It’s not unusual to find the husband of Kansas University’s chancellor just about anywhere in Lawrence, whether at a women’s basketball practice, on the board of a nonprofit, at a desk working with a student or just walking down the street.
Shade Keys Little came to Lawrence from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after his wife, KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, got the job in 2009.
In North Carolina, Little served as an assistant dean for academic support services. At KU, he holds no official position with the university, serving instead as something of an ambassador for Jayhawk goodwill throughout the community.
Little declined to be interviewed for this story, though he said he appreciated being included in the Only in Lawrence section.
Ask around about him, and a few details come up again and again. Though Little can be found at events seemingly just about everywhere, he rarely drives, preferring to walk most places. He typically shows up in a blue collared shirt with some kind of KU logo on it, and a backpack in tow.
The word “quirky” came up more than once, but always in a positive connotation.
Frank Kessler, a counselor at the Learning Center at UNC, has known Little for 10 years, and often worked side-by-side with him. He remembered him as a jovial man who would often laugh and talk at the same time, to the point where you couldn’t understand what he was trying to say. But it would be a mistake to call him a clown, Kessler said.
Little rarely talks about himself, Kessler said, so it’s likely that few people would know much about his background. He’s not likely to talk about his degrees — an MBA and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, Kessler said. Or about his previous work as a trainer at IBM. Or his work as a martial arts instructor.
Though he was an administrator at UNC, he eschewed any sense of hierarchy, Kessler said, preferring to work directly with students. Students were often buzzing around him everywhere he went. He was someone they could confide in, Kessler said, and he related well with them.
He met his wife growing up in the rural town of Washington, N.C., Kessler said.
“She has been in these kinds of positions where how you look and what you say is very important,” he said. “He’s sensitive to that, but that’s not him.”
He has an interesting duality, with part of him exuding an almost childlike positive energy.
“He’s ageless. He has such joie de vivre, such energy. He can be a kid,” said Lynne Green, executive director of Van Go, an arts-based social service agency for youths ages 14 to 21, where Little serves on the board.
He fits right in with them, she said.
“If he applied, we’d take him,” Green joked.
But at the same time, he has a reputation for being someone who can get things done. Green said he’s the one who hauls the tables away from Clinton Lake after midnight when Van Go’s annual fundraiser is over.
Kathy Clausing-Willis, vice president and chief development officer at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, said that, too. Little is also on the LMH Endowment Association’s board.
“The thing that Shade does best is that he really likes rolling up his sleeves and doing the work,” Clausing-Willis said.
He’ll help out anywhere at any time, often without being asked. He’s sat inside a ticket booth at a fundraiser, she said.
He does a lot more, too.
Little was photographed in red high heels for the Willow Domestic Violence Center’s annual calendar. He tutors students who need some academic help. And he shows up at practice for the KU women’s basketball team, occasionally encouraging players on the defensive end of the court.
“He sits front and center,” said Bonnie Henrickson, the head coach of the KU women’s basketball team. “He’s very visible and we certainly appreciate that.”
He and the chancellor both have been big supporters of women’s basketball, Henrickson said. They traveled from St. Louis on a Friday after watching the men’s team in the Sweet 16 to watch the women’s game against Tennessee on a Saturday, and then back to St. Louis on a Sunday for the next men’s game.
“I think it means a lot to the players,” Henrickson said.
Angie Stewart, a case supervisor at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Douglas County, said Little helps out there, too, and has been matched with a “little.”
He seems to “get it” when it comes to the program, she said, offering exactly the right kind of support.
And he’s always got a sense of humor about just about everything. He tends to make himself giggle, she said.
“I’ve never met anybody quite like Shade, actually,” Stewart said.
He’s also the first male officer of the University Women’s Club, which consists of employees of KU and spouses of those who work at the university. He holds the position of honorary president, a post reserved for the spouse of the chancellor. Until Gray-Little became chancellor, the post had been filled by women.
Mary Beth Petr, who was president of the club when Little joined, said he stayed very active in the group.
Another thing Little does frequently, those who work with him say, is promoting the various groups he’s involved in.
He can often be found with a pocketful of Van Go pins, handing them out. And Petr said he recently corralled a group of the University Women’s Club who walk together called “The Jabberwalkers.”
“He wanted to recruit us,” Petr said.
It worked, of course.
“He signed us up for Relay for Life.”