Two Kansas University graduates who have made a point of serving and advocating for minorities will receive the university's distinguished service citation Saturday.
Those to be honored are Eric Sundquist, a 1974 graduate with a bachelor's degree in English, who is a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles and has written nine books; and Roger Youmans, who earned a bachelor's degree from KU in 1955 and a medical degree in 1958. He completed his residency at KU Medical Center before working at hospitals in Africa.
"When the chancellor called to tell me I had been selected for the award, I thought it was a joke," Youmans said from his New Jersey home.
Youmans, a native of Kansas City, Kan., came to KU on a Summerfield Scholarship, "the only way I was able to come," he said. After combining his last year of undergrad with his first year of medical school and then graduating, Youmans got the urge to help humanity and go to Africa, first to the Democratic Republic of Congo and then to Ghana.
He spent more than 10 years in Africa.
"(Congo) had just gotten independence when I went for the first time. I saw pictures and heard on the radio and television of the desperate need for doctors," Youmans said. "There were no Congolese doctors. I thought I ought to go ahead. For a while I was planning to be a medical missionary."
After a stint back in Kansas City as a professor at KUMC, Youmans spent time as chief of staff of Kinshasa General Hospital in the Congo.
Despite retiring in 1999, Youmans hasn't given up on his desire to help people, particularly those living in impoverished areas of Africa. Among the programs he's passionate about is one that delivers medication to combat river blindness in central Africa. The medication is available free but must be distributed to those who need it.
Sundquist's career has focused on literature and university education.
"I heard in the fall I was going to be nominated," he said. "It may have originated with someone in the English department."
As a professor at UCLA, Sundquist has been a prolific writer, including his latest work on the relationship between African-Americans and Jewish-Americans in literature. It's an issue he said hasn't been probed in great detail.
"Historically, there is a strong relationship between blacks and Jews over civil rights," Sundquist said. "I've found the literature, to some degree, was a mirror of that relationship itself."
Sundquist said the two groups formed a partnership in the 19th century because both were fighting for respect - and more civil rights - in American society. However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the partnership broke down as Jewish-Americans accumulated rights and respect more quickly. The breakdown was mirrored in literature.
"It showed strong bonds of kinship while also showing that their interests were not always the same," Sundquist said.
The two will receive the awards at the All-University Supper on Saturday, the day before KU's graduation ceremony.