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“The Most Gracious Host On Campus”

May 21, 1952


He has been called a “one man Welcome Wagon,” the “most gracious host on campus” and “one of the most beloved public servants” in KU history.

Known for his “dynamic and creative leadership” and his “totally unselfish service” to generations of Jayhawk students, faculty and alumni, he devoted almost the entirety of his professional life to the University of Kansas community.

His name was Frank R. Burge and on May 21, 1952, he accepted KU Chancellor Franklin D. Murphy’s offer to become director of the Kansas Memorial Union, a building that would, in time, come to be known as “The House That Frank Built.”

Indeed, during his nearly 31-year unbroken directorship, Burge brought about a marked extension of student services and programs and oversaw four unique phases of structural expansion. He even supervised one enormous repair project after the Union fell victim to an arsonist’s firebomb in 1970, a blaze that he himself helped extinguish.

For dramatic gestures such as this, and for the innumerable smaller daily ones that endeared him so deeply to those who entered his hospitable domain, Burge had many accolades heaped upon him by a grateful University – none more significant, nor more lasting, than the January 21, 1983, decision to rename the second KU campus “satellite union,” located on Irving Hill Road, the Frank R. Burge Union in his honor.

This tribute was, in many ways, a going-away present, for 10 days later, the retiring Burge ended his three-decades-long formal affiliation with the University. Informally, however – and to the delight of two more Jayhawk generations – Burge remained an energetic proponent of all things KU, as well as a seemingly ubiquitous presence in both Union facilities, until his death in 2004.

Some 83 years earlier, on September 28, 1921, Frank Rayner Burge was born on a farm in the small Iowa town of Lone Tree, located just southeast of Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa.

Given this proximity, perhaps it was only natural that this son of Jay and Anna (Rayner) Burge would choose to become a Hawkeye once he was ready to attend college. (Beyond the geographic tie to UI, there were strong familial ones as well, including an uncle who had chaired the department of surgery at Iowa’s College of Medicine, and an aunt who had served as the University’s dean of women.)

For Burge, enrollment came in 1938. Four years later, he completed his Bachelor of Science in Commerce (i.e., business administration) degree.

By this point, the United States had entered the Second World War. Fresh out of college, Burge enlisted in the US Army field artillery. He served throughout the European Theater during the remainder of World War II, and was discharged in 1946 having attained the rank of major. This achievement – which made the 25-year-old Burge one of the American military’s youngest field-grade officers – was a testament to his leadership skills. (Burge remained active in the US Army Reserves throughout his lifetime, and ultimately rose to full-bird colonel.)

Upon reentering civilian life, Burge decided to return to his alma mater, where he began taking postgraduate business courses. His studies were interrupted when one day in 1946, a chance meeting with the president of the University of Iowa led to a full-time job offer. Burge became assistant to the president, taking on a responsibility well suited to his predisposition to a business career as well as his Army experience. Burge’s assignment was to travel the country to identify and obtain military surplus materials that could be put to good use at the University of Iowa.

Perhaps his biggest find was a complete mess hall that was installed in the Iowa Memorial Union building. After this exploit, Burge became assistant director of the student union at IU. Marriage to Gladys Frederick, also a native Iowan, came shortly thereafter, on December 22, 1947.

In the years that followed, Burge became a rather prominent figure in the Iowa City community. He was active in the Lutheran church, various civic organizations, and the Boy Scouts. Among those taking particular notice of this wide-ranging involvement were members of the local Chamber of Commerce who, in 1951, named the 30-year-old their “Outstanding Young Man of the Year.”

Around this time, some 350 miles to the southwest in Lawrence, Kansas, another “outstanding young man” – University chancellor and former KU School of Medicine dean Dr. Franklin D. Murphy, himself a multiple Chamber of Commerce honoree at both the state and national levels – was also apparently impressed with Burge. In fact, Murphy was always on the lookout for exceptional individuals who could help him transform KU into one of the nation’s leading public universities.

