Even budget shortfall can’t silence university’s steam whistle

The steam whistle on top of the facilities operation building at Kansas University will blow again thanks to donations to a university maintenance fund.

A nearly century-old Kansas University tradition almost came to an end — twice.

When the campus steam whistle was threatened, students and alumni made noise. Noise loud enough to fill the silence left by the unused whistle. Noise loud enough to bring the whistle back.

In September 2008, the steam whistle, the sound of which has signaled the end of classes since 1912, was shut off in an effort to save on energy costs. But an outcry from students and alumni who embraced the whistle’s tradition forced administrators to rethink their decision. After a three-week hiatus, the whistle was reinstated.

“I’ve been here a lot of years. I didn’t realize it was such a big deal until talking to some guys whose folks graduated a long time ago,” said Vernon Haid, skilled trades supervisor for Facilities Operations. “I guess everyone’s used to it. Kids got used to getting out of class at the right time. It’s kind of a neat little tradition.”

The whistle, located on top of the Power Plant near Watson Library, operates on a centralized timer and blows automatically depending on the day’s class schedule. When the timer goes off, the valves in the steam whistle open, allowing it to blow.

As a compromise between alumni and students who wanted the tradition to continue and administrators who wanted to cut costs, the whistle, which originally sounded for five seconds, now blows for 3 1/2 seconds.

“The expenses from the KU steam whistle vary directly with the cost of natural gas, as natural gas is burned to produce steam that is then blown through the whistle,” said Jill Jess, a university spokeswoman. “It’s fair to say that the cost is a few thousand dollars a year.”

When alumni heard the whistle was shut off because of costs, donations poured in to the KU Endowment Association. A total of $4,047 was donated to support the cost of the whistle, said Lisa Scheller, an Endowment Association spokeswoman.

The other time it seemed the tradition might end was in 2003, when the whistle suffered an irreparable crack. University officials didn’t plan to buy a new whistle in order to avoid manufacture and maintenance costs. But physician Neal Lintecum and his wife, Julie, alumni of the university, donated about $7,000 for the manufacture and installation of a whistle.

“When the old one blew off, people called me all the time until we found a guy in Cincinnati that could build a new one,” said George Cone, assistant director for facilities operations. “I was inundated with calls. It’s something they’ve been doing for years, and a lot of people were very upset about it.”

Jordan Sembler, 2009 graduate, admits he didn’t get involved with too many traditions while he was a student at the university. Still, he said the tradition of the whistle is fun, different and interesting. He noticed the silence on campus, and in Lawrence, when it was turned off.

“You can hear it across town,” he said. “It was quiet when it was off — bad quiet.”

Not everyone was disappointed when the whistle was silenced. Bailey Pike, 2009 graduate, said she thought the whistle was too loud and annoying. While working at the Hall Center for Humanities, located near the whistle, Pike said the loud noise interrupted the flow of her work and often startled her.

Even though she isn’t a personal supporter of the whistle, Pike said she wasn’t surprised when administrators decided to turn it back on.

“KU’s about tradition, so I guess it has to go on,” she said. “Tradition is a big part of the KU experience.”