Home to over 1,000 pieces of Jayhawk memorabilia, the Jayhawk Collection living on the second floor of the Union showcases the history and evolution of the University and its mascots to over 1.5 million students, alumni and fans who visit the Union annually.
However, this prized possession of the University — valued at over $250,000 — was nearly boxed up and auctioned off in 2013, never to again grace the halls of the Union.
The vast majority of the collection came from one collector, Bud Jennings, who had amassed Jayhawk memorabilia for over 60 years before allowing the Union to display his pieces in 2010.
"The original agreement was the union would display the items, and that was great for us because that was a way to share the collection with the campus community and public in general," KU History Coordinator Tim Gaddie said. "And then for Jennings, it was a way for people to see it and hopefully, in his mind, someone would be like 'Oh I'd like to buy that collection.’”
However — after four years and no luck — Jennings asked the Union to pack up his collection and allow him to sell it piece-by-piece online, in search of $130,000.
As then, coordinator of KU History Mike Reid was in the process of packing the memorabilia, he drew plenty of local media attention from a Facebook post detailing the soon-to-be loss of the collection.
Fortunately for both Reid and Jennings, James and Mary Ellen Ascher, a couple from Overland Park, saw the story in a newspaper and wanted to get involved.
“Basically they made a donation to KU Endowment which enabled us through KU Endowment to keep the collection," Gaddie said. "So Jennings was able to secure the funds he was hoping to get for his retirement.”
Since the donation, the collection in its entirety has returned to the Union, where Gaddie said there is no longer a risk of losing the display.
“It is part of KU now, so it won't go away,” Gaddie said. “It's treated as a museum collection. So we're holding it and preserving it in the public trust, the University trust.”
Now that the memorabilia is an everlasting piece of the University, part of Gaddie’s job at the Union is to both become familiar with the pieces and upkeep them.
“Right now on a quarterly basis we go through and dust everything, just to keep it clean, and that's also a chance to take a good look at stuff as you go through, make sure we're not getting any pests in the cases and checking the light exposure,” Gaddie said.
While the collection is home to over 1,000 pieces, only a few hundred can be displayed at a time due to space limitations. One of Gaddie’s favorite elements of the exhibit is the endcap—an entire case dedicated to the work of one artist: George Knotts, a Kansas alumnus who, before his passing last year, gave much of his time and artistry to the University.
This display showcases many bronze smaller Jayhawks surrounding one large stone piece.
“This is the first stone sculpture of a Jayhawk and the chancellor basically bought it with his own money and then donated it to the Union to be on display,” Gaddie said. “To me, the pieces themselves are cool, but it's more the history behind them and the sculptor himself that make them interesting and valuable to me."
In order to educate the public on the history and significance of the pieces, KU History is in the process of creating interpretations to be displayed with the memorabilia, as well as a virtual tour so those unable to the visit the Union can still experience the collection.
Until then, KU History invites alumni and students to visit the display on the second floor of the Union.
Kara Stucky, director of marketing for KU Memorial Union, said she is proud to be able to display such a unique collection.
“It's just a really great opportunity for the public and alumni to come and relive their experience through the Jayhawk and through the history that we have on collection at the Union,” Stucky said. “We really want everyone to know that we have this collection because it's really special to the University of Kansas as a whole.”