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Jayhawk Faithful – KU's Concerned Students
Haines Eason
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FRIENDS FOR A HALF CENTURY: Rusty Leffel, Casey Eike (on screen) and Jeanne Gorman reminisce about their days of responsible activism on campus. Eike and Gorman spearheaded the founding of the Rusty Leffel Concerned Student Award in 1973.
Funding a 50-Year Legacy of Civic Mindedness

The opening years of the 1970s were tumultuous times at KU and in the nation.

“It was a tough time. We had Kent State, the Vietnam War and the National Guard on the corners. The union burned, and the Kansas legislature, I recall, was not very happy with KU students,” said Jeanne Gorman, a KU student during the era. “It was a simpler time, but it was also a very dynamic time, with soul searching and growing. It’s hard to state what it was like if you weren’t here.”

Gorman and fellow students Casey Eike and Rusty Leffel connected as KU students in these years, and their time as Jayhawks was largely defined by their shared belief in positive action. They saw the troubled times as an opportunity — one for doing good and to make a difference.

“All of a sudden, we were forced to confront things going on,” Leffel said. “And we really had to make choices. We couldn’t just be neutral.”

Leffel and the others remember Lawrence at one point was seen by more radical, coastal activists as a flashpoint, or a “hotbed.” Some activists locally and across the U.S. used protests to disrupt and to try to shut down schools, government buildings, and other important civic infrastructure.

Rusty Leffel Award Recipients graphic

Taking a higher road: Driving change from within

Rather than agitating toward anarchism as did some of the era’s prominent activists, Eike, Gorman, and Leffel — and others at KU during the period — focused on using the system and the ideals of higher education to lobby for students to have a greater say in how their university operates.

With flyers, op-eds and face-to-face conversations with students, KU leaders and state education authorities, these grassroots organizers slowly moved sentiment in their favor. And, as involved as so many were, Eike and Gorman felt one activist in particular was deserving of recognition.

“Sometimes people didn’t think students had a right to be involved in those kinds of activities,” Gorman said. “And Rusty was kind of the de facto leader, and so we thought that should be recognized.”

As Leffel’s 1973 graduation from KU Law approached, Gorman and Eike decided to honor him  with an award — the Rusty Leffel Concerned Student Award. KU Endowment and university administration were partners in the process, but grassroots efforts saw it to completion.

“I don't know who came up with the idea, but I do remember going around to people's houses and asking for money,” Eike said.

The award was established with 34 donors, each listed out on a handwritten note.

“When they sent me the card, I cried,” Leffel said. “It’s easy to get someone a tie, but to do something that is a recognition of your ideals and principles and what we were doing together — wow.”

From a handful of initial, small gifts to a decades-long legacy

The fund has continued to grow over the years, and Leffel and his wife Paula are among its consistent supporters. Today, the award honors three students annually, and each student receives $1,000, compared to the initial $25 award. All students are eligible, regardless of GPA. The greatest consideration: that the students have demonstrated a deep devotion to furthering the ideals of the university and of higher education.

“I think the real important thing is we are reinforcing their leadership and giving them the boost of ‘Hey, I can do this,’” Eike said. “My mentor did that for me, and that’s so valuable. And then, award winners have all gone on to incredible positions of influence, and for the university, that's a really good association.”

Gorman concurs, and from personal experience.

“Hopefully the award will last for another 50 years,” she said. “You know, you’re not born a leader. I was not a born leader, but I did what I could. We need to encourage those folks.”

Rusty Leffel Concerned Student Award recipients have lobbied the legislature on issues critical to higher education in the state. Some have been student body president and have interacted extensively with university administrators or the Board of Regents. Some have re-energized, activated, or reactivated essential programs and services. In all regards, Rusty Leffel Concerned Student Award recipients have made a significant and lasting difference at KU and for KU and their communities. The recipients have connected with Leffel and each other over the years through email, a Facebook group, milestone reunions and visits when possible.

As someone who recognizes the importance of everyone’s contributions, Leffel defers when the subject of an important milestone comes up — in this case, the 50th anniversary of the award’s creation. Despite the award bearing his name, Leffel continually points to Eike and Gorman as its originators. And, put Leffel in front of the award plaques on the third floor of the KU Memorial Union, and he’ll tell you story after story about past recipients — even the 2023 recipients, whom he only recently met — but never a word about his own efforts.


You Can Help

To learn more about the Rusty Leffel Concerned Student Award, contact Whitney Escalante at 785-832-7463 or wescalante@kuendowment.org.

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