the Dean enormously,” noted Griffin, “for Green had warmth, enthusiasm, wit, charm, and most important, the ability to perceive his students’ interests, problems, aspirations, and joys, in much the same way they did themselves.” Law students had no greater friend, and no greater champion of their interests, than their Uncle Jimmy, for whom they penned poems and songs and for years organized annual banquets to celebrate his birthday.

Perhaps their greatest expression of gratitude and reverence for Green came shortly after his death, which occurred ironically on November 4, 1919, the 41-year anniversary of his first day at KU. A group of Law alumni promptly formed the Jimmy Green Memorial Association, dedicated to raising money for a statuary memorial to their beloved mentor. (In 1921, the World War I Memorial Committee incorporated the statue into the University’s general campaign to build the Kansas Union and Memorial Stadium.)

There was never a question in the Association members’ minds as to who should sculpt their memorial. Only the best would do, and at the time, America’s (and arguably the world’s) best was Daniel Chester French. He was famous not only for his powerful sculpture of President Lincoln in the nation’s capital (completed in 1922), but also for Concord, Massachusetts’ Minute Man, Chicago’s The Republic, and busts of such prominent figures as President John Adams and Ralph Waldo Emerson. French himself, like his subject Green, was also a native Northeasterner, born in Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1850. He has been called “the dean of American sculptors” and, according to art historian Laredo Taft, “It is his great distinction to have created good sculpture which the people could love; works which reveal their beauty to the most primitively informed in art, and which nevertheless are gratifying to the brother craftsmen…. No one has a greater following and yet, most agreeable paradox! no one has done better work.”

So it was little surprise that Green’s “boys,” with no small degree of brashness, sought out French, and in January 1923, sent him a telegram which read as follows: “We of the University of Kansas would like for you to create a fitting memorial for our late Dean of the Law School, James Woods Green. We have chosen you to do this statue because we believe that only the finest American sculptor would be capable of justly portraying our beloved ‘Uncle Jimmy.’” After receiving his refusal, according to the Jayhawker, the Association members mounted their campaign “to bring Daniel Chester French to Kansas so that he might see what the Jim Green legend was. They knew that if the great artist could see first-hand the effects of Green’s life on others, and the universal love and respect for him, he could not refuse.”

Barraged for weeks by phone calls, letters, and telegrams from all over Kansas, French relented and agreed to make the thousand-mile train trip to Lawrence. “He visited friends, former students, and neighbors of the late Dean. He heard fellow members of the faculty expound Green’s virtues. But he was most impressed by his interviews with people on the street. Everyone, without exception, expressed deep admiration for Jim Green.” Overwhelmed by the flood of esteem and fondness, the great sculptor agreed to take on the KU commission.

The University had little trouble raising the $40,000 to cover French’s costs and fees, which, incidentally, rivaled the $50,000 price of Green Hall, a structure that was completed in 1905. According to Kansas Alumni, “Uncle Jimmy’s closeness to his students compelled the artist to place the figure of a student in the memorial statue. Furthermore, Dean Green’s zealous interest in athletics (he was also nicknamed “The Prince of Sports”) caused French to clothe the student in a football letterman’s sweater.”

Once French returned to his New York studios to begin work, though, he encountered a problem. As he explained in a letter to the Memorial Association, “four legs encased in long trousers in exact line would not be an object pleasing to contemplate.” As a solution, French had originally decided to design Green’s student in knickerbockers. But when told that such an outfit was never fashionable in Kansas, he made his own fashion statement, dressing the student in boots with tucked-in trousers.

Yet while this compromise was perfect from a stylistic point of view, the outcome was exceedingly controversial, for it was common for engineering students at KU to wear such a getup, not law students. So immortalized in front of the former Green Hall is what appears to be the legendary KU Law School dean fraternizing with an engineer! And given the longstanding, often bitter, rivalry between the two schools, the irony was not lost on either side.

In any event, there was hardly a trace of bitterness when the University celebrated the official unveiling of French’s statue as part of its 1924 Commencement ceremonies. KU Chancellor Ernest H. Lindley; T.J. Madden, president of the Green Memorial Association; and Green’s successor at the Law School, Prof. Hershal W. Arant, joined students and alumni on June 9 to hear one of Uncle Jimmy’s former students, Cyrus Crance (’87), express the students’ appreciation for their late dean. “He abandoned the opportunities of material gains,” said Crane, but “he gained riches in surpassing value – the spiritual riches of appreciation, gratitude, and sincerest affection. His ‘boys’ … now scattered over this broad land … all without exception join here today in humble acknowledgement of [the] gratitude they owe to this plain and unassuming man for those inspirations which flowed from his life into theirs.”

As the University Daily Kansan reported, “It was said that Mr. French had caught the spirit of ‘Uncle Jimmy’ and that he put his whole soul into making this statue a great work.” The plaque reads: “In Memory of James Woods Green, 1849-1919. Forty Years Dean of the School of Law, 1878-1919. The Students’ Counselor and Friend.” When completed, and for many years following, the Green sculpture had the distinction, according to Kansas Alumni, of being “the only life-sized, full-length statue of a faculty member on any American campus.” And to this day, it remains the only Daniel Chester French in Kansas.

