Tefft’s ’56 Jayhawk a campus landmark

Posted on Feb 20, 2015 in Campus News and News

Tefft Jayhawk | www.kualumni.org
IMG_news_paperweightA KU icon passed away this week, though many alumni might have missed it. If they’re not familiar with his name, they definitely know his work.

Professor Emeritus Elden Tefft, f’49, g’50, left his mark on campus by creating one of the most beloved (and photographed) sculptures on Jayhawk Boulevard: “Academic Jay” in front of Strong Hall.

His other works are equally notable, including the bronze “Moses” kneeling before the stained-glass depiction of the burning bush at Smith Hall, as featured in the university’s official seal. But the Strong Hall Jayhawk is much more meaningful to me, for very personal reasons.

For starters, Tefft’s Jayhawk was a gift of the Class of 1956. My father, Don Johnston, b’56, l’66, was a member of that class and took great pride in it. When his classmates celebrated their their 50th reunion, small paperweight versions were commissioned as commemorative gifts for attendees (pictured).

The ’56 Jayhawk, as I came to know it, has always been the symbolic (if not the geographic) center of KU. That was definitely the case in 1988, when KU’s improbable run to the NCAA Championship featured impromptu celebrations that flooded Wescoe Beach, with the ’56 Jay surveying the scene. I remember racing to campus after KU knocked off Duke to advance to the title game, where I climbed the base of the ’56 Jay, taking in the celebration from the Jayhawk’s lofty granite perch.

Johnston proposalI returned to the base of statue ten years later, surprising my KU sweetheart as she took a seat, and I got down on one knee. We were engaged under the watchful eye of the ’56 Jayhawk, like so many others who have celebrated significant milestones with Tefft’s iconic creation.

Perhaps it is fitting that as we celebrate the life and contributions of Elden Tefft this month, the KU Alumni Association’s 2015 calendar features his ’56 Jayhawk for February. Photographed by Chris Lazzarino, it watches over campus with a timeless look and its signature half-smile, focusing its gaze toward the horizon, towering toward the blue.

–David Johnston

See a collection of photos from Elden Tefft’s work on iconic KU landmarks on the University of Kansas’ Flickr page. Do you have a memory or special photo with Elden Tefft’s iconic KU landmark? Share it with us at share@kualumni.org.

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