Robert Hemenway, former KU chancellor, dies at 73

Longtime leader remembered for commitment to university, approachable personality

In a press conference in December, Chancellor Robert Hemenway announced he would step down from his post effective June 30, 2009.

Former Kansas University chancellor Robert Hemenway, who led KU to new heights in enrollment and research during his 14-year tenure, died Friday night at age 73.

Hemenway, KU’s 16th chancellor, died from complications of Parkinson’s disease around 9 p.m. Friday in a Lenexa nursing home, with his large family gathered at his side.

In addition to his legacy at KU, the former English professor also leaves behind a wife, Leah, and eight children.

Recalling his father Saturday morning, Zach Hemenway said the chancellor had a “passion” for education that spanned a 55-year career in both teaching and administrative work.

“He really instilled that in all of us — the value of learning and being curious and challenging yourself,” said Zach, who along with two of his siblings went on to attend KU during his father’s tenure.

Legacy at KU

Hemenway saw enrollment at the university’s Lawrence, Edwards and KU Medical Center campuses increase from 27,639 at the beginning of his tenure in 1995 to 30,102 students after his retirement in 2009.

KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little praised Hemenway’s leadership and character.

“I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Chancellor Hemenway,” said Gray-Little. “Chancellor Hemenway was a visionary leader who guided the University of Kansas to unprecedented heights and successes during his time here. Under his leadership, the university made tremendous strides in how we educate students, conduct research, and serve the people of Kansas. I know I can speak for the entire KU community in saying we owe him a debt of gratitude, for the work he did paved the way for so much of the great work we’re doing today. Most importantly, Bob was a wonderful man who loved his job, loved the people around him, and loved this place — and he was loved in return. On behalf of the entire university, I extend my condolences to Chancellor Hemenway’s family and friends.”

Former KU Chancellor Gene Budig said Hemenway “will be remembered by countless individuals as one who worked hard to advance the cause of the University of Kansas.”

“He was especially effective in bringing about needed change at the medical center. He also was an outstanding fundraiser. Working with the KU Endowment Association, he raised many dollars in support of faculty, professorships and student scholarships,” Budig said.

During his time at KU, Chancellor Hemenway led efforts to separate the KU Hospital and KU Medical Center — including separating the hospital from direct state oversight — and setting a goal to achieve designation as a National Cancer Institute facility, which KU’s Cancer Center received in 2012.

“He was absolutely critical to some of the initiatives that we’ve had over the last decade in the campus center,” said Roy Jensen, director of the KU Cancer Center. “He was the one that put his foot down and said that getting the NCI designation was the top priority for the university, and that made a huge difference, there’s no question about it.”

The chancellor also oversaw a resurgence in KU’s athletics department with his hiring of Lew Perkins as athletic director, whose KU career later ended in controversy with a tickets scandal in 2010. During Hemenway’s tenure, KU won a national championship in men’s basketball and the football team won the Orange Bowl.

“I think just the general support he gave to athletics enabled us to compete on a national scale,” said Associate Athletics Director Jim Marchiony. “I think it’s much more difficult to do that when you don’t have the support of the chancellor, and that’s something athletics had from Bob Hemenway. He supported athletics but he also always kept the university’s mission in mind; we knew that was always at the forefront of whatever kinds of decisions he made.”

Without Hemenway, the KU men’s basketball team might not be what it is today, as he played a key role in the hiring of current coach Bill Self, said Budig.

‘Chancellor Bob’

In his 30s, Hemenway traveled across the country — logging miles on his trusty Volkswagen bus — conducting research for the seminal 1977 “Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography.” Mary Burg, Hemenway’s longtime executive assistant and friend, said Hemenway’s book on Hurston is widely credited with creating a renewed interest in Hurston’s work and her now-classic novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

But “Chancellor Bob” wouldn’t have taken the credit, Burg said.

“Bob had a very towering intellect, but his demeanor was very disarming,” said Burg, who worked for Hemenway for 19 years, first at the University of Kentucky-Lexington and later following him to KU. “He was not at all pompous or arrogant — oh, the opposite of that, really.”

When Hemenway arrived in Lexington, he sold that same beat-up Volkswagen bus to a student. Asking price: “about $10,” Burg said, another reflection of his generosity and Midwestern unaffectedness.

“He didn’t come driving a Lincoln Town Car,” she said. “He came into town driving that bus.”

Despite his many obligations as chancellor, Hemenway always put his family first, Burg said.

Hemenway frequently brought his large family to basketball games — his famous straw hat in tow — and along with his wife, Leah, enjoyed hosting events at his home on the KU campus. Everyone was welcome there, Burg said.

“The door to The Outlook was always open,” she said.

Jensen, director of the KU Cancer Center, agreed.

“For someone in his position, he had one of the kindest demeanors, and there was just not a mean bone in his body,” he said. “He was just one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life.”

A memorial service is set for 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 9 at the Dole Institute of Politics on the KU campus. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial contributions be made to the Robert E. Hemenway Scholarship fund at Kansas University. Gifts may be sent in care of KU Endowment, P.O. Box 928, Lawrence, 66044.