Ask KU alumni about their favorite KU traditions, and inevitably the walk down the Hill at Commencement will rank near the top. Chancellor Robert E. Hemenway famously remarked in nearly every one of his Commencement addresses that “the walk is the ceremony,” and all who have witnessed this unique spectacle agree that the winding procession down Mount Oread is not only beautiful to behold, it has become a cherished rite of passage for Jayhawks culminating their KU careers.
Fondly remembered by alumni, the walk down the Hill has been celebrated at KU with great pomp and pageantry for nearly a century, making it difficult to imagine a KU Commencement ceremony before this famous tradition.
At his final Commencement in 2009, former Chancellor Hemenway summarized the experience best. “Today, you have joined graduates in the University’s most time-honored ritual, one that binds Jayhawks together, that attaches them as friends with an emotional glue that never breaks. As we say every year, the walk is the ceremony. You have to walk before you can fly. The walk prepares Jayhawks for flight.”
2003: Chancellor Hemenway at Commencement
Founded with grand fanfare and lofty expectations in 1865, the University of Kansas was little more than a preparatory school offering a few college classes in its early days. As a result, it took more than four years for its first graduates to earn their degrees.
On June 11, 1873, KU conferred its first degrees at a formal ceremony inside the brand new and barely finished University Hall. The building, the most modern and finest of its kind on any college campus, would later be known for the chancellor who championed its construction and presided over that first Commencement ceremony, John Fraser.
Although KU’s first graduates did not walk down the Hill, KU’s commencement has always featured a procession. At KU’s first Commencement in 1873, the walk was atop the Hill, starting just south of what is now Spooner Hall toward University Hall, positioned just west of present-day Fraser. Around 1897, the graduates adopted the practice of donning academic regalia, including caps and gowns.
When Robinson Gymnasium was completed in 1907, with a larger space for convening a growing class of graduates, the procession moved with graduates gathering at Fraser Hall and continuing west to Robinson, where Wescoe is currently located.
1913: Commencement at Robinson gymnasium
By 1921, plans were being made to construct a memorial stadium on the site of McCook field, and in 1923, organizers decided to try an outdoor ceremony. A giant tent was erected near the new stadium, however the ceremony proved so hot that the tent-covered Commencement would never be repeated.
1923: The infamous commencement tent
In 1924, Commencement exercises were held for the first time at Memorial Stadium located at the foot of the Hill. Graduates walked from Strong Hall down Mount Oread into the stadium, and the tradition continues to this day.
1950s: Commencement as the Campanile is under construction
In the 1950s, KU graduates added to the tradition by walking through the new World War II Memorial Campanile. With the tower nearing completion–yet still clad with scaffolding–enthusiastic seniors found it too difficult to resist and became the first graduates to walk through the Campanile. The symbolic act of walking through Campanile has signaled the transformation from KU student to graduate ever since.
To learn more about Commencement, including the history of class banners, honorary degrees, and the special experience for Big and Baby Jays, read our full feature, The Walk.
Harold “Hal” Sandy, j’47, who created the famous Happy Jayhawk logo as a KU student in 1946, died Dec. 9, 2017. Sandy is fondly remembered by alumni and Jayhawk fans, and his creation remains one of the most recognized and beloved collegiate symbols in the country. David Johnston, KU Alumni Association vice president for marketing and digital media, met with Sandy while leading the KU visual identity project in 2005 as KU director of marketing. He reflects on meeting Sandy for the first time in this personal tribute to a KU icon. More coverage of Sandy is available here.
A date with history
On Aug. 9, 2005, I was a bundle of nerves as I walked up the stairs to the Provost’s office. This was an important meeting, but I’d had several of those as KU’s brand new director of marketing while helping to guide the creation of a new Visual Identity for the university. I had made the case for a new KU logo to the Chancellor, campus leaders and colleagues, and alumni. But this was different. Today, I was meeting Hal Sandy, creator of the smiling Jayhawk, and I was more than a little intimidated. I was also star-struck.
As a KU student in 1946, Sandy was asked to design a new post-war Jayhawk with a decidedly happier disposition. The request came from Ed Browne, c’38, g’57, KU’s director of public relations, who wanted a simple window decal for his car. According to my conversation with Sandy that day, he had agreed to design the new Jayhawk on the condition that he be able to sell the decals to help pay his tuition. After graduating, he sold his copyright to the Kansas Union Bookstore for $250. Sandy’s popular creation would eventually replace Yogi Williams’ angry “Fighting Jayhawk” as the University’s official emblem, and KU would continue to use the “Happy” or “Smiling” Jayhawk for the next 60 years.
My meeting would change that.
My task that afternoon was to seek Sandy’s permission to change his beloved bird by adding the new “Trajan” KU logo that had just been approved. Chancellor Robert Hemenway was adamant that the new logo be featured on the Jayhawk in the spirit of “One University,” so my boss, Executive Vice Chancellor Paul Carttar, suggested I obtain Sandy’s support. Provost Shulenburger agreed and arranged the meeting. This put me in an awkward position.
