April 8, 2004

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Contact: John Scarffe, KU Endowment Association, (785) 832-7336.

Professor leaves $300,000 for Central American collection at KU

LAWRENCE -- A University of Kansas professor who helped pioneer Central American studies in U.S. universities has bequeathed $300,000 to expand a key library collection.

The gift from the late William J. Griffith, and his late wife, Shirley Lucas, to the Kansas University Endowment Association will endow a fund for the Griffith Collection of Research Materials on Latin America. KU purchased the collection from Griffith in 1982. Interest earned on the fund will help the library purchase additional materials for the collection and help preserve its existing books and rare documents. Griffith, who died last year at age 94, collected many of the materials in the 1940s when he directed the U.S. Division of Education, Office of Inter-American Affairs.

"This collection is one of the real gems of the Department of Special Collections at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library," said Richard W. Clement, KU special collections librarian. "The collection of Guatemalan books and related documentary materials -- including newspapers, broadsheets, printed ephemera and manuscripts -- is recognized as one of the very best in the nation. With the Griffith endowment, the library will be able to expand support for research and teaching in Latin American studies, building on the strong foundations put into place by Professor Griffith so many years ago."

Charles Stansifer, KU professor of history and a former director of the KU Center of Latin American Studies, worked with Griffith at the center in the 1970s and studied under him at Tulane University in New Orleans in the 1950s. He said Griffith was one of the first people to train scholars in Central American history.

"The reason that we have a lot of people who know Central American history inside and out is because Bill Griffith was a pioneer in the field," Stansifer said. "By producing 13 doctorate and 34 master's degree graduates in history and Latin American studies, he substantially advanced the number of classes about Central America in universities in the United States, and by extension, he considerably increased scholarly understanding of the region."

Stansifer, the executor of the Griffith estate, said the collection reflects Griffith's broad interests in the indigenous people of southern Mexico and northern Central America, the geographical location of the Mayan civilization.

"The collection is vital to an understanding of the Central American region because Guatemala was the headquarters of the Spanish Empire in the colonial period," Stansifer said. "It was the most populous of the countries of Central America after independence in the early 19th century."

He added that the collection also has publications on such issues as church-state conflicts, military organization, development projects, education and health issues for five Central American countries. Also included are copies of Griffith's best known scholarly work, "Empires in the Wilderness: Foreign Colonization and Development in Guatemala, 1843-1844," and a national medal of honor awarded to Griffith by the Guatemalan government in 1947.

"Bill was unique in his combined interest in pushing for the scholarly study of the relations between the Guatemalan government and the indigenous peoples and at the same time promoting better conditions of the indigenes," Stansifer said.

Griffith wanted to leave the gift for KU because of his ties to Kansas.

"As a native Kansan, he was happy to be back in Kansas after teaching at Tulane," Stansifer said. "He was educated in Kansas and had a very strong appreciation for the state."

Born in Kanopolis, Griffith earned a bachelor's degree from Southwestern College in Winfield and a master's degree in Latin American history at Wichita State University in 1937. The University of California at Berkeley awarded Griffith a doctorate in Latin American history in 1942.

As head of the U.S. Division of Education, Office of Inter-American Affairs, Griffith helped the Guatemalan government expand education to the indigenous population of the country. In 1947, he began his academic career at Tulane, where he was chairman of the university's Center of Latin American Studies. He left Tulane to be director of the KU Center of Latin American Studies in 1970. Griffith retired in 1975. Shirley Lucas died in 2002.

The gift from the Griffith estate will be counted toward the goal of KU First: Invest in Excellence, the largest fund-raising campaign in KU history. KU Endowment is conducting KU First on behalf of KU through 2004 to raise in excess of $600 million for scholarships, fellowships, professorships, capital projects and program support. KU Endowment serves as the independent, nonprofit fund-raising and fund-management organization for KU.

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