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Archive for Friday, February 23, 1990

KANSAS INDEBTED TO HERSHBERGER

February 23, 1990

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Wade Stinson's foot was heavy on the accelerator that morning maximum speed on the Kansas Turnpike was 80 mph back in 1969 as he drove his car to Wichita.

Stinson was KU's athletic director at the time. He was headed for the Air Capitol to participate in an historic event. Along for the ride were KU track coach Bob Timmons, sports information director Jay Simon and the young sports editor of the Journal-World.

Soon we arrived at the downtown office of Hershberger Enterprises Inc., an oil exploration firm owned by a former KU sprinter named Jim Hershberger.

We knew what was up. Hershberger, a 1953 grad who had become a millionaire before he was 30, would announce that he was giving $125,000 so Kansas could tear up the cinder track in Memorial Stadium and install an all-weather surface.

THAT WAS a ton of money in those days. In fact, it was the largest lump-sum gift ever given to Kansas University's athletic program. It was a donation with two purposes to save the rain-plagued Kansas Relays and to serve as a recruiting tool for KU's track program.

Back in those days, Kansas produced track and field juggernauts year after year and the Kansas Relays was one of the most prestigious events of its kind in the nation.

Today, Kansas track hasn't been a powerhouse for years, the Kansas Relays has evolved into a more or less a high school meet and Hershberger has just been convicted on 25 fraud-related charges by a jury in Topeka.

How times have changed.

Richard Hathaway, an assistant U.S. attorney who helped prosecute the case, concluded that Hershberger's motive to defraud investors and banking institutions was "pure greed."

Be that as it may, Hathaway's remark made me wonder how much money Jim Hershberger and his wife Sally had contributed to Kansas University athletics over the years.

APPARENTLY, NOBODY knows except Hershberger and his tax man. But I'd estimate the figure at around $750,000 over the last two decades.

Hershberger made his first splash as a KU benefactor with that $125,000 gift. But he topped that figure in 1983 when he coughed up another $190,000 with half earmarked for renovation of Hershberger Track and the other half to go to the Jayhawks' track and field program.

In addition, Hershberger gave four track scholarships a year, putting him in the top echelon of the Williams Fund. He also gave the Kansas Relays a shot in the arm in 1981 with a $10,000 gift.

Too, he traditionally bought individual championship rings for members of KU's Big Eight championship track teams. . .and there were plenty of those in the 70s and early 80s.

Furthermore, a few years ago Hershberger endowed a professorship in the name of Bill Easton, the man who coached him while he was on the KU track team.

In 1987, KU athletic director Monte Johnson announced that Hershberger had been selected for the university's Athletic Hall of Fame. Hershberger lacked the required athletic credentials but, in Johnson's eyes, his many monetary contributions superseded the criteria.

TODAY HERSHBERGER'S painted portrait hangs in a hallway in Allen Fieldhouse and the "Jim Hershberger Track" sign remains at Memorial Stadium. His legacy to KU athletics, despite his criminal conviction, remains intact.

"There have been very few people as generous as Jim and Sally Hershberger were to the Kansas athletic department over the years," current KU athletic director Bob Frederick said. "We're grateful for that."

Hershberger's generosity, while bountiful, never eclipsed, however, his fanatacism for fitness and his boundless energy.

Back in 1958, when he was in his 20s, somebody bet Hershberger he couldn't play 180 holes of golf in 15 hours. That's 10 grueling rounds of golf, yet it took him only 12 hours and 50 minutes to do it.

Whatever the future holds for Hershberger, no one can take away his benevolence to his alma mater.

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