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KU’s “Fairy Godmother”

September 14, 1926


To the KU community of the 1920s and 30s, Lawrence resident Elizabeth M. Watkins was known variously as “Lady Bountiful” and the “Fairy Godmother.” The sobriquets hailed a woman who not only bequeathed much of her sizable fortune to the University over the years, but who also took great pleasure in helping the students whom she adored.

Following the death of her husband, millionaire Jabez Watkins, in 1921, the childless widow in some ways adopted the young men and women of KU as her own. Through her philanthropy, Watkins assisted those who were needy, encouraged those who were most promising, and cared for those who were sick, all the while watching over and exchanging daily waves and smiles with her surrogate children from the porch of her beautiful home (now the chancellor’s residence), at the far eastern edge of campus.

Her record of gifts and endowments to the University is long indeed, and the effects of which are still being felt to this day. This generous legacy began on September 14, 1926, with the opening of the Watkins Scholarship Hall, a cooperative dormitory for women.

Elizabeth Josephine Miller was born to Dr. Valentine G. Miller, a surgeon in the Union Army, and his wife Ella on January 21, 1861, in New Paris, Ohio. When Elizabeth was 11 years old, this pioneering family moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where Miller set up a medical practice. Of the Millers, wrote W.C. Simons, early editor and publisher of the Lawrence Journal-World, “They were beautiful souls and dearly beloved by the people of Lawrence. They came to Kansas at a time when money was a luxury. The farmers struggled against poor crops, grasshoppers and what not. The doctor was almost the last man to be paid. But regardless of pay, Dr. Miller answered every call.”

Before hard economic times forced her out of school and to work to help support the family, Elizabeth briefly attended the preparatory school at the University of Kansas during the 1874-75 academic year. Her family’s financial distress, which prevented her from receiving a college education, appears to have made an indelible mark upon Elizabeth’s character, for in her later years she would devote much of her philanthropic energies to assisting needy young women who, without her help, might also have never gone to college.

The business where 15-year-old “Lizzie” sought and ultimately received a secretarial position was the J.B. Watkins Land and Mortgage Company, founded in 1873 by Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, native Jabez Bunting Watkins. Seemingly epitomizing the ideal of the self-made man, Watkins worked his way through the University of Michigan, where he received a bachelor of law degree in 1869, after which he practiced law for four years in Champaign, Illinois, before moving to Lawrence.

Starting with little more than a few hundred dollars, Watkins set up a real estate title and loan business. Within ten years, he had incorporated the company and secured enough money from eastern and foreign investors to establish offices in Dallas; New York; Lake Charles, Louisiana; even London, England, all the while maintaining his headquarters in Lawrence. During the 1880s, with Elizabeth still serving as his trusted secretary, Watkins used his burgeoning wealth to purchase nearly 1.5 million acres of Louisiana land and build railroads throughout the state; he also founded a number of banks, including the Watkins National Bank at the corner of Massachusetts and 11th streets in downtown Lawrence.

Despite having no formal training, Elizabeth, at least according to her boss, was a truly invaluable employee, whose natural abilities and instincts played no small part in the prosperity of the Watkins business and financial interests. This bond, forged over decades of working together, culminated on November 15, 1909, when the Lawrence Daily Journal announced the surprise marriage of the 48-year-old Elizabeth J. Miller to the 64-year-old Jabez B. Watkins, whom the paper referred to as “one of the richest men in the West.” Often they talked about how they would spend their twilight years and, also, to what use would they put their vast fortune.

“We had no children,” Elizabeth once told the Kansas City Star, “and our plan was to give it all for the good of humanity, chiefly here in Lawrence, where the estate was brought together.” Sadly, though, the couple would only be married for 11 years, as Jabez passed away in February of 1921 at the age of 76. “We planned many things,” she recalled, “but my husband died before our plans were all made.” Now a widow, Elizabeth herself was tasked with the awesome responsibility of dispensing her late husband’s substantial assets and following through on the philanthropic projects they had intended to support together.

At his death, Watkins was principal owner of seven corporations, approximately 100,000 acres of land in Texas and Louisiana, and more than 200 farms in southwestern Kansas (numbering some 26,000 acres) acquired through foreclosures by the Watkins Land and Mortgage Company. In fact, according to historian Allan G. Bogue in his book Money at Interest, from 1873 to 1893, Watkins obtained some 2,500 Kansas farms through foreclosure, which “represented between 10 and 20 percent of all the loans made to bona fide farmers.” Eventually, the depression of the early 1890s – which helped spur the rise of the Populists in Kansas and caused tens of thousands of farm families to flee the state – caught up with Watkins as well. His mortgage business collapsed in 1894. Despite this setback, Watkins was “indisputably a millionaire” upon his death.