Although it is unclear exactly how Burge came to Murphy’s attention, by the spring of 1952, the Iowan was among the top candidates the chancellor was considering to succeed L.E. Woolley as director of the Kansas Memorial Union. This facility, which had been constructed in the late 1920s as a tribute to the University’s World War I dead (like Iowa’s), served as a multi-purpose student dining and recreational facility.

“Dr. Murphy was very visionary,” recalled Burge in a 2000 interview. “He knew it wouldn’t be too long before the university grew from a medium to a big university.” So, too, would the Kansas Union, which had been undergoing considerable additions and renovations over the past several years, improvements that would soon effectively double the building’s size. What’s more, amid the dramatic postwar KU enrollment spike, further structural enlargements were virtually guaranteed, as was a director’s chance to guide, even personally shape, a thriving operation in exciting, prosperous times. In short, for the right person, taking the helm at the Kansas Union offered “unlimited management opportunities.”

As it turned out, in Murphy’s mind – as well as from the vantage point of history – that “right person” was Frank Burge. On May 21, 1952, he accepted the chancellor’s offer to become Kansas Union director, declaring, above all, his enthusiasm for the many possibilities an “enlarged Union at KU presents for service to the entire university community.”

When his tenure officially began on July 1, 1952, Burge remembered that, despite recent physical expansion, the Kansas Union was still a relatively modest enterprise. “They didn’t have anything here to speak of,” as he later recalled. “They had a little old building with a steam-heated table and a cafeteria line.”

All this was about to change. Among Burge’s primary tasks was overseeing the first of four major construction projects that would occur during the course of his nearly 31-year directorship. One new wing had been added to the Union four years earlier and a second was nearing completion, giving the six-level facility more than 125,000 square feet of usable floor space. Together, these additions represented a $1.5 million expenditure that, in addition to more than $200,000 in new furnishings and equipment, had been paid for by bond issues backed by the collection of student fees.

By December 1956, some four years into his tenure, it was clear that Burge was expanding the Union’s role and purpose as well. As a detailed profile of the Union building in Kansas Alumni put it at that time, Burge – described as “a slim, intent young man with horn-rimmed glasses and thinning dark hair” – and the Union’s 250 employees were providing myriad services and amenities to the KU community. These included a 500-seat, full-service cafeteria, which served some 1,500 meals each day, every day; and a grand ballroom that could accommodate 1,500 diners or as many as 2,500 dancers at a time.

In addition, the Union also provided office space for 15 student organizations – from the Jayhawker yearbook to the Inter-Fraternity Council; operated a snack bar, a ticket counter and a student activities center; and featured dozens of meeting, reading and study rooms, plus space for numerous administrative offices. Television lounges, music and billiard rooms, and a basement bowling alley were also available for student use anytime between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. In all, concluded Kansas Alumni, the Union had become “a business …handling more than 5,000 daily transactions for students and the University family at KU.”

This level of student service – unheard of in prior years – was one of the reasons for the affectionate regard that a growing number of KU undergraduates held for Burge. Yet another factor was that Burge was as big a Jayhawk sports fan as perhaps anyone on campus.

Unlike most others, though, Burge possessed the means and also the wherewithal to keep fans’ spirits high, especially when the chips were down. This was the case in the spring of 1957, when the KU men’s basketball team – led by sophomore Wilt Chamberlain – suffered a calamitous, triple-overtime, 54-53 loss to North Carolina in the NCAA championship game.

Burge felt the University’s collective pain and then some. But in the relatively short period of time it took the defeated Jayhawks to return to Mount Oread – the Final Four was held in Kansas City that year – Burge did more than simply join the legions of saddened fans gathered at the Union to greet them.

Employing his powers of persuasion, plus a liquid bribe in the form of “some premium bourbon,” Burge managed to convince the legendary jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong and his orchestra (who were apparently in Lawrence for another gig) to give a special impromptu concert for free in the Union ballroom. It started with a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Not surprisingly, the show had the intended uplifting effect. “By the time it was all over,” Burge recalled, decades later, “the students had gotten over the disappointment of [that] last-minute loss.” Burge’s personal contribution of the bourbon seemed a small price to pay.

