KU applauds fellow Jayhawk’s Nobel Peace Prize

photo by: Nick Krug

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, right, laughs alongside Bill Lacy, director of the Dole Institute of Politics, as Santos recounts a story Monday from his days as an undergraduate at Kansas University. Santos, a 1973 graduate of KU, was in Lawrence to receive the Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award.

It’s a proud day for a university when one of its alumni wins one of the planet’s most prestigious awards.

On Friday, the University of Kansas community reacted to news that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, 65, a KU graduate, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his years-long efforts to end Colombia’s 50-year civil war.

“This great honor only adds to the immense pride KU alumni around the world have felt for their fellow Jayhawk since President Santos devoted himself to the cause of peace in Colombia,” KU Alumni Association President Heath Peterson said, in a statement. “Our international missions, as educators and alumni advocates, will continue with an energized pace thanks to President Santos, whom we are proud to call one of our own.”

Santos graduated from KU in 1973 with degrees in economics and business, and has said his years in Lawrence helped shape his life.

He earned master’s degrees from the London School of Economics and Political Science and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

He was elected president of Colombia in 2010.

Santos returned to KU in 2012 and spoke at the Dole Institute of Politics, where he told attendees he was “very moved” by being back at his alma mater after 40 years and grateful for his undergraduate experience.

“A very important part of my career was made here, made in KU, and has helped me tremendously throughout all these years — and is helping me still as president of Colombia,” Santos said in a recording of the event.

Santos came to KU because of his family’s background in journalism, he said in 2012. His family founded Colombia’s influential El Tiempo newspaper, where he began climbing the ranks before leaving that career to pursue his passion for public service and politics.

At KU, Santos was a member of Delta Upsilon fraternity, where he lived after spending his freshman year in McCollum Hall, he said. He recalled taking in the local concert scene, playing poker with fraternity brothers and purchasing the first car he ever had in his life while a student at KU.

Phil Miller was Santos’ roommate at the Delta Upsilon house.

“I never thought I’d ever know somebody who won a Nobel Peace Prize, let alone somebody I’d lived with,” said Miller, who now resides in Kansas City, Mo., and works as a mediator.

Miller met Santos during a basketball class his freshman year and Santos said he was interested in joining a fraternity, so Miller and fellow Delta Upsilon members invited him to the house and he eventually joined.

Miller recalled being struck by Santos’ aristocratic roots — Santos was related to a former president of Colombia, and his father was editor of El Tiempo, which Miller called Colombia’s equivalent of The New York Times. Miller said Santos had an older brother and a cousin who also attended KU.

photo by: Nick Krug

Kansas University Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little presents an autographed basketball to Colombian President and KU alumnus Juan Manuel Santos during a visit at the Presidential Palace in Bogota, Colombia, Thursday March 17, 2011.

Miller also recalled Santos talking about violence in his home country, including hearing from his parents that they were going into hiding and he wouldn’t hear from them for a few months.

Miller, a few years after leaving KU, was in London, where he caught up with his old roommate, who at the time was serving as a Colombian delegate to the International Coffee Organization.

“I talked to him and asked what he was going to do. He said, ‘I’d like to go back home and get into politics,'” Miller said. “That was the time I really thought he’s really bound for something much higher.”

In introducing Santos at KU in 2012, KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said she asked him to come in person during a visit to Bogota in 2011, and that she hoped his story would serve as an example for students.

On Friday, the chancellor reacted to the news he’d won the Nobel prize.

“President Santos is among our most distinguished alumni and has been a wonderful supporter of the University of Kansas throughout his career,” she said, in a statement. “Our primary focus at KU is to prepare students to become leaders when they leave the university, and President Santos is a shining example of that.”

Bill Lacy, director of KU’s Dole Institute of Politics, interviewed Santos for the public talk in 2012 and described him as bright, intelligent and thoughtful, but also humorous and easygoing.

“Very much like other presidents that I’ve met, they all seem to have that quality of being comfortable within themselves, very comfortable within their skin,” Lacy said. “You could tell he was very proud of his connection to the university, and proud to be back.”

Lacy said Santos spoke of the work that, ultimately, led to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

“That was widely discussed at that program, and his desire to reach some sort of settlement that would pull the country back together,” Lacy said.

Santos is believed to be KU’s only alumnus to win a Nobel Peace Prize, according to university officials. However, he’s one of three winners that have spoken at the Dole Institute, Lacy said. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter spoke in 2003, and former president of Poland Lech Walesa spoke in 2005. President Obama, also a Nobel Peace Prize winner, spoke at KU in 2015.