The Watkins’ also owned one of the loveliest homes in Lawrence, situated at the gates of KU, which they called “The Outlook” for its breathtaking view of the Wakarusa Valley. It was here, from her sun porch, that Elizabeth would spend many a morning gazing across campus. “Dwelling all those years right here on Mount Oread,” recalled KU Chancellor Ernest H. Lindley to the Star on February 24, 1935, “the sympathies of Mrs. Watkins went out to those young men and women she saw struggling so bravely at the threshold of life for an education that could make their lives nobler and more useful.”

Indeed, long before making her first public gift to the University, the Watkins’ provided literally hundreds of individual KU students, male and female alike, with financial assistance. Furthermore, according to a June 1, 1939, Lawrence Journal-World article, Mrs. Watkins would annually employ several undergraduates, one of whom would serve as her personal chauffeur. “Her long, 16-cylinder Cadillac sedan was a familiar sight about town.” By 1926, though, she was ready to make an even larger contribution to the University she loved but was never able to attend. She set her sights upon being a benefactress to those less fortunate female students, those who reminded her so much of herself in her younger years.

“My sympathy has always been with the girls who must travel up-hill,” she once said. “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.” Watkins decided that she would give $75,000 to the University to build and maintain a women’s scholarship hall. Residence in the hall would be decided by an extensive procedure that required applicants to produce letters attesting to their moral character and scholastic ability and a certification of financial need signed by a local banker. Once accepted, these exceptional young women became “Watkins girls,” living together and sharing all domestic responsibilities, including cooking and cleaning. This cooperative living environment meant that expenses were radically reduced, initially allowing 37 women to live on campus for a mere $27 a year.

From the start, Watkins herself was intimately involved with every aspect of the project. “I have never done anything into which I have put more of myself,” she 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.” This dream, as much for the girls as for herself, came to fruition on September 14, 1926, as the Watkins Scholarship Hall, named in memory of her beloved husband and featuring his life-sized portrait in the reception area, officially opened on campus. It would be the first of many generous benefactions.

According to KU historian Clifford Griffin, Chancellor Lindley “carefully cultivated [Watkins’] good will and nurtured her natural generosity” during the late-1920s, and in the fall of 1930, she agreed to give the University an astonishing $175,000 to construct, fully furnish and maintain a first-rate student health facility on campus. “I wished to contribute,” she later recalled to the Star, “to the welfare of the thousands of students here in the years to come, long after I have gone from the scene. With a properly equipped hospital and a corps of health experts here on campus and at the service of every student, they may learn how to care for their health, upon which their future success and happiness would largely depend.” This donation certainly met a crying campus need.

For much of the University’s early history, on-campus health care was non-existent. This lack is perhaps most strikingly illustrated by an anecdote reported by KU historian Robert Taft, who tells the tale of a student who developed smallpox in the spring of 1905. KU had no facilities for treating the stricken individual, let alone quarantining him, and local Lawrence hospitals refused treatment, citing the highly infectious character of the disease. The eventual solution was to isolate this young man “in a small cabin on an island in the Kaw River,” according to Taft. “Fellow students ferried food to him each day and left it on a tree stump near the shore of the island.” Needless to say, outrage and ridicule followed amongst the townspeople and the press, prompting the 1908 establishment of a makeshift hospital, supported by voluntary student fees, in a rented home just off campus. Until 1932, the location of the student hospital, such as it was, changed five times, but each was simply incapable through lack of funding and personnel to cope with serious campus outbreaks of disease, such as the influenza scares of 1918 and 1928.

The 46-bed Watkins Memorial Hospital changed all that. Accepting its first patients on December 28, 1931, and officially dedicated during Commencement ceremonies the following June 5, it was situated immediately southeast of Watson Library and contained a full-time staff, an operating room, examination rooms, even a pharmacy. (The building is now Twente Hall, having been renamed prior to the 1974 opening of the new Watkins Memorial Health Center.) Griffin notes that the Hospital’s first director, Dr. Ralph I. Canuteson, “boasted that the only university hospital in America that might surpass it was that of the University of California at Berkeley.”