According to one former colleague and echoed by countless others, this particular incident was “quintessential Frank Burge,” a live-action demonstration of someone who was always willing to “jump over the moon for students.” He had “great compassion,” another declared. “People don’t have any idea when they send their kids off to school that there are people like Frank Burge around. If we had more people in education who feel this way about young people and their school, we would have a much better climate in our schools and universities.”

Unfortunately for the Kansas Union, and indeed for the entire University of Kansas, not even an army of Frank Burges could have ameliorated the disruptive and turbulent conditions that held sway on Mount Oread by the spring of 1970.

Amid mounting anti-Vietnam War protests and an increasingly violent struggle for civil rights, KU and Lawrence suffered a particularly difficult period in April of that year. Called by some the “Days of Rage,” the culminating act in a spate of vandalism and mayhem took place at approximately 10:38 p.m. on April 20, 1970, when the Kansas Union was firebombed.

“There was no greater testimony to the loyalty Frank inspired,” as Warner Ferguson, the Union’s former associate director put it in 2004, than the simultaneously horrendous and heartening scene that followed. More than 100 student volunteers, joined by Burge himself, rushed to help local firefighters put out the inferno, all doing so at extreme personal risk to themselves over the course of almost four grueling hours. In the end, the fire was brought under control and extinguished; and despite suffering some $1 million in damages, due to their combined efforts the Union as a whole was saved. Not only that, thanks to Burge’s determined leadership, a sizable portion of the building was back open only three days later and would be fully operational again by the fall. Obviously, noted Ferguson, “Nothing stopped Frank in the service of KU.”

The fire, however, appeared to have troubled Burge tremendously. “I can truly say that was the worst night of my life,” the battle-hardened former soldier once said. “Because I saw go up in flames that facility which many students, staff and alumni had paid dearly for…. Just to see things go that you helped build. It was just the emotion of the thing.”

Yet while this well of deep feeling made tragedies such as the Union burning difficult to bear, much less to comprehend, it also enabled Burge to become a remarkably successful and respected administrator. In fact, during the course of his long directorship, he received scores of delegations from universities nationwide, all eager to pick his brain on how to create similarly well-run student union operations on their own respective campuses. A case could perhaps be made, then, that this “Father of the Kansas Union” played a surrogate parental role in the development and improvement of many more facilities from coast to coast.

Among the tokens of appreciation Burge received from KU – ones he may well have valued the most, considering his intense devotion to the student body – were honorary memberships in the classes of 1972, 1977 and 1979. Moreover, in 1975, Burge was named the University’s first “Employee of the Year,” and in 1982 he was presented the Fred Ellsworth Medallion (the Kansas Alumni Association’s highest award) for providing “unique and significant service to the University” – quite an honor, incidentally, for a non-alumnus to have received.

Even more noteworthy, though, was the action taken on January 21, 1983, just 10 days before Burge was scheduled to retire after more than 30 years of continuous service to the University of Kansas. On that day, the Kansas Board of Regents announced that KU’s second campus union building – then called the Satellite Union and constructed under Burge’s leadership and meticulous direction primarily for the benefit of Daisy Hill residents – would be renamed the Frank R. Burge Union.

Upon hearing the news, the 61-year-old Burge, self-effacing and humble as usual, quipped that he didn’t “think they ought to name a building after anyone until he’s under. Suppose I went off my rocker and made a fool of myself?”

KU’s vice chancellor of student affairs, David A. Ambler, for one, saw little chance of that ever happening and, conversely, saw every reason to so honor the man who “has built the Kansas Memorial Union into one of the finest such programs in the country, both in terms of its outstanding physical plant and its superb program of services for alumni, students, faculty and staff.” Paeans heartily seconding Ambler’s words and his esteem for Burge followed in torrents.

“Frank’s engaging personality, effective management style and genuine desire to please and assist people,” added the Union’s associate director Ferguson, “have made him extremely popular” with everyone who has had the pleasure of his company. “No matter how high or low they are on the totem pole,” Ferguson pointed out – from former President Harry Truman, a onetime guest, to the greenest 18-year-old undergraduate – “he greets everyone” with the same combination of friendliness and courtesy.

