In the 18 years since he retired as chancellor of Kansas University, Ray Nichols hasn't strayed far from the campus he's grown to love over the past 60 years.
Nichols, 87, whose shaded Cape Cod-style house at 1617 Ala. is just a stone's throw from campus, continues to play a role in various KU-related activites.
He's an honorary trustee of the Kansas University Endowment Association and chairs the KUEA's audit committee. He's worked with an oral history project that collects biographies of KU faculty and other friends of the university.
He still goes to KU football and basketball games and attends most musical and theater offerings on campus and a variety of official and social functions.
"I get invitations to everything but I can't go to everything," Nichols says.
THIS CONTINUED involvement and concern for KU's future is something he doesn't plan to give up. For him, it's a debt he's still repaying.
"I've had a great dedication to the university," he said. "I've always felt a great commitment."
Nichols enrolled at KU in 1922. When he graduated four years later, he was the first person in his immediate family to get a college education.
Nichols, the oldest of three children, spent his early youth on a Pawnee County farm 20 miles west of Great Bend. He attended country schools for four years, until his mother moved the family to Larned.
Nichols credits his mother, who was widowed when he was 6 years old, with pointing him in the direction of college.
"My mother was the prime mover in that respect," he said. "She had never gone to high school nor had my father. She was a very modern-minded person in that respect."
FOR THE MOST part, Nichols worked his way through school. He had savings from a job he'd had on a farm and received pay for serving as editor of the University Daily Kansan and the Jayhawker yearbook.
Nichols, a Phi Beta Kappa and Student Council president, received a bachelor's degree in 1926 and a master's in journalism in 1928. After brief stints at two newspapers, the Larned Tiller and Toiler and the Kansas City Kansan, Nichols headed back to Lawrence in 1929 for a job as executive secretary to the chancellor, Ernest H. Lindley, the first of five under whom he would serve before taking the job himself in 1972.
"Some people would say I was the right-hand helper to the chancellor. I did everything," he said.
Nichols' specific duties changed over the years but his career at KU had continuity. He was permanent secretary to the university's budget committee, which conducted item-by-item reviews of departmental funding requests, for more than 30 years, until the system was abolished in the early 1960s.
"OUR RESOURCES in those days were extremely barren," he recalled. We had to scrutinize everything very carefully. We didn't have money for salary increases. We had to squeeze it out of the budget."
For 20 years he chaired the Community Lecture Series, bringing such noted speakers as Amelia Earhart and Dale Carnegie to campus before endowed lecture series took over the job, and the Convocation Committee.
"Any committee in which the chancellor had an interest, I was involved," he said.
Nichols' title eventually evolved into vice chancellor for finance, a post he held until 1968. He continued in his post of executive secretary of the university until 1972 when Laurence Chalmers resigned and he was asked to succeed him, first as acting chancellor and then as chancellor.
"They did me a great honor in asking me to serve as chancellor for a year," Nichols said, noting that the state's mandatory retirement provision forced him to leave the job in 1973.
OVER THE years, Nichols, for whom the KU Space Technology Center is named, has received several awards from KU, including the Fred Ellsworth Medallion.
Nichols' tenure at KU and his direct involvement in university finances has given him some historical perspective on KU's current situation.
His assessment is blunt: "We're in trouble. I think the future is very pessimistic. I think the state has already reached the peak in financing for higher education."
Although Nichols, like many KU supporters, was disappointed that the 1991 Legislature increased KU's budget only slightly, he warns that it could have been and still could get worse.
"This has been progress," he said of this year's budget outcome. "In 1981 we got cut back, I think it was, 1 percent. In 1971 we didn't get a dollar more than in 1970."
YEARS OF tight state budgets inevitably will take their toll on KU's reputation, he said. "I think our rating as a university, particularly by Mr. Fiske of the New York Times, as a four-star university is in jeopardy."
Although he is heartened by the outpouring of support from friends and alumni of KU in Campaign Kansas, which has raised more than $200 million, Nichols said private funding should not be expected to fill the void in state support.
"We shouldn't substitute for state financing," he said. "I don't think a lot of alumni are interested in providing money if it's going to mean a reduction in state financing."
The endowment association will continue to be an important source of funding for restricted purposes, such as faculty chairs and special programs, Nichols said.
"We've learned during Campaign Kansas that there's a lot of money available. What it means is that there's going to have to be another campaign in 10 or 15 years," he said.
"It's importance is not going to decline," he said of private support, but added that operating expenses still must come from the state.
"It cannot be used to replace state support," he said.