Former KU chancellor remembered for excelling as teacher, scientist, leader

KU Chancellor Douglas Girod speaks at a memorial service for former KU Chancellor Delbert Shankel on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018, in the Woodruff Auditorium at the Kansas Union.

At a memorial Saturday for one of his predecessors, University of Kansas Chancellor Douglas Girod said Delbert Shankel earned the trust of the university community through the integrity he brought to the many positions he held during his 50 years on campus.

“His superpower was his credibility with this campus and his colleagues,” Girod said. “When he was able to make very smart decisions, he did so in a way people followed because they trusted him and knew he was making those decisions because he had the university’s best interest at heart … I don’t think there was another Jayhawk who served in as many capacities as he did.”

Girod and the other seven speakers at a memorial for Shankel at Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union touched on his career as a teacher, scientist and university and sports administrator. About 300 people attended the memorial, including Shankel’s wife, Carol, daughters Jill and Kelly and their families.

Girod noted that Shankel, who died July 12, served as acting university chancellor in the 1980-1981 academic year and was interim chancellor for seven months in 1994 before the Kansas Board of Regents named him chancellor. In 1995, he left that role and was granted chancellor emeritus status. Before his brief tenure as chancellor, Shankel had filled many other positions, including acting chair of the microbiology department; half-time assistant dean, and later half-time associate dean, for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; acting head of the journalism school; special counselor to Chancellor Gene Budig; acting athletic director; and interim president and CEO of the KU Alumni Association. He also was the university’s first executive vice chancellor.

Several speakers remembered Shankel as a dedicated teacher who invested time with brilliant and struggling students alike, and as a scientist who published more than 50 papers.

KU microbiology professor Steve Benedict said Shankel pioneered work in gene mutation and its prevention with his doctorate dissertation at the University of Texas and was one of the leading authorities on the subject, which is important in cancer prevention research. Shankel was also a man with a great sense of humor who loved to share “groaners” with his classes, Benedict said.

Simon Kuo, who earned his doctorate in microbiology under Shankel, said his mentor reached students through his basic niceness. He joked that Shankel was so nice, his students didn’t think he was American.

“We thought he was Canadian, because who is nicer than Midwest nice?” Kuo asked.

Shankel was also remembered as being a huge Jayhawk fan who was in the stands for all home KU basketball, football and volleyball games. His loyalty to the university was so strong that Shankel turned down an offer to become chancellor of the University of Maryland to remain at KU, said former KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger, who wrote “The Professional Career of Delbert Shankel” as his KU doctoral dissertation in 1996.

Heath Peterson, president of the KU Alumni Association, said Shankel deserved to be known as “Mr. Jayhawk” for his years of dedicated service to the university.

“If there was a Mount Rushmore on Mount Oread, Delbert Shankel would be one of the four faces on it,” he said.

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