Controversy quickly arose (and still persists) over who exactly, if anyone, was the model for Green’s student or “friend,” as he is often called. According to the KU News Bureau, “Legend has it that [French] looked through hundreds of photographs of KU students to find a good model for the figure” and eventually decided upon one Alfred C. Alford, who graduated with a law degree in 1897. If this is true, then young Alford has a double distinction because he was also the first KU student or alumnus killed in any war, in his case the Spanish-American War, during which he died fighting near Caloocan, Philippines, on February 7, 1899. In the Philippines, Alford fought under the command of another famous KU man, Colonel (later Major-General) Frederick Funston in the 20th Kansas Volunteer Regiment.

Moreover, Alford’s family connections to the University and the Lawrence area go far back and are remarkable indeed, beginning with his grandparents (’71) who not only survived Quantrill’s raid, but whose Lawrence farm was reputed to be the physical inspiration for the Rock Chalk chant. His grandmother, Susan Alford, recalled to Kansas Alumni that its origins were in “a pile of chalk rocks and other geological specimens in front of the house. I think it was Professor [E.H.] Bailey who began with rock chalk. Someone else added Jayhawk and the jolly crowd of students made up the yell.”

There are, however, a number of other claimants to the distinction of being the model for Green’s young companion, including Clarence “Scratch” Oakes (’22), Gordon Saunders (’22) and Bob Mosby (’25). The Kansan weighed in on the controversy in 1940, allowing that the figure “might” be Alford, but that “records to this effect are lacking.” According to Kansas Alumni, the figure was modeled after no student in particular, although Mosby had perhaps the most legitimate claim. “Perhaps it is best to say,” concludes the magazine, “that the student represents Alford, Saunders, and Mosby, and all that they represent.”

What the bronze statue doubtlessly symbolizes, though, is not only the pride Law students take in their first dean, but also their fierce rivalry with the Engineers, which was particularly intense from the 1890s through the post-World War II years. Ever since the statue was first unveiled, it has been the luckless target of countless pranks of varying originality and crudity.

For many years, engineers would douse Uncle Jimmy with green paint each St. Patrick’s Day, achieving a triple-whammy of sorts – the unauthorized re-coloring played off Green’s name, honored the holiday’s Irish heritage, and reminded law students of St. Patrick’s status as the engineering profession’s patron saint. In 1943, the engineers took this annual prank one step further, and painted the statue white. The reason, according to Kansas Alumni, reflected a popular advertising slogan of the day. “Responding to the military need for green dyes,” noted the alumni magazine, “the American Tobacco Co. had discontinued the familiar green pack for Lucky Strikes, hailing the new white pack with the slogan, ‘Lucky Strike green has gone to war!’ The engineers took the cue, used white paint on Uncle Jimmy, and scrawled on the statue’s base, ‘Uncle Jimmy Green has gone to war!’”

Over the years, engineering students also adorned the statue with various hats, giant slide rules, and other implements. Not to be left out, visiting Kansas State sports fans often doused Jimmy with purple paint. All told, the bronze likeness of KU’s first law school dean “has born with quiet dignity coatings of orange, grey, red, black, and silver – and even tar and feathers.”

A further bit of controversy occurred in the mid-1970s when it became clear that the Law School, housed in Green Hall since 1905, was going to be moved to more modern quarters north of Allen Field House. The University and the Regents immediately resolved to retain the name Green Hall for the new structure, but there was the small problem of what to do with the Green statue. Partisans emerged on both sides, some insisting that Uncle Jimmy must follow the Law School across campus; others saying that it would break tradition to remove him from where he had stood from fifty years, in front of the building in which he had taught for fifteen.

Another twist to the argument emerged in 1977, a year before “New” Green Hall’s opening, when, coincidentally, a state law was passed prohibiting any action that would “encroach upon, damage or destroy any historic site,” which, as of 1974, included Green Hall when it became listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Removing the statue technically would qualify as an “encroachment.” In the end, the advocates for leaving Jimmy where he had always been won out, and to this day he remains in front of the building that once bore his name, even if his spirit has relocated several blocks to the west.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: For materials on Dean James W. “Uncle Jimmy” Green, see the Green Personal File located in University Archives, 4th Floor, Spencer Research Library. For items particularly related to his statue, see the following: Graduate Magazine (June 1924), pp. 14,18; Kansas Alumni (October 1965), pp. 6-7; Kansas Alumni (February 1978), pp. 6-7; Kansas Alumni (April 1978); Kansas Alumni (April 1984), p. 10; Jayhawker (1950), p. 37; University Daily Kansan, June 13, 1924, p. 1. See also, Clifford S. Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1974), pp. 284-288; Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1955), pp.29, 83-84, 120; and Laredo Taft, The History of American Sculpture (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1930).]