You see, I had grown up a fan of KU and considered the Jayhawk sacred. Hal Sandy was a legend to me. Moreover, our visual identity committee had pledged not to alter the Jayhawk in our effort to standardize KU’s colors and trademarks. I was not convinced that we even needed to touch Sandy’s Jayhawk, and yet here it was my job to make the case with the bird’s creator for adding the new KU. I risked offending a man I had idolized.
After Dr. Shulenburger introduced me, he nodded for me to take over the meeting. (Gulp.)
The Smiling Jayhawk
I was immediately disarmed by his warmth upon meeting him. Hal Sandy was a kind, generous soul, always smiling, and we soon bonded as we talked shop. Sandy had considered himself a marketing man as much or more than an artist. He understood branding, visual identity and the need for consistency. Quickly, we found common ground, and to my surprise, I found a friend and ally.
I made my pitch, and was shocked to learn that Sandy had followed our visual identity project with interest. He supported what we were doing, and when it was suggested that we might add the new KU logo to his Jayhawk, I’ll never forget his response.
Smiling, he replied, “I thought you’d never ask.”
Then he launched into the story of how he designed the Jayhawk. He thought it should, like the Fighting Jayhawk, bear KU’s trademark initials. But in the absence of an established, official KU logo, Sandy intentionally chose large, generic letters that could be used, as he put it, until such time as KU could formally designate a logo. I couldn’t believe my ears.
The rest of our meeting was just as surreal. The visual identity committee hoped to standardize the Jayhawk after years of minor variations, interpretations and manipulations brought on by the desktop publishing revolution. To find the one true version, we went straight to the source. Although Sandy no longer had the original drawing he made for the decal, he did have one of the original decals, which we used to painstakingly recreate his Jayhawk, line for line. One of the proudest moments of my life came a few days later, sitting in a dark room at a computer, when we carefully placed the new KU logo on the Jayhawk, with his final blessing.
More than a logo
My meeting with Sandy had more surprises in store. Once we’d taken care of the business at hand, I couldn’t resist the temptation to ask the KU icon countless questions about the Jayhawk. Questions that had dogged KU fans for decades could finally be answered by the man himself.
“Is the Jayhawk supposed to face right or left, and why?” I wondered.
Alas, Sandy confirmed there is no official story about why the Jayhawk faces one way or the other, but he did admit to designing the bird facing left on the decal. Others would “flip” his design to face right, and he enjoyed the stories that would emerge about the Jayhawk turning its back on the state of Missouri, or facing Missouri with its boot outstretched to give it a swift kick.
Another favorite story Sandy shared, perpetuated no doubt by Nebraska fans, was that the feather detail distinguishing the Jayhawk’s wing from his foot was made in the shape on an “N.” A nice story, but one that doesn’t quite line up with his original left-facing decal, in which the N would be backward.
Sandy was, above all, proud to be associated with his beloved creation, just as I was proud to help to preserve it, protect it and give it new life. When the question arose about how to properly acknowledge the evolution of the symbolic bird, we decided to create a special historic designation for his original 1946 design, dubbed the “Sandy Jayhawk.” The Jayhawk that emerged from our meeting, combining his design with our Trajan KU, would be known as the “current” Jayhawk. That’s the way he wanted it.
Hal Sandy’s legacy is more than a logo. It is a shared love for the University of Kansas, and a symbol that unites us as Jayhawks.
I’ll never forget my meeting with the man who still puts a smile on every Jayhawk’s face.
A collection of articles and a video about Hal Sandy and his “Happy Jayhawk” is available here.
Robert E. Hemenway, who served as KU’s 16th chancellor from 1995 to 2009, died Friday at the age of 73. KU posted a statement from Chancellor Gray-Little to its Facebook page on Saturday.
“I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Chancellor Hemenway,” said Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. “Chancellor Hemenway was a visionary leader who guided the University of Kansas to unprecedented heights and successes during his time here. Under his leadership, the university made tremendous strides in how we educate students, conduct research, and serve the people of Kansas. I know I can speak for the entire KU community in saying we owe him a debt of gratitude, for the work he did paved the way for so much of the great work we’re doing today. Most importantly, Bob was a wonderful man who loved his job, loved the people around him, and loved this place — and he was loved in return. On behalf of the entire university, I extend my condolences to Chancellor Hemenway’s family and friends.”
The KU Alumni Association honored Hemenway in 2012 with the Fred Ellsworth Medallion, its highest honor. A tribute video from that event is embedded below and available on YouTube.
According to the Lawrence Journal-World, a memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 9 at the Dole Institute of Politics. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial contributions be made to the Robert E. Hemenway Scholarship fund at KU. Gifts may be sent in care of KU Endowment, P.O. Box 928, Lawrence, 66044.