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“A Letter From Home”

January 7, 2002


It has appeared in almost 900 singular editions, outlasted 18 US presidents and 11 University chancellors, and has been known to generations of Jayhawks by three separate names. In existence for more than a century, it has variously resembled and read like a scholarly journal, a broadsheet newsletter, and a skillfully crafted glossy magazine.

But in all its incarnations, it has served KU alumni, from when they numbered in the hundreds to the present day when they number in the hundreds of thousands.

Whether one knows it as Kansas Alumni, remembers it when it was the Alumni Magazine, or can even summon dim recollections of the Graduate Magazine, this triumvirate of periodicals, begun in October 1902, is not only the University’s longest-running continuous publication, but is also one of the oldest alumni journals in the nation.

Technically the magazine was still nine months shy of its centennial when the KU Alumni Association sent its 100th anniversary edition of Kansas Alumni to press on January 7, 2002. The editors could surely be forgiven, however, for wanting to get a head start on the hundredth anniversary.

What began as a slightly staid, ponderous tome assembled in a basement printing plant by dedicated, though part-time and nonprofessional editors now had all the features of a well-oiled journalistic machine. Indeed, seemingly the only immutable constant over the past ten decades has been the alumni support that has sustained the publication through its many iterations.

Often a cheerleader, sometimes a critic, an announcer of good news and a breaker of bad, Kansas Alumni and its predecessors have never strayed from their primary function. As KU Chancellor Ernest H. Lindley described the Graduate Magazine on its 25th anniversary in 1927: “To an increasing number of alumni and former students, [it] has come to be a ‘letter from home.’”

Before there was an alumni magazine, there was the Alumni Association, the genesis of which occurred amid the 1883 graduation activities. At this time, the University of Kansas had been in existence less than 20 years and was only a decade removed from its first commencement ceremony, which had taken place in 1873. Consequently, those interested parties who gathered to discuss the possibility of establishing an official KU alumni organization did not exactly have a deep reservoir of potential members to appeal to in terms of sheer numbers.

Undaunted, these originators chose interim officers and appointed an executive committee, charged with the task of drafting a formal constitution. Adopted the following year, this compact formed the Alumni Association of the University of Kansas. Its stated purpose was to forge “a closer bond of union among ourselves and of maintaining our interest in our alma mater.” Annual dues were a modest fifty cents (less than $10 in 2004 dollars). William H. Carruth (c’1880, g’1883), a professor of German and literature – and the half-namesake of present-day Carruth and O’Leary Hall – was elected the first chairman.

Over the next ten years or so, the Association contented itself with issuing irregular statements and resolutions. It lent what weight it had to backing a bill in the state legislature for a “one-eighth mill tax for the support of the University,” a proposal that would have established a permanent funding mechanism for KU.

The Association also urged the appointment of certain candidates to the Board of Regents and advocated that University Hall be re-christened to honor former KU Chancellor John Fraser. (It later was in 1897.) Meeting once a year during Commencement week, plus an occasional informal gathering over dinner, the organization’s aims and ambitions were far from lofty.

Records from the period indicate preparations for the annual banquet often may have been the most notable activity. Clifford Griffin, author of The University of Kansas: A History, characterized the Alumni Association of the 1880s and 90s as “torpid,” adding “Its meetings transacted no important business and the organized alumni were not active in the University’s support.”

Olin Templin (c’1886, g’1889), another KU grad who stayed on at Mount Oread to teach and later became dean of the College and executive committee chairman of the Alumni Association, was even more direct in his criticism. “The organization – it is rather absurd to call it that – has done no disgraceful things, to be sure, and perhaps not many foolish ones,” he once wrote, “but that is about the best that can be said of it.”

The situation began to change, however, towards the end of the nineteenth century. In 1898, the Association authorized the publication of an alumni catalogue (listing the names and addresses of former students) and started sending out an annual four-page circular telling its members what had occurred on Mount Oread in the past year. Addressed “To the Alumni of the University of Kansas,” and edited by German professor Elmer F. Engel (c’1892), the letters related, for instance, how much money the state legislature had appropriated for KU that session, what new courses were being offered, whether new faculty had been hired, and the like.

