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Archive for Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Woodling: Gautt a fitting city icon

December 12, 2006

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If you go to the Web, crank up your favorite search engine and type in the words "Prentice Gautt," you'll find very little Lawrence-related information.

You will come across story after story, however, about Gautt's near-legendary status in Oklahoma, where he broke a color barrier in 1956 by becoming the first African-American to play football for the Sooners.

You'll learn that Oklahoma University named its athletic department academic support facility the Prentice Gautt Center in a day and age when most new university buildings are named after donors, not distinguished graduates.

You'll also learn that just a couple of months ago, the NCAA agreed to allow OU to paint the 38-yard line crimson to honor Gautt, who had worn that jersey number. Furthermore, OU did not assign No. 38 this fall as an additional tribute to this late Sooner State icon.

At the same time, you'll learn that Gautt died March 17, 2005, after being hospitalized for flu-like symptoms. But you'll have a dickens of a time finding that Gautt spent the last 15 years of his life living in Lawrence, that it is here where he died at the age of 67, and it is here where he is buried.

Gautt and his wife, Sandra, moved to Lawrence in 1990 after Mrs. Gautt was hired as a Kansas University administrator. At the time, Gautt was an assistant commissioner with the old Big Eight Conference, so he commuted to the league office in downtown Kansas City, Mo.

Later, when the Big Eight morphed into the Big 12 Conference and the offices were moved to Dallas in 1996, Gautt was the only member of the league's top cadre who wasn't required to move.

He didn't want to move, and he didn't really need to because his primary task was to visit conference campuses and conduct reviews of the school's life-skills programs, interpret rules and administer the drug-testing program.

Although known primarily as the first African-American football player at Oklahoma, few knew Gautt also owned a doctorate in psychology from Missouri University, a degree he earned while working as an assistant football coach.

The reason few knew is because Prentice Gautt wasn't about to trumpet the fact. Gautt may not have been the humblest man who ever lived, but he was surely in the top five.

During his years in Lawrence, Gautt probably made his biggest impact at First Presbyterian Church, where he was - cliche be darned - a pillar. His funeral at the church was an SRO affair, drawing dignitaries from far and wide.

OU isn't alone in honoring Prentice Gautt. The Big 12 Conference jumped on board by tacking Gautt's name onto its graduate scholarship program.

Now Lawrence will in its own small way pay tribute to this ground-breaking man. On Thursday morning, the Prentice Gautt Classroom will be dedicated at the East Heights Early Childhood Family Center, the school district's program for children who are considered at-risk because of socio-economics.

Although Gautt spent the bulk of his non-football life working with college-age students, I'm sure he would be the first to stress that as the twig is bent, so grows the tree.

If there is a better role model for East Heights ECFC, I can't imagine who it would be.

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