Chainsaw carver turns 200-year-old tree trunk into nest of Jayhawks
Flecks of woodchips rained down as Dan Besco steered a cumbersome Stihl chainsaw through the remains of a 200-year-old white mulberry tree.
His weeklong project is to carve a Jayhawk into the tree. But not just one Jayhawk; he’s carving all the different incarnations of the Unversity of Kansas’ mascot through the ages. Atop the dead tree, he created a 4-foot-tall image of the bird’s current incarnation.
On Monday afternoon, he was working on the side of the 13-foot trunk in the farmyard located at 1359 North 1900 Road, north of Lawrence.
The big bird at the top was finished, but the other five Jayhawks, including the 1912 bird with long, skinny legs and big shoes, were still taking shape.
Besco took one small liberty with the modern Jayhawk’s design: closing the bird’s mouth so it won’t catch the rain. To ensure the carving is preserved, he will sand it, stain it and paint it the official crimson and blue once he’s finished.
From age-old tree to KU symbol
Though the tree is dead, the trunk remains deeply rooted in the earth on the farmstead that once belonged to devout KU alumni — the late Margaret and David Lee Shirk.
The Shirks’ daughter, Nancy Yonally, now lives on the farm. She said she believed that the tree was the oldest male white mulberry tree in Kansas, but that several years ago, just two weeks before the Kansas Historic Tree Board was scheduled to visit the 200-year-old tree to certify its age, its top half toppled over.
“There was no storm or strong wind, ” Yonally said. “It just dropped. It had been a humongous, beautiful tree. That’s what’s left.”
Someone suggested she have the remains made into a carving, and so she hired Besco, a Louisburg chainsaw carver, to turn the dead tree trunk into the symbol of the school the Shirks loved.
A self-taught carver who has been working for 20 years, Besco is currently the only chainsaw carver licensed to carve the Jayhawk through KU’s Office of Trademark Licensing.
“He is pretty amazing,” said Paul Vander Tuig, licensing director for KU. “He’s the only one doing anything like this.”
As he worked, Besco’s hair and skin became matted with woodchips, and then coated with moisture from the light rain.
The weather wasn’t a deterrent, Besco said. He kept carving through the heaviest downpours in recent days by placing a tarp over the scaffolding used to reach his work. He said this was one of his more unusual carving assignments, and that mulberry wood in particular is extremely hard to carve. But he remained enthusiastic and smiling.
“I’m carving what I love,” Besco said.
Family’s deep KU roots
The carved tree will fit right in with the property’s many connections to KU. The family’s ties to the university go back about a century.
A big white barn near the site of Besco’s carving was frequently rented out for college parties and weddings, but the connections go deeper than that — and include one of the school’s most legendary figures.
Margaret Shirk, who died in 2017 at 100, was just a child when basketball inventor and KU coach James Naismith officiated a wedding for her aunt in the family’s home around 1922.
Naismith was a good friend of Fred Lewis, Margaret’s father, Yonally said. The coach stood in front of the fireplace in the living room and married the couple while a very young Margaret dropped the ring, which rolled under a radiator. Naismith bent down, retrieved the ring and smiled, Yonally said.
Margaret attended her first KU basketball game in 1935, then rarely missed one. Even as recently as the year before her death, the petite woman would dance with Baby Jay at home basketball games in Allen Fieldhouse, to the delight of fans. David Shirk was the captain of KU’s 1938 football team.
A room in the family basement is a shrine to KU. From David Shirk’s letter sweater to an early Jayhawk model carved out of chalk, every item has a story.
Though it will remain outside where it’s rooted, the woodcarving will also become part of the family’s story, Yonally said.
Besco plans to have the work finished by Thursday. Yonally said she doesn’t mind if people want to drive out to the farm and see the carving.
“I think Margaret would have liked it,” said Scott Simpson, a close family friend, who stopped by to survey Besco’s progress.
“So would Daddy,” said Yonally. “But he would have thought it was too expensive.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified KU’s licensing director. His name is Paul Vander Tuig.