Whether these yearly letters continued into the twentieth century is unclear owing to the fact that the Alumni Association’s records from 1899-1902 have been lost (another indication, perhaps, of the organization’s casual existence at this point.) Yet while they hardly qualify as an official published journal, they can, as Prof. Engel noted, “be considered as the germ” of the more formal publication that would soon take their place, given that they demonstrated “modest efforts were being made to interest and unify K.U. alumni.”

However, it was Templin (then a professor of philosophy), who performed the heavy lifting in 1902 that ultimately resulted in the regular issuance of an alumni magazine at KU. In the process, his efforts gave the Alumni Association a renewed reason for being. “By explicit order of the association,” Templin later wrote, “the executive committee in the fall of 1902 undertook the publication of a monthly periodical called the ‘Graduate Magazine of the University of Kansas.’”

To put out the inaugural edition, which appeared in October 1902, he assembled a “competent corps of editors,” all KU grads who had become members of the University’s faculty. These included English professor R.D. O’Leary (c’1893), who became the titular editor and had “general literary oversight”; psychology professor Archibald Hogg (c’1894, l’1896), reporting on “University affairs”; Prof. Elmer Engel, who would collect “Alumni notes”; and biology professor M.A. Barber (c’1891), who would report on assorted happenings in the wider “college world.”

Appearing monthly during the academic year – that is, nine issues per annum – the new Graduate Magazine was available to all alumni for a $1 yearly subscription (roughly $20 in early 21st century terms). Templin, for his part, expressed confidence that this new venture would prosper. Writing in the premiere edition, he acknowledged, “the need of such a publication has long been felt, but circumstances have been such as to make the undertaking of doubtful expediency.” But now, he observed, “there are enough loyal alumni, who care for the welfare of the University, and who are desirous of keeping themselves informed regarding the course of events in the institution,” that its success was nearly assured. Since there was to be no commercial advertising, the journal would prosper or falter based solely on alumni interest and support.

The first issue of the Graduate Magazine was a simple, unadorned 32-page affair. Its lead item was a six-page address on “Free Citizenship” given by Kansas newspaperman (and later state governor and US senator) Henry J. Allen, delivered on campus the previous month.

There was a detailed section introducing new faculty members, the most prominent being European history professor Carl L. Becker, just arrived from Dartmouth, and later one of the central figures in the development of the nature of historical inquiry. Additional content included highlights of the Board of Regents meeting and a description of new course offerings. There was also a story on the summer specimen-collecting expedition to Arizona led by recently retired natural history professor and former KU Chancellor Francis Huntington Snow, as well as a preview of the inauguration ceremonies for Snow’s successor, Frank Strong.

Additionally, five pages were devoted to “The Alumni” in a section that provided news about the career advancements, marriages and births, foreign travels, and other assorted factoids and tidbits about the lives of KU grads. Prof. Barber’s compendium in the “College World” section included such diverse items as the establishment of an architecture department at Washington University in St. Louis; the news that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame) had given $5,000 to create an Edinburgh University scholarship; and how the vast wealth of British Empire builder Cecil J. Rhodes, who had just died in March, would be used to establish the Rhodes Scholarships.

For nearly three years, the Graduate Magazine continued in this vein. By 1905, Dean Templin was having second thoughts about the skill level of his editors and the ad hoc arrangements under which they operated. He referred to the staff (himself included) as a “handful of busy men” who “often doubted their right to devote so much of their time to a work so foreign to their official duties.” It was a labor of love, to be sure, but their “lack of training” and the “hurried way in which they [are] often compelled to work” was affecting the journal’s quality, he thought. Indeed, speculated Templin, unless a full-time “competent editor” was taken on and tasked with the responsibility of putting out the Graduate Magazine, its future was imperiled.

That very year Templin had his suspicions further confirmed in a letter-to-the-editor submitted by KU alum Leon Nelson Flint (c’1897), who was then publisher of the Manhattan [Kan.] Nationalist. Flint called the Graduate Magazine a “dull old thing,” a remark Templin turned into an opening.

