It’s a scenic resting spot, a dog’s paradise on a hot summer day, the backdrop for graduation pictures or a location for late-night mischief by students.
For more than five decades, the Chi Omega Fountain has been a entryway to Kansas University’s campus, ranking with waving the wheat and singing the “Rock Chalk” chant in terms of university traditions.
Even the fountain’s beginning involved KU students. In 1955, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Chi Omega chapter at the university, the sorority wanted to create a memorial for deceased members. The sorority had a $100 prize for a student to design the fountain’s eight panels.
Jim Bass, of Topeka, has sculptures in Nebraska and Kansas, including “Prairie Formation” on campus, but few know he designed the panels as a KU senior in 1955. Bass said the panels, which depict Greek mythology, weren’t his style — he was a contemporary artist — but he knew he had a better chance to win with a traditional design. Bass knew the judge, an English professor, was interested in Greek mythology.
“She was old-school,” Bass said with a laugh. “I knew that thing had to be Greek. Anything modern wouldn’t have passed the mustard with her.”
Bass said after the fountain was built, he received criticism from the student newspaper for picking such a traditional look. Bass said he’s surprised and pleased to know his first piece of public art has become so popular.
The fountain was dedicated April 23, 1955. Chi Omega alumnae raised $5,000, and the KU Endowment Association donated the remainder of the $11,000 to build it.
In the May 1955 Alumni magazine, Chancellor Franklin Murphy said the fountain “represents another step in the beautification of the naturally beautiful KU campus. The fountain shows that the university is interested not only in utilitarian things but in beauty as well.”
Bass isn’t the only artist to use the fountain to display his talent. Matthew Farley, December 2008 graduate, displayed his “Frozen Assets” sculpture there last December through March. The sculpture, made from plastic water bottles, was placed to look like water spouting from the fountain. Farley wanted a prominent place on campus to raise awareness for recycling. The sculpture was to be removed in January, but Farley credits the fountain’s popularity to keeping it up until spring break.
Mary Duarte, a senior from Hutchinson and Chi Omega president, said Chi Omega members feel a certain claim on the fountain, and it’s a part of many chapter traditions. On Bid Day, when new members receive their invitation to join the sorority, current members wait for the new members at the fountain with signs and balloons. Duarte said almost everyone ends up jumping in the fountain in excitement.
Courtney Condron, of Leawood, graduated from KU in spring and knew she had to jump in the fountain as a rite of passage at the university.
“Everyone has to have a Chi O fountain story,” Condron said. “I’d never done it before, and it’s a KU tradition.”
Two weeks before graduation, Condron and her sorority sisters talked friends from a fraternity into jumping into the fountain one night. The men were sitting on the top of the fountain when the campus police showed up and told them to get off the top. Condron said the police weren’t too upset and even took a picture with her group in front of the fountain. The police officer posing with the group did ask, “Do I have to get in?”
Mike LaBonte, a plumbing supervisor for KU’s Facilities Operations, said the fountain is often victim to students’ pranks, such as pouring dye in, adding soap and leaving clothing and other random belongings. LaBonte, who cleans the fountain about once a week, said he’s seen about everything, including a catfish, in the fountain.
Most students, however, just want to jump in and partake in the tradition. The fountain has been at the heart of campus for decades, and will continue to be a part of the lives of many Jayhawk generations — from their first splash until graduation day.