For “The Girls Who Must Travel Up-hill”
July 1, 1925
As a 14-year-old girl, Elizabeth Josephine Miller briefly attended the preparatory school at the University of Kansas during the 1874-75 academic year. Unfortunately, hard times for her father’s medical practice prevented her from completing her secondary education or pursuing a college degree. Decades later, as the childless widow of wealthy Lawrence businessman Jabez B. Watkins, this formative experience was never far from her mind.
She and her late husband, a savvy entrepreneur and financier who turned a few hundred dollars into a sizeable fortune by the time he died in 1921, had been providing financial assistance to individual KU students on an ad-hoc basis for years.
But in 1925, she decided to formalize the couple’s philanthropic predilections with a major contribution that would fully fund a unique project of her own conception. On July 1 of that year, the Kansas Board of Regents officially accepted her donation of $75,000 to build a women’s scholarship hall at KU that would give young women an opportunity she herself had never received.
Called Watkins Hall in honor of her deceased husband, the stately yellow pressed-brick, colonial style structure with four main entrance pillars opened across the street from “old” Fraser Hall in 1926. Mrs. Watkins also donated the land for this residence, a small parcel on Lilac Lane just a stone’s throw from her own mansion known as “The Outlook” – the present-day KU Chancellor’s home.
Watkins Hall offered a low-cost cooperative living environment that stressed high academic standards for needy but exceedingly motivated women who might not otherwise have been able to afford a university education. Over the years, Watkins Hall became a model for KU’s distinctive system of scholarship halls built by private funds and maintained through endowed trusts that provide undergraduates with an economical alternative to traditional dormitories and off-campus rental housing.
“My sympathy has always been with the girls who must travel up-hill,” Mrs. Watkins once said, recalling her own girlhood struggles to better herself through schooling and her inability to remain enrolled at KU. “My husband and I had intended to do something that would really be beneficial to them. It has been my dream to aid self-supporting girls to get an education.”
From the start, Watkins herself was intimately involved with every aspect of the project. This was hardly surprising considering her own well-regarded business sense, honed while helping her husband – himself a onetime self-supporting student at the University of Michigan – amass the family fortune. After being widowed, as the Lawrence Journal-World would later note, “she lived a somewhat cloistered life [but] expressed herself in gifts.”
As she once said somewhat modestly of her benefactions, “I am simply carrying out the wishes and plans of my late husband, whose genius and industry accumulated this estate.” And all evidence indicates that Watkins Hall was the gift closest to her heart.
“I have never done anything into which I have put more of myself,” Mrs. Watkins once said. “The color scheme of every room, the furniture, draperies and furnishings, are results of many months of planning. It is my dream come true.” Surely it was a dream come true, too, for the young recipients of the one-year potentially renewable Watkins Hall Scholarships, which quickly became a highly prized form of financial aid.
Being selected for residence in Watkins Hall was decided by an extensive procedure, ultimately the province of the University Committee on Scholarships. The committee required applicants to produce letters and evidence attesting to their “high character, good scholarship, integrity, steadfastness or purpose, initiative and capacity for cooperation.”
Additionally, proof of financial need and good health were also mandated. Once accepted, these exceptional young women became “Watkins girls,” living together and sharing all domestic responsibilities, including cooking and cleaning. Indeed, perhaps the most apt description of what these young women received is what the University Daily Kansan once called a “triple education,” combining “housework, schoolwork, and play.”
Watkins residents often have characterized their living experience at KU as being part of a large family. But inside the residence, the familial unit breaks down into even smaller elements centered on one of seven kitchens and dining rooms.
As the April 1937 edition of Graduate Magazine explained it, “Five or six girls occupy one kitchen. Each group manages its own buying and ordering and paying of bills, just as a family of five or six might do.” In subsequent years, seven women per kitchen became the norm at Watkins, and a total of 49 women lived in the hall, as is the case today.
“The housemother taught us etiquette, the officers taught us cleaning,” remembered Gayle Barry Matchett, a “Watkins girl” from 1955-57. “But the memories were made in the small kitchens of Watkins Hall, learning to cook together. This cemented our friendships far more than any social life.”
The communal kitchen and dining arrangements were in keeping with Mrs. Watkins’ aim of not only fostering camaraderie, but also imparting important domestic skills she believed young women would need upon entering married life. “It is surprising,” noted the Graduate Magazine in July 1937, “how soon those who have done no more than make an occasional pan of fudge before they came to the Hall learn to wield a frying pan and a roaster. Most of the girls by the end of a year in the Hall are able to prepare meals that are real culinary triumphs.” They were also ready for an unexpected guest, typically setting an extra place for Mrs. Watkins just in case she dropped in, which she did from time to time.
This cooperative living environment meant that expenses were radically reduced, initially allowing 39 women to live in the scholarship hall for a mere $27 a year per person. Food costs were extra, but a remarkable system was set up to keep these down, too.