Watkins’ giving did not stop there, though, for in 1936 she gave the University another $75,000 to construct a second female scholarship hall (nearly a carbon-copy of Watkins Hall), this one to be named Miller Hall in honor of her brother, Frank C. Miller, which opened in the fall of the following year. (Included in her will was also an endowment of $250,000 that would maintain the two halls, plus a $175,000 bequest for upkeep and modernization of Watkins Hospital.) And because she wanted to provide a nice home for the Hospital’s nurses, she gave $41,000 in 1937 for the construction of the Watkins Nurses Home, located close by.

While the University has certainly been a major beneficiary of the Watkins family philanthropy over the years, so too has the city and people of Lawrence. In 1921, the Lawrence Memorial Hospital opened in a converted home at 3rd and Maine Streets and quickly fell into disrepair. That is, until one day in 1928 when Mrs. Watkins paid a visit to Robert C. Rankin, an early mayor of Lawrence and a hospital board member. “It is not possible for me to describe my feelings when Mrs. Elizabeth Watkins came in,” Rankin later wrote. “She sat down and informed me that she had come to offer to give the money to build a new hospital. I almost fell out of my chair.”

The sum she offered was $200,000, and shortly thereafter, on September 22, 1929, the new 52-bed Lawrence Memorial Hospital opened to provide high-quality health care to the people of Lawrence. According to a March 18, 1998, story in the University Daily Kansan, “The first baby born there, on Sept. 27, was named Elizabeth in Watkins’ honor.” Another of her bequests to Lawrence was the Watkins National Bank building at 11th and Massachusetts, which, until 1970, served as city hall; it is now home to the Watkins Community Museum of History.

Thus, it was this indomitable legacy of generosity that was on the minds of the entire Lawrence and KU communities when they heard the sad news on June 1, 1939: The 78-year-old “Lady Bountiful” had passed away at her home. “In the death of Mrs. J.B. Watkins, the University and Lawrence lose their greatest benefactress … [and] a beloved friend,” said Chancellor Lindley. She “expressed the best that was in her,” eulogized Rev. Theodore Aszman, “in the finest way she knew” and was imbued with “a high sense of the sacred trust that was hers to be a good steward of the wealth entrusted to her using. This stewardship she carried out thoughtfully and conscientiously without ostentation or the desire for praise.”

In her will, Watkins not only gave her home to the University to be used as the chancellor’s residence; she also transferred ownership of her 26,000 acres of southwestern Kansas farmland to KU. According to Steven Jansen of the Watkins Community Museum of History, the combined income from this land – with its rich agricultural, gas and mineral resources – provides the University anywhere from $1million to $4 million a year. With these and other monies, KU has been able to double the size of campus, help build the Danforth Chapel, send faculty to international symposiums, provide scholarships to extraordinary students, endow distinguished professorships, and acquire valuable Indian artifacts, among countless other worthy ventures. Even the KU Memorial Carillon and Campanile toll in remembrance of Mrs. Watkins, as the largest bell was purchased with funds from the Watkins Trust, in honor of her long-time friend, Dean Olin Templin.

There have indeed been many individuals over the years that have made selfless and lastingly significant contributions to the University. “However,” said longtime KU Endowment Association executive Irvin E. Youngberg in November 1971, “the benefactions of one person, Mrs. Elizabeth Watkins, probably have done more to make the University of Kansas what it is now than the efforts and benefactions of any one” else. “For what has been done, as well as for what will be done, Kansans will be forever indebted to a good and generous lady for her wise and far-sighted philanthropy at their university.”

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: A wealth of materials can be found in the Elizabeth M. Watkins Personal File housed in University Archives, Spencer Research Library. Of particular interest are the following: University Daily Kansan, September 14, 1926, p. 4; June 1, 1939, p. 1; June 4, 1939, p. 1. March 18, 1998. Kansas City Star, February 24, 1935, p. 1. Graduate Magazine (June 1939), pp. 11-12; Lawrence Journal-World, June 1, 1939, p. 1; “The Watkins Story: Wise Philanthropy,” Alumni Magazine (November 1951), pp. 6-7, 10. “The Benefactions of Mrs. Elizabeth M. Watkins at the University of Kansas,” remarks of Irvin E. Youngberg, Douglas County Historical Society, and November 11, 1971. Also helpful are Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1974), pp. 421-422, 441-443; Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1955), pp. 142-143, 149-151, 207-208; and on Jabez B. Watkins, see Allan G. Bogue, Money at Interest: The Farm Mortgage on the Middle Border, (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1969), Part 2, passim, and 193-194, 204, 266-267.]