September 25, 2023

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Gene Budig, One of the Best

Over the years, at least the last 80 or so, the University of Kansas has had the good services of 11 chancellors. Starting with Deane Malott, Franklin Murphy, W. Clarke Wescoe, E. Laurence Chalmers, Raymond Nichols, Archie Dykes, Gene Budig, Del Shankel, Robert Hemenway, Bernadette Gray-Little and now Doug Girod.

Early Tuesday morning, Lawrence residents learned Gene Budig had died at his home in Charleston, South Carolina. He was one of the best! He had fought a four-year battle with a tough liver disease, far longer than doctors had originally predicted.

It is understandable there are varying opinions about the abilities, records and contributions of those past chancellors but this writer, who has known all of the above and worked closely with most of them, believes Budig was among the top three to run the KU operation.

Each chancellor faced different and/or unique circumstances and challenges so it is hard to come up with any kind of a yardstick to measure the overall or relative excellence of the 11 chancellors. Different economic situations, war times vs. peace times, different relations with state legislators, different levels of competition from other schools, student unrest, different regents and many other factors colored a chancellor’s resume. Likewise, each chancellor had a different background and experiences prior to coming to Lawrence and each member of each selection committee probably was looking for varying strengths among the candidates to meet the demands of the University at that time.

Some worked out better than others.

Budig’s story should serve as an inspiration as to what can be accomplished if an individual has the drive and determination to succeed.

Shortly after birth, Budig was adopted from an orphanage by a used car dealer in McCook, Nebraska. He attended the University of Nebraska, worked as a reporter and editorial writer and by the age of 33 had received three degrees from the University, served as an assistant to the school’s president and assistant for the Nebraska governor.

Prior to arriving in Lawrence, Budig had served as president of Illinois State University and West Virginia University. He was 41 when he moved into the Frank Strong office following the popular Archie Dykes, who had accepted the leadership position for a large Topeka based insurance company.

According to some who were in the administration at that time, they thought the incoming chancellor would likely make many personnel changes but he said he wouldn’t until someone left. He added, when you upset an apple cart, you are likely to lose some good people and with good people you can make any organization better.

Budig served for 13 highly successful years and made a commitment to lead the KU Endowment Association’s second major capital campaign, Campaign Kansas, which raised, at that time, a record $265 million.

He helped build an excellent “town-gown” relationship that played a significant role in the betterment of both the University and the City of Lawrence. The Lied Performing Arts Center was one of his many efforts. There was enthusiasm and excitement on the campus and Budig was determined to raise the national academic recognition of the University. He believed in the importance of rankings as alumni, students, prospective students, high school advisors, parents, athletes and state legislators all looked at how the school ranked compared to other state, conference and national schools.

Some at KU suggested rankings were over rated but Budig was determined to build the excellence of the school, which, in turn, would raise its national reputation and attract outstanding faculty and students. He stressed the importance for KU to maintain, better yet to focus, more attention on excellence and research in order to justify continued membership in the elite Association of American Universities.

When he arrived in Lawrence, he seemed shy and withdrawn, however, it didn’t take long for him to swing into action and make it clear he had big, challenging goals for the University.
Budig put together an outstanding group of associates to serve as a trusted inner circle and they offered advice and help in his drive to elevate the school’s academic and research efforts and to increase the numbers of talented students.

Some of these individuals included Del Shankel, who later served two terms as an interim chancellor, Keith Nitcher, Dave Ambler, Frances Horowitz, Bob Cobb, Ed Meyen, Howard Mossberg, Bill Tuttle, Jack and Judy Wright and Jim Carothers.

This writer asked a number of individuals associated with KU and other schools their thoughts about Budig’s strengths and distinguishing features. There was no hesitation, but rather great enthusiasm in the answers: He treated the people in his cabinet with great respect; he was a good person and you could trust his word; open minded; fair and honest; integrity; supportive of people who reported to him; always generous in his support of social issues; worked quietly behind the scenes; engaged well with alumni; a quiet leader; he had good judgment of people’s character and to evaluate people; he had the quality of a good leader in that he made you feel you were working with him rather than working for him; a great man and great honesty in dealing with people.

Rather than ending his chancellorship by retiring and taking it easy, Budig had a dream job as president of major league baseball’s American League; he was a lecturer at Princeton University; he became a part owner of the Charleston, S.C. minor league baseball team and affiliate of the New York Yankees – The RiverDogs and he was instrumental in starting the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

Reflecting on the overall KU chancellor situation, the Murphy/Wescoe tandem over 19 years gave KU a tremendous boost in most every respect. They were great days for the school and for Lawrence.

Each chancellor has had his or her challenges, such as how to field a perpetual winning football program.
However, the overall record of Gene Budig is one of the best. Although a Nebraskan by birth, it was, and is, clear he adopted the University of Kansas and Lawrence as his true home.