A group of Watkins Scholarship Hall alumnae and students will gather this weekend to commemorate the 150th birthday of the hall’s benefactor, Elizabeth Watkins, whose generosity has benefited Kansas University and Lawrence for generations after her death.
Born in 1861 in New Paris, Ohio, Elizabeth Miller — who would become Elizabeth Watkins upon her marriage — found a job as an office clerk at the J.B. Watkins Land and Mortgage Co. at the age of 15. She advanced in the company to the role of assistant secretary. She married Watkins in 1909 when she was 47 years old.
Though she enrolled in preparatory school, she had to drop out after two years to support her family. She devoted herself later in life to helping other women achieve the university education she was never able to obtain for herself.
The concept behind scholarship halls — as a place where students can live for reduced costs, provided they maintain a certain grade-point-average and help cook and clean for other residents — began with Watkins’ idea in 1926.
“Watkins is the first scholarship hall in America,” said Norma Hoagland, an alumna of the hall who is part of the group of former residents called Kitchen 8, one of a number of groups that shared cooking duties.
Watkins wanted to provide an opportunity — and a place to live — for women who could not otherwise afford college, said Beverly Benso, another alumna.
“My sympathy has always been with the girls who must travel uphill,” Watkins told the University Daily Kansan in 1926. “... It has been my dream to aid self-supporting girls to get an education ... I have never done anything into which I have put more of myself.”
And in Watkins Hall, 1506 Lilac lane, her memory is alive and well. Sarah Greenup, a Wichita senior, lives in the scholarship hall today. She said the residents know of Watkins’ story; they actually call her “Lizzie.”
“Those who live in Watkins have a much different relationship with our benefactors than people who live in, say, Ellsworth Hall,” Greenup said.
Irvin Youngberg, a longtime KU Endowment Association leader, detailed Watkins’ contributions in a 1971 speech. They included funds to support Watkins and Miller scholarship halls, her contribution to the construction of Lawrence Memorial Hospital and her donation of her home atop Mount Oread that would become the chancellor’s residence.
“Much of what has been done with the resources Mrs. Watkins gave is generally known in the Lawrence and university communities,” Youngberg said in the speech. “But many things that daily touch the lives of students, staff and townspeople alike are less well known.”
She gave more than 24,000 acres of land to the Endowment Association. In her will, she established that any income from the land would be available to the association without any restrictions.
In the speech, Youngberg said the achievements that came as a result of Watkins’ donations became a model for other universities to follow.
“Several other state universities have used, successfully, the Watkins bequest as an example for potential donors to illustrate what can be achieved with substantial unrestricted resources as a supplement to legislative appropriations,” Youngberg said in the speech.
The bell that tolls the hours in the campanile, he said, is a memorial to Watkins’ longtime friend, Olin Templin, who served as the KU Endowment Association’s executive secretary for many years and whose name graces KU’s Templin Hall.
The largest single source of funds for the construction of Danforth Chapel, the tradition-rich nondenominational chapel on campus that serves as a popular wedding spot for alumni, also came from Watkins’ bequest.
A grant from the Watkins fund in 1952 initiated and emphasized study abroad programs at KU, Youngberg said, by supporting the university’s participation in a seminar in Denmark.
KU’s Watkins-Berger scholarship is a scholarship designed for girls who excel academically in high school. This year, it is a $4,500 award, renewable for four years if the student meets academic standards. The scholarships were created using funds from Watkins’ estate and from a gift from alumnus Arthur Berger, who wanted to create a scholarship in memory of his older sister Emily Berger, who earned a chemistry degree in 1914 and died in 1920 while working on her master’s degree.
As for the birthday party, Greenup said the residents of the hall are looking forward to spending time on Sunday with the alumnae who once lived there.
“It’s nice to know that someday I’ll be like them,” Greenup said. “I have a feeling I’ll be doing this again in 50 years.”