Ted Johnson tells this year’s assembled tour group of about 15 people to take time to appreciate their surroundings.
“Looking up is very important,” the retired Kansas University French professor tells them.
It’s the same scene every year on Stop Day of the spring semester, when Johnson hosts a walking tour of campus for whoever might like to show up and look up with him.
For anyone unsure of what they’re getting into, his description of the event helps set the tone. His tour promises “informal, peripatetic, Socratic dialogues growing out of various sites.”
Actually, the professor has led this tour so often he doesn’t do much of the looking up. He just starts talking. And connecting. Greek and Latin words start flowing.
Take the word “campus,” for example. It’s Latin for “field,” Johnson said. Alma mater? Latin again, for “other mother.” He talks about how these words have meaning for the people who walk on the campus every day.
Interrupted by the Campanile bells, Johnson takes the occasion to point out that the tower holds precisely 53 bells. Later, he’ll talk about the inscription inside — “Free government does not bestow repose upon its citizens, but sets them in the vanguard of battle to defend the liberty of every man” — and how it was written by Allen Crafton, a KU professor of speech and drama who also lent his name to the Crafton-Preyer Theatre in Murphy Hall.
Someone asks about the names on the facade of Dyche Hall, home of KU’s Museum of Natural History. Turns out there are six of them, all told. They’re all 19th century naturalists: (Charles) Darwin, (Thomas Henry) Huxley, (John J.) Audubon, (Asa) Gray, (Edward Drinker) Cope and (Louis) Agassiz.
And on the building’s west facade?
“There are no names, which is great,” Johnson said. That way, all the students who come through KU have something to aspire to.
Walking around on the tour, it’s easy to get the feeling of being led on an Easter egg hunt by someone who knows exactly where all the eggs are hidden. Not everyone, for example, might spot the elephant near the roof of Dyche Hall with “Rock Chalk” carved on its belly.
And not everyone stops by Lippincott Hall’s Wilcox Classical Museum, a small collection of plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture and classical antiques that’s off the beaten path for most campus visitors.
Johnson also points out a stone marker on the ground just south of Fraser Hall.
“Site of barracks and trenches 1863,” the marker reads.
That year isn’t an insignificant one in Lawrence’s history, it turns out. That year, a man named Quantrill came over from Missouri and burned Lawrence to the ground. Johnson pointed out the nearby chancellor’s house.
“It’s called the Outlook because that’s what it was,” he said. An outlook for Civil War-era sentries to keep watch over who might be encroaching on the city.
Nearby, he stops at the Pioneer statue, showing a farmer with a spade to the ground.
“What do you make of this sculpture?” he asks.
Looks like he’s ripping up the earth, someone said. Maybe planting seeds, said another.
“He’s planting and he’s talking about what he’s planting,” Johnson said. “‘Seminar’ does mean ‘to sow seeds.’”
Don J. Kallos of Lawrence was one of the people who followed Johnson around for the day.
“It’s fascinating,” Kallos said. “He needs to get all that down in a book.”
Late in the afternoon, the group pauses by a no parking sign. It’s a pretty common design, with a big capital “P” in the middle of a circle with a line drawn through it.
What is this? Johnson wondered.
“That’s a rho,” he said referring to the Greek letter. “Don’t rho.”
He wonders aloud about rowing, but the conversation doesn’t get much further than that. The professor doesn’t seem to mind.
“You ask yourself what it is and play with it,” he said, describing much of the day’s conversations.
Kay Bradt, of Baldwin City, said the tour brought back all kinds of memories for her. She said she enjoyed the professor’s take on campus.
“Sometimes, it seems like a stretch,” she said of Johnson’s ability to connect two or more seemingly unrelated things. “But sometimes I think that’s the point.”