“Templin called on [Flint] to put up or shut up,” according to an article in the October 1977 edition of Kansas Alumni, promptly offering him the editor’s chair if he thought he could do better. Flint took the bait, and in October 1905 succeeded O’Leary as editor and publisher of the Graduate Magazine, simultaneously becoming the Alumni Association’s first salaried secretary. For the next 11 years he would hold these positions, as well as a journalism professorship. (Flint would later become head of the Department of Journalism, serving from 1916-41; today’s Stauffer-Flint Hall is named partly in his honor.)

Thus with a new lease on life, the Graduate Magazine, now with a professional editor at the helm, could begin to contemplate growth, not merely obsess over staying alive. And when the year 1927 rolled around, those affiliated with the alumni journal, along with those present at the creation, could reflect on a quarter-century of progress. Referring to that pioneering early-1900s staff, editor and Alumni Association secretary Fred Ellsworth (c’22) wrote in the October 1927 edition: “We doff our hats to that little group of patriots … who were so presumptuous to think the individualistic and practically unorganized Kansas alumni of that day would support a monthly magazine.”

But perhaps most impressive, Ellsworth noted, was that KU’s once humble Graduate Magazine could now glory in the fact that it was (and remains) the 13th-oldest alumni publication in North America. (The Stevens Indicator, alumni periodical of New Jersey’s Stevens Institute of Technology, began publishing in 1884, and is the oldest such journal in North America. Other universities with alumni magazines that pre-date KU’s entry into the field include Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Brown, MIT, Pennsylvania, the University of Toronto, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Stanford.)

A typical note of congratulations came from the managing editor of Columbia University’s Alumni News, a journal seven years KU’s junior. “This publication [the Graduate Magazine] is widely known and has an eagerly awaited reception in our own editorial office where we examine it carefully and interest ourselves in the splendid work being done by its staff of writers. K.U. graduates are lucky.”

The Graduate Magazine’s silver anniversary also elicited remembrances from the journal’s first editor, Prof. R.D. O’Leary (the other half of Carruth and O’Leary Hall.) “Those of us who got the magazine out were all green at the business of magazine-making,” he wrote in the October 1927 edition. “The gulf between our aspirations … and our performance was wide!” But though “the magazine was not a lusty infant,” he concluded, “it never missed a breath, and its organs were all sound.”

O’Leary also recalled how, in its early days, the Graduate Magazine was printed on the presses of the Lawrence Journal and how, in a rather comical way, Dean Templin was essential to the magazine’s success. The dean “lived in the country” and thus owned a “horse and buggy” to bring himself to campus each day. As such, he was also able to fill the role of “errand boy,” clopping down to Mass Street “carrying proof and suggestions back and forth between the staff on Mount Oread” and the Journal offices.

Another Graduate Magazine veteran who shared her reminiscences was the journal’s third editor, Agnes Thompson (c’1896, g’1897), who served from 1916-1920, in jarring and difficult times. It was her all-consuming duty during her latter years of service to compile the “University war record.” She ruefully pored over World War I casualty lists, wrote “hundreds of letters” to track the movements of alumni, students, and faculty members in uniform, and supervised the publication of the most “interesting and spirited” letters from the Front. With more than 3,000 former and current Jayhawks having served in WWI, and with 130 having given their lives, Thompson’s job was as immense and challenging as it was saddening.

Over the ensuing decades, Fred Ellsworth became far and away the most prominent person associated with the Graduate Magazine (which was re-christened the Alumni Magazine in 1950.) From 1924 until his retirement in 1963, he served as the journal’s editor and secretary of the Alumni Association; and like the arrival of Leon Flint before him, his assumption of the editorship, too, happened by chance.

As the story goes, also recounted in the October 1977 edition of Kansas Alumni, in 1924 “Ellsworth and a classmate, Ben Hibbs (c’23), were working together on a newspaper in central Kansas when they heard about the [Graduate Magazine editor’s position] opening. Being friendly competitors, they flipped a coin to see which of them would apply for it, and … Hibbs lost. Ellsworth applied, got the job and succeeded so spectacularly that in later years he became known with justice as ‘Mr. KU.’” (Hibbs did not fare too badly either, it must be noted. He went on to become editor of the Saturday Evening Post, then one of the most popular magazines in the country.)

