The Legacy of Frank Burge
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.
Upon the 2016 shuttering and demolition of the original Burge Union to prepare for sweeping improvements to KU's Central District, the Kansas Board of Regents elected to re-dedicate the new student union taking shape in the district in Burge's honor.
The original 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.
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.”
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 Warner 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.”
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
Excerpted and adapted from KUHistory.com