Last week, Kansas University gave special recognition to R. Keith Lawton, former vice chancellor for campus planning and development. The only question about this richly deserved honor is why it wasn't proffered long ago. Lawton is one of the most pivotal and productive officials in the school's history.
Applause was generous when a plaque paying tribute to Lawton was unveiled on the west side of Wescoe Hall. He deserved the attention and the only unfortunate aspect of the honor is that it cannot begin to reflect his positive influence on KU during its most important growth and emergence.
Lawton retired from KU in 1982 after 34 years of notable service. He figured in the acquisition of what is now the expanding West Campus area, the construction of Allen Fieldhouse, which was dedicated in 1955, residence halls and scores of other buildings. He served seven chancellors and two interim chancellors, always in a low-key role.
Lawton was far more than a supervisor and orchestrator. He was a nuts-and-bolts individual who rolled up his sleeves, got his hands dirty and was not the least bit intimidated by hard manual labor to bring a project to fruition. For example, he and the late Dick Harp, former KU basketball star and coach, almost daily visited the Allen Fieldhouse construction scene to make sure things were going as they should. The longevity of this storied structure attests to their diligence and expertise.
This honoree came by his successes through hard work and periodic doubt about his future. With an Emporia background, he had to scrape up nickels and dimes and manage a terribly tight budget to get an education. There were times he was about to abandon the quest. During World War II he served in the U.S. Navy, and after service had a brief fling as a professional basketball player.
But it was at KU where Lawton came full bloom. There was a time in the 1950s when he was one of the Big Four on the campus - Chancellor Franklin D. Murphy, Executive Secretary Raymond Nichols and Vice Chancellor George Baxter Smith the other three. They were tireless, aggressive, visionary and effective administrators with outstanding executive skills. KU would not be the outstanding entity it is today without their blood, sweat, tears and guidance.
Said Chancellor Robert Hemenway at the plaque unveiling, "In honoring Keith we are able to honor the ones who have made this a special place." Perhaps too faint a praise for someone who gave the school what Lawton did. As usual, Keith shrugged off the commendations and cited others he felt had done more.
Current KU students, staff and faculty every day benefit from the kind of work Lawton, Murphy, Nichols and Smith did so long ago. Lawton's honor is well-deserved and his three departed Big Four compadres would be the first to second the motion.