Under Ellsworth’s guidance, the Graduate Magazine adopted a more journalistic style. As Griffin described the evolution, “It became more popular, less intellectual, increasingly devoted to personal news, sports, anecdotes, appeals for help and for more pride in the institution.”

These changes were not universally popular. Critics lamented what they saw as the “dumbing-down” of the magazine. Gone or greatly reduced were the verbatim transcriptions of lengthy speeches, academic articles and the general discussion of “serious matters.” Where, many asked, was any mention of the “thought of the University”? What, inquired one alumnus, are the “young people doing with their brains?”

But Ellsworth defended the changes, insisting that the “Graduate Magazine is a magazine of personal news about alumni. It features that and must stand or fall on that plank.” In Griffin’s view, the longtime editor “did more than any other man to make the alumni feel that they remained an important part of the University even after they left Mount Oread.” On the other hand, the publication’s new direction “meant that the alumni’s understanding of the school would be inaccurate and incomplete.”

That is not to say, however, that Ellsworth saw his editorial role as cheerleader-in-chief for the University. His 39-year tenure spanned the some of the best of times for KU and easily the absolute worst, during the Great Depression years and the massive dislocations associated with World War II. And as the October 1977 edition put it, while he tried to “put the best face on every crisis,” he always “let his readers know exactly how bad things were on the Hill.”

(This may have had as much to do with the notable independence of the KU Alumni Association – being separately incorporated from the University – as with Ellsworth’s editorial direction. In many academic institutions, the university itself publishes the alumni magazine, and thus it is not uncommon for these publications to be essentially uncritical, often fawning, public relations vehicles.)

Beginning in 1963, the Alumni Magazine took on yet a third name, adopting its current appellation Kansas Alumni. Six years later, it underwent a serious facelift as well. From 1969 through 1990, Kansas Alumni appeared in hybrid form – a large folding black-and-white broadsheet resembling a newspaper that came out six times a year, as well as a more traditional magazine published twice a year.

Although this odd iteration of Kansas Alumni may have confused some readers, there seems no doubt about the quality of its content. During this period, Kansas Alumni garnered six Grand Gold awards from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), the professional association for college publications and public relations. (Indeed, since the mid-1980s, the publication has won nearly 100 regional and national awards for writing, design and overall publishing excellence.)

A further change came with the January/February 1991 edition. No longer would far-flung alumni be receiving the “unwieldy tabloid” in their mailboxes, as Jennifer Jackson Sanner (j’81), editor since 1985, put it in her introductory message. Henceforth, Kansas Alumni would return as a “real magazine with a sensible, bimonthly schedule.”

Eleven years later, in 2002, the magazine heralded its centennial with another redesign. The edition Sanner and her staff sent to press on January 7, 2002, bore the designation of volume 100, denoting that there had been an uninterrupted KU alumni magazine for a century. This chronicler of University traditions had become one itself.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source notes: The various anniversary editions of the Graduate Magazine (1902-1950), the Alumni Magazine (1950-1963), and Kansas Alumni (1963-present) provide some of the best information on the history of not only the magazines themselves but also the Alumni Association. See Graduate Magazine (October 1902), pp. 1-32, the premiere edition; Graduate Magazine (October 1927), pp. 3-13, the twenty-fifth anniversary edition; Alumni Magazine (October 1952), pp. 4-5, 38, the fiftieth anniversary edition; Kansas Alumni (October 1977), pp. 1,3-5, the seventy-fifth anniversary edition; Kansas Alumni (January/February 1991); and Kansas Alumni (Issue 1, 2002), pp. 5, 22-27, the one-hundredth anniversary edition. See also, Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (University Press of Kansas, 1974), pp. 109-110, 227-228 and 419-420. The author also wishes to thank Kansas Alumni Editor Jennifer Jackson Sanner for graciously taking the time to answer so many of his questions.]