Archive for Monday, January 20, 2003

Museum honors namesake

Elizabeth Watkins donated to KU, community

January 20, 2003


While William Quantrill's infamy for burning Lawrence is well-documented, a group of historians is recognizing a woman who played a key role in rebuilding the city.

Elizabeth Miller Watkins, the woman responsible for doubling the size of Kansas University's campuses, will be celebrated Tuesday.

Friends of Watkins Museum are busy planning Elizabeth Miller Watkins Day, a party at the Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Mass.

Watkins, and her wedding in 1909 to prominent Lawrence financier J.B. Watkins in Brooklyn, N.Y., will be the focus of the party, said Irene Reynolds, vice president of Friends of Watkins.

"The marriage was so shocking because she had worked for him since she was 15," Reynolds said. "When they were married, she was 48 and he was 64."

The details surrounding the marriage remain sketchy, so organizers are gathering materials to re-create the social buzz Watkins encountered.

"We'll be focusing on what was going on in Lawrence and in the world in 1909," said Gayle Matchett, president of the group. "We hope we can re-enact what Mr. Watkins' employees would have been gossiping about."

Matchett said the party will seek to iron out the timing of the wedding. The two were married only after Elizabeth's mother died.

The local newspaper mirrored the public's response to the wedding. "This announcement is the most startling that has been made in Lawrence in several years, for no one in Lawrence had any idea that the wedding was to take place," the Lawrence Daily Journal reported on Nov. 15, 1909.

After Mr. Watkins' death in 1921, Watkins used the $2.4 million estate left behind to begin contributions to the city and the university.

Watkins left the estate and 25,000 acres of western Kansas farmland to the university when she died in 1939.

In Lawrence, Watkins is responsible for donating the building that now houses the Watkins Museum and the Douglas County Historical Society. She also donated funds for the building of Lawrence Memorial Hospital.

At KU, Watkins' endowment fund has left an impression on the campus.

Her first contribution came in 1926 with the construction of Watkins Scholarship Hall. Since then, Miller Scholarship Hall and Watkins Student Health Center have been built with her donations.

The endowment fund generated money to purchase land adjacent to the university's Lawrence and Kansas City Medical Center campuses and continues to provide for the upkeep of the two scholarship halls.

"She was a remarkable woman and an important part of Lawrence's history," Matchett said.

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