Each month, according to the February 24, 1935, edition of the Kansas City Star, “the seven heads of the seven kitchens get together and make a list of all the flour, sugar, coffee, tea, canned goods, eggs, bread, vegetables, meats and other foods needed for the month.” Then, local wholesalers would “come and sit together around a table and bid against each other to furnish those supplies in bulk.” Upon delivery, the goods were divided up between the house’s seven kitchens, in which every woman was required to prepare weekly one lunch and one dinner, and one large Sunday dinner every six weeks. (These days, with hectic schedules and countless extracurricular activities, such regularized mealtime schedules have become increasingly rare. Each seven-member kitchen, though, still works closely together to plan special occasions, even if most of the time residents are eating on the run.)
This arrangement extended to the housework as well, the entirety of which was the responsibility of the residents. With one woman serving as the “proctor,” tasked with waking up everyone else and seeing that all assigned cleaning duties are performed, each resident checks the “duty roster” and begins sweeping, dusting, making beds or doing whatever particular job she has been assigned that week. As the Kansan observed, “If they are not done correctly, the woman responsible is reprimanded and she has to do her job again to the complete satisfaction of the inspector.”
Saturday was reserved as “clean-up day” for the kitchens, a chore that required total group involvement. And while, over the years, the seemingly strict regimentation associated with housecleaning has diminished a bit, it is still wholly a group effort. Indeed, to ensure proper upkeep, the position of proctor endures, as does the practice of assigning weekly duties and censuring those who fail to perform them adequately.
To calm parents’ potential fears about a lack of proper supervision, Mrs. Watkins personally selected and paid the salary of Mrs. R.C. Morrow, the live-in “social director” or “matron” of Watkins Hall. Mrs. Watkins would continue picking housemothers and covering their salaries until her death. Under her formal agreement with KU, whenever there was an opening for this position, Mrs. Watkins would provide a list of nominees from which the University would select its preferred candidate.
(Mrs. Watkins kept her finger in the pot in other ways as well. She secured the ability, “during her lifetime, to designate and appoint two student holders of scholarships.” And just to ensure KU kept its commitment to the undertaking, she maintained the right to take back the property if “at any time [it was] diverted to uses other than those [originally] specified.”)
Watkins Hall gained further structure through annual elections at the beginning of each school year in which residents would choose officers and govern themselves under written constitutions, in effect (though modified and expanded) to this day. In addition to outlining the responsibilities of president, vice-president, secretary and treasurer, and explaining the cooperative living arrangement in minute detail, today’s hall constitutions define the duties, for instance, of the house chairwomen of Student Health, Sports and Hall Beautification. (Another modern touch is the Environmental chair, tasked with overseeing, among other things, the hall’s recycling efforts.)
Self-sufficiency and independence were indeed the watchwords for residents of Watkins, all of whom were “partially or entirely self-supporting,” holding part-time jobs in town or on campus. But since education was of principal importance, each resident was required to be enrolled in no less than 12 credit hours and limit her work outside the house to not more than four hours a day. And should students’ grades suffer, the scholarships could be rescinded – rules that endure to this day.
(According to the KU Department of Student Housing, present-day residents wishing to remain in Watkins “must complete at least 28 credit hours during the academic year and achieve a minimum 2.5 GPA.” One major change, though, is that no longer are Watkins and Miller scholarships based principally on financial need, nor are residents required to be partially or wholly self-supporting. Like any University scholarship, need is certainly considered, but so too are the traditional merit-based criteria such as grades and test scores.)
Schoolwork and housework may have been the most time-intensive activities, but an important third part of the women’s “triple education” was the social aspect. A number of contemporary sources describe how, three times a year, the rugs and furniture were cleared out of the main living room so the halls could host formal dances, and then one hour-long dance every two weeks. Indeed, as one informational pamphlet put it, “A social program is included in the low-cost budget of each hall.” (Indeed, present-day Watkins residents are consciously preserving their links to the past, holding annual holiday dances and hosting spring teas for visiting alumni.)
By the mid-1930s, Watkins Hall was something of a phenomenon in the collegiate residence life world. On February 24, 1935, an article in the Kansas City Star headlined “Lawrence’s Most Distinguished Citizen is Giving Away Her Fortune,” gave evidence of this status. Referring to Watkins Hall, the Star reported that “Delegations from all over this country come to study it, and they say there is nothing like it in connection with any other school.”
In part because interest in becoming a “Watkins girl” was growing so rapidly, there was soon something very much like it at KU. In 1936, Mrs. Watkins donated another $75,000 to build a virtually identical twin of the original right next door. Called Miller Hall, the duplicate residence, often referred to as a “sister house,” was named in honor of Mrs. Watkins’ brother, Frank C. Miller, who briefly attended KU in the 1880s and who, upon his death in 1919, had bequeathed some $50,000 to the University’s student loan fund.
His namesake building opened in 1937 ready to house and care for another 39 young women (later increased to 49 as well). Once again, it appears Mrs. Watkins put the same care into its interior layout and décor as she had with her first scholarship hall, even going so far as to personally select the chinaware pattern.
