Former chancellor Shankel remembered for his devotion to KU, students
photo by: Nick Krug
Just call him “Mr. Jayhawk.”
That’s how Heath Peterson describes former two-time University of Kansas Chancellor Delbert “Del” Shankel, who died Thursday, July 12, at age 90.
It was Shankel who convinced KU Alumni Association leadership to promote Peterson, then a part-time student worker at the Adams Alumni Center, to his first permanent position with the association in 2004, Peterson said.
“I think his legacy is the fact that he was there when KU needed him,” said Peterson, who became president of the KU Alumni Association in 2015. “That’s got to be it for me — he was there to serve, and there’s no question that he was a Jayhawk and cared about this place as much as anyone cared about this place.”
photo by: Photo courtesy Doug Koch/KU University Relations
Shankel never attended the university he led twice as chancellor, but he grew to love it all the same. Born Aug. 4, 1927, in Plainview, Neb., Shankel earned his bachelor’s degree in English from Washington’s Walla Walla College before receiving a doctoral degree in bacteriology from the University of Texas at Austin in 1959.
Later that year, he began his academic career as an assistant professor of microbiology at KU. Though Shankel is perhaps best known for his stints in various administrative positions, he also boasted an impressive research career — authoring or co-authoring more than 50 major papers published in professional journals.
Susan Egan, professor and chair of KU’s department of molecular biosciences, remembers her longtime mentor as a man who truly loved teaching. Egan was among the many students (more than 30 of his mentees went on to earn advanced degrees in the field, she said) Shankel took under his wing during his years in the microbiology department.
“He loved his students,” said Egan, who met Shankel soon after arriving at KU in 1994. “He took great joy from interacting with them and learning from them as well as mentoring them along the way.”
Shankel quickly rose through the ranks at KU, earning a promotion to associate professor and gaining tenure while also beginning his administrative career as acting chairman of the microbiology department. Soon after that, he became assistant dean and then associate dean of KU’s College of Liberal Arts and Science, at the same time earning his full professorship.
Shankel served as acting dean of CLAS for one year before becoming the university’s first executive vice chancellor. His other various roles include acting head of KU’s journalism school, special counselor to Chancellor Gene Budig, acting athletic director and both interim president and CEO of the KU Alumni Association.
Perhaps most notably, he was the only person to serve as KU’s chancellor twice, filling the role of acting chancellor during the 1980-1981 school year and later serving as interim chancellor for seven months in 1994 before the Kansas Board of Regents designated Shankel as chancellor outright.
It was during Shankel’s stint as acting chancellor that Dale Seuferling really got to know KU’s “ultimate utility player,” as Peterson described him.
Seuferling, now president of KU Endowment, said Shankel approached big decisions “always thinking of the longer-term view” and what was best for the entire KU community.
From Shankel, Seuferling learned “the value of taking the opportunity to seek advice, listen to other people and what you can learn from them,” he said.
“I think first and foremost he’ll be remembered for the direct impact he had on students, the positive influence that he had on the students he had in his classes,” said Seuferling, who credits his friend with helping create “that next generation of scientists.”
Eventually, upon Shankel’s retirement in 1996, Del and his wife, Carol, did purchase a home in Seattle. But the couple also maintained their residence in Lawrence, while spending their summers in Seattle. Shankel maintained an active presence in Haworth Hall, home of KU’s molecular biosciences department, up until a few months ago, Egan said.
“Del became such a big, important part of KU, and vice versa, that KU became such a big, important part of him,” Seuferling said. “They really became inseparable.”
That Shankel stuck around for so long, taking on so many administrative (often interim) roles across the university, “I think it spoke to his love of KU,” Egan said.
“He didn’t do it for himself. He didn’t do it because he was looking for fame and fortune,” Egan said. “He did it because he loved the university and wanted to help. I think that’s what Del Shankel was all about.”
A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Aug. 18 in Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union, 1301 Jayhawk Blvd., followed by a reception at the Adams Alumni Center, 1266 Oread Ave. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Del and Carol Shankel Biomedical Scholarship Fund at the KU Endowment Association, P.O. Box 928, Lawrence, Kan., 66044.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Del Shankel and his wife, Carol, had not met in 1959.