Rising For The Fallen
The ceremonial laying of the cornerstone of the Kansas Memorial Union building on April 30, 1926 was a tribute to the 129 KU students and alumni who died during the First World War. Nearly 3,000 students, soldiers, faculty, and staff, as well as the families of many of the KU men and women who served in the war attended the ceremony and watched an honor guard place a copper box filled with mementos into the Union cornerstone. In many respects, the ceremony signified the culmination of a seven-year effort to create a fitting memorial to KU’s WWI casualties. The ceremony also drew attention to the “Million Dollar Drive” fund-raising effort designed to pay for the project.
Even before Armistice Day in 1918, the KU community had begun considering numerous ideas as memorials to its fallen, including a huge arch across the entrance to campus, a grove of trees, a football stadium, and a student union. Eventually, the authorities settled on a stadium and a union building and also decided to erect a statue to the late and popular “Uncle” Jimmy Green, first dean of the KU Law School. The Memorial Corporation was established to oversee the construction of the Union and stadium as the living memorials to the 129 deceased Jayhawks and met for first time on May 10, 1920.
The laying of the cornerstone was a dignified and emotional moment that emphasized honoring the war dead. A large service flag decorated the front of the speaker’s platform. The flag contained more than 3,000 stars commemorating the number of students and alumni of the University of Kansas who served in the war. In the center of the flag were 129 gold stars.
The many students, released from classes to attend the program, as well as faculty, alumni, and relatives of the honorees, witnessed a grand ceremony. It began with the singing of the Star Spangled Banner led by the University Band and combined glee clubs. The Reverend Evan Edwards followed the national anthem with an invocation. T. J. Norton, alum from Chicago, gave the main address. It was an emotional speech that stressed patriotism, upholding the constitution, and cautioned against the “Huns and Vandals from within,” as the true enemies of American democracy.
Sherman G. Elliot, the first treasurer of the Memorial Corporation, began his remarks with a parchment sheet listing the names of 129 KU men and women who died in the war. He prefaced the reading of the names with a tribute. “Countless martyrs have fallen in the great fight for human rights,” intoned Elliot. “These 129 people paid the supreme price. We are endeavoring to show that we honor, love and claim them. They belong not to us, not to any nation, but they belong to humanity. This building and you men and women shall perish, but the freedom these dead fought for shall not pass away.”
Elliott was also in charge of placing a variety of designated items into the cornerstone’s copper box. As he did so, he announced each one in turn. These included:
·A copy of the Memorial Corporation’s charter;
·A 1925 – 26 University Catalogue;
·A photo of Kansas Governor Ben S. Paulen;
·Two renderings of the Jayhawk;
·The front page of the August 2, 1914 Kansas City Star announcing that war had been declared;
·The front page of the November 11, 1918 Kansas City Star reporting the armistice;
·Pages from eleven regional newspapers that had helped promote or had stories about the “Million Dollar Drive” to erect the Union, the Stadium and the Uncle Jimmy Green Statue;
·Three issues of the Graduate Magazine describing KU history and traditions;
·And, three roses.
The copper box was placed in the cornerstone by an honor guard of KU war veterans in a solemn and dignified “lowering” of the cornerstone. The ceremony came to a conclusion after Don Little, a representative of the student body, hailed the Union as ”a common ground where we can make lasting friendships,” and KU Chancellor Ernest H. Lindley told the crowd that the war dead would live on by being remembered by the living. The singing of Crimson and Blue brought the event to an end.
Memorial Stadium was essentially completed in 1927. But because of the Memorial Corporation’s policy of “Pay as You Build,” progress on the student union was slow. Indeed, the much-heralded “Million Dollar Drive” failed, and with the advent of the Great Depression, the Union remained a shell with an unfinished interior for years.
It was not until 1938 that the Union was complete and even then it was a small structure, measuring only 80 by 135 feet. Clifford Griffin, author of The University of Kansas: A History wrote, “Small and unfinished though it was, it drew a fragmented student body toward a common center, offered opportunities for recreation and relaxation of approved kinds, and, as Men’s Adviser Henry Werner said in 1938, stood as a ‘place where all students can learn to live together.’”
One thing they did not learn, apparently, was that the Union and the stadium were intended as war memorials. The significance of these two structures was seemingly lost on generations of Jayhawks. As a result, these were the last two campus memorials constructed as buildings. “No one thinks as he sits in [the stadium] about the sacrifices of several score of young men of this institution who lost their lives in that struggle [World War I],” said KU Chancellor Deane Malott when he rejected the idea of building a new field house as a memorial to KU’s WWII dead. Instead the KU Memorial Campanile was constructed as a “pure” memorial.
Its sole purpose was to honor those who gave their lives in WWII. “We have been determined,” added Malott, “this time that we would have a memorial that would be truly a memorial, and not merely use that as an excuse to fill a need at the University.”
William C. Towns
School of Education
University of Kansas