Not surprisingly, the overall design of Watkins and Miller Halls are models of economy and organization as well. The ground floor, or basement, houses the seven 8-by-15-foot combination kitchen and dining rooms, a bathroom, laundry and general utility areas, and a spacious fruit and vegetable storage pantry shared by all the kitchens.
On the first floor are the matron’s living, dining and bathroom facilities, plus a communal living room, fireplace, sun parlor, reception hall, a single guest room, even a house post office. Additionally, attached to the building’s rear are two large enclosed sleeping porches (one on the first floor, another on the third), a feature once common to KU’s scholarship halls, but now unique to Watkins and Miller. Here all the women sleep in double-decked single beds.
The top two floors contain 18 double occupancy study rooms, nine on the second and nine on the third. Each of these floors also includes bathing and toilet facilities, plus storage and closet space. Residents are required to bring only their own bed covers and towels; the halls provide table linens, sheets, pillowcases and blankets, as has been the case from the beginning.
Watkins and Miller halls are only two of the major gifts Mrs. Watkins bestowed on KU during her lifetime. She also contributed the funds to construct and furnish Watkins Memorial Hospital (present-day Twente Hall) and the Watkins Nurses Home (location of the Hall Center for the Humanities through January 2005).
Following her death on June 1, 1939, at age 78, the woman KU and Lawrence had come to call “Lady Bountiful” bequeathed a final collection of parting gifts to the University. Among these were her mansion, 26,000 acres of southwestern Kansas farm land, a $175,000 trust to support Watkins Memorial Hospital, and a $250,000 fund to ensure that her beloved scholarship halls would remain and be maintained on Mount Oread for decades to come.
This visionary funding helped KU preserve Watkins and Miller as one of the University’s unique and most innovative features. The KU Department of Student Housing touts them as “one of the nation’s best bargains for on-campus living” and notes that KU is “one of only a few American universities with scholarship halls.”
Indeed, a December 2003 search of the words “scholarship hall” on Google.com returned some astonishing results: 17 out of the first 20 web sites were KU or KU-related pages. The prestigious Fiske Guide to Colleges apparently concurs, having named Watkins and Miller Halls the best college living arrangement in the entire country.
The residents themselves surely seem to agree and many have taken great pains to ensure that Mrs. Watkins’ legacy is preserved. In 1985, for example, four former residents from the 1930s toured Watkins Hall and found it in what they considered a state of disrepair. “Former residents say Watkins is rundown,” ran a headline in the April 22, 1985, edition of the University Daily Kansan. “It just didn’t look as nice and shiny and pretty as we thought it should have been,” said Harriet Wilson. The story added that, “Residents [themselves] have complained for several years about cracked plaster, leaking ceilings and peeling paint.”
At this time, the Watkins trust fund, used for upkeep of the halls, had grown to more than $1.7 million, and the former residents thought the money should be used for its intended purpose and not simply sit in a bank account collecting interest. These women admitted they were viewing Watkins with “sentimental eyes,” and though University officials might have agreed with this assessment, a year later KU did undertake a major rehabilitation of both Watkins and Miller.
Despite the contentiousness, it seems likely that the fond memories of this unique campus living environment will always be a hallmark experience for the women of Watkins and Miller halls. “We Miller girls used to look at Mrs. Watkins’ portrait,” said 1956-58 resident Carolyn Ely Neuringer, simply and sincerely, “and we were always very grateful to her for providing all this for us.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas
For the stories about the returning Watkins and Miller women being unsatisfied with the condition of the halls, see April 12 and April 23, 1985, editions of the Kansan.
The legal struggle between former Watkins and Miller residents and the University and Bank of America is chronicled in great detail by the Committee for the Preservation of Watkins and Miller Scholarship Halls on its web site. It contained dozens of links to news stories, mainly from the Journal-World and the Kansan (although a number are dead links). Among the most helpful links to stories, covering the major developments, are: Lawrence Journal-World, March 8, 2001, “Lawsuit targets Watkins trust,” http://www.ljworld.com/section/citynews/story/45030; KU Office of University Relations, April 30, 2001, “Statement re: Watkins trust hearing,” http://www.ur.ku.edu/News/01N/AprNews/Apr30/watkins.html; KU Office of University Relations, September 8, 2003, “Judge dismisses all charges in Watkins trust case,” http://www.ur.ku.edu/News/03N/SeptNews/Sept8/watkins.html; and Kansan, September 3, 2003, “Miller, Watkins Halls to drop suit,” http://www.kansan.com/getstory.aspx?id=8da5de89-beda-4e2a-9d0b-1e827f81c911. For the conclusion of the legal struggle, see http://www.ur.ku.edu/News/04N/MarNews/Mar2/watkins.html
The final quote from Carolyn Neuringer is from, presumably, a Jayhawker yearbook page (there is no date or other attribution, but can be found in the Watkins and Miller Building Files) It gives a brief history of Watkins and Miller Halls and describes in detail their architecture.
The author wishes to acknowledge the valuable assistance of Mr. Fred McElhenie of the Department of Student Housing for his help in preparing this article.