Thunderstorms Friday night didn't dampen spirits at the kickoff gala for the largest fund-raising campaign in Kansas University history.
And with good reason: At $280 million in pledges and outright contributions from KU alumni and other supporters, the campaign already has received more than half its $500 million goal.
About 500 people most major donors turned out for the invitation-only event at the Lied Center that marked the beginning of the public portion of the KU Endowment Association's "KU First: Invest in Excellence" campaign. Projects to be funded include everything from scholarships and professorships to science labs and landscaping.
"This is a very special night," KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway said. "I think we'll look back, when we write KU's history for the first part of the 21st century, and say that this was one of the most important days in university history."
Seats at the Lied Center's auditorium-style performance hall were covered with platforms on supports, transforming the entire first level into more of a dinner theater setting. An Orlando, Fla.-based company began the transformation on Monday, said Geni Greiner, director of donor relations for the Endowment Association, and the entire apparatus has to be torn down by Sunday.
Hemenway said the miraculous change proved the campaign's goals were attainable.
"Anybody who says we can't meet this goal after seeing this ... we can do anything we set our minds to," he said.
Before Friday, the campaign had been in its "quiet phase" for three years, said Campaign Chairman Forrest Hoglund, a KU graduate and retired oil executive from Texas. Endowment Association officials had been meeting privately with donors to secure large contributions.
"Now, we're going into a much broader campaign," he said. "Before all is said and done, we'll have made more than 30,000 contacts."
He said he expected the campaign would reach its $500 million goal before 2004, when the campaign is scheduled to end.
The largest pledge so far has come from the Hall Foundation of Kansas City, which has committed $42 million to support the life sciences, humanities and business, including $27 million for a new biosciences research facility at the KU Medical Center.
Hoglund and his wife, Sally Roney Hoglund, have pledged $7 million to help fund a new brain imaging center at the Med Center.
Festivities Friday included a reception, dinner and performances by KU students and faculty. Alumni who attended the university in the 50s, 60s and 70s shared fond memories of their time there.
"This is an outpouring of Jayhawk love and affection and commitment to a very strong idea and that idea is excellence at the University of Kansas," Hemenway said.
A highlight of the evening was a duet by J. Mark McVey, the lead male performer in Broadway's "Les Miserables," and Pamela Hinchman, an acclaimed opera performer and associate professor of music at KU.
And although heavy rain doused any plans the association had to hold a fireworks display outside, a contingency plan allowed pyrotechnics bangs and confetti to be ignited inside the Lied Center.
At an Endowment Association breakfast this morning, faculty and staff members will discuss the goals of the campaign. Later today, the association will give away 25 $1,000 scholarships to students who wear a KU First T-shirt to the KU-UCLA football. Kickoff is at 11:30 a.m.