“To countless generations of students he was an understanding and supportive friend,” observed Francis Heller, chairman of the Frank Burge Retirement Committee. “For his fellow administrators, he was the very model of what one would hope for in cooperation and helpfulness. [And] to untold numbers of visitors to the Lawrence campus, he was the image of gracious hospitality.” As KU Chancellor Gene Budig put it, “Frank Burge has done an extraordinary job at KU for three decades. Naming the Satellite Union after him will ensure that the recognition he richly merits will continue far into the future.”

Burge himself, however, was quick to credit others for the extraordinary progress made since he first took over the Union reigns back in 1952. One building, the original Kansas Memorial Union on Jayhawk Boulevard, had been considerably enlarged, renovated and modernized, and now boasted expanded dining options, a movie theater, a travel agency, banking and postal facilities, and a second bookstore, among many additional amenities. Another building, his namesake Union located on Irving Hill Road, had been built and was now providing students with many of the same services, as well as housing the University’s Career and Placement Office. “It’s my staff,” Burge told the University Daily Kansan, when asked to explain how it all happened. “It wouldn’t be what it is without them.”

For more than two decades after his 1983 retirement, Frank Burge was almost as much a fixture atop Mount Oread as he’d been in his Union director heyday. Granted, he was no longer greeting fellow early-risers on his pre-dawn jogs to and from campus, nor was he any longer putting in arduous 60-plus-hour workweeks or managing dozens of daily Union events. But he did surely get around – on his black Schwinn mountain bike. “Now he is recognized by almost every Union employee and many other around town,” noted the July 11, 1991, edition of the Kansan, as the kindly 70-year-old bicyclist “who tells war stories, delivers baked goods and spends his days among students in the building he developed for them.”

Apparently the thought of spending their golden years anywhere other than Lawrence – or anything else but together – never entered the minds of Frank and Gladys Burge. Theirs was a “strong partnership,” observed Ferguson, one that “sustained” him particularly throughout his life. Gladys was “the heart of what kept him going.” Ultimately, however, not even she could sustain her husband through a series of debilitating strokes and other serious health problems. Frank Burge passed away at the Brandon Woods Retirement Community on July 3, 2004, survived by his wife of almost 57 years. He was 82.

As is the unique honor afforded to prominent and long-serving members of the University of Kansas community, Burge’s remains were interred in KU’s Pioneer Cemetery, located on West Campus.

Shortly before his association with the University ended, Burge spoke of the satisfaction he still obtained from his work, citing his relationships with KU students as the fuel that kept him and, by extension, his Union operation running at peak efficiency. “It has been and continues to be a joy to see young people develop,” he told the Lawrence Journal-World. “The union is a place where people can enhance their total enjoyment of university life. It’s been fun and a challenge to be part of that.”

Yet, in the end, it seems that whatever Frank Burge may have gained from his time at KU, he gave back far more. Reflecting on his predecessor’s legacy and manifold contributions, David Mucci, director of the KU Memorial Unions since 1999, spoke for many when he said, “For over fifty years, Frank’s spirit has infused the unions and the campus. And as long as there is a union at KU, Frank will be present.”

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: A wealth of material on the life and career of Frank Burge can be found in the Frank R. Burge Morgue File, located in University Archives, Spencer Research Library. Among the most useful are the following: KU News Bureau press release (May 21, 1952); “A Day in the Life of a Student Union Man,” Kansas Alumni (December 1956), pp. 4-5, 34-36; “The Union Boss,” University Daily Kansan (August 24, 1977); Lawrence Journal-World (June 29, 1982); Lawrence Journal-World (August 21, 1982); Kansas Alumni (September 1982), p. 10; University Daily Kansan (January 26, 1983); Lawrence Journal-World (March 21, 1983); University Daily Kansan (July 11, 1991); Oread newsletter (February 25, 2000); “A Celebration of a Remarkable Life,” Frank Burge memorial service eulogy by David Mucci (July 6, 2004).]