Jayhawk pride was on full display this past homecoming weekend in Lawrence. Many alums and former athletes stopped by the football complex to see the newest Jayhawk on campus, a beautiful bronze bird sitting outside the doors where the football team makes the walk from their locker room to the field. On their way, players stopped to touch the beak of the bird in what likely will become an important pre-game tradition.
No one could be more proud than the true Mr. Jayhawk, D.W. Acker. No, Acker is not a famous KU athletic alum or renowned scholar. He is not one of the large number of athletic department administrators. He is not a major donor. D.W. Acker has only donated his undying love to KU’s mythical bird that cannot fly. Thanks to Acker’s pride, the Jayhawk has taken wing in many ways during his 33 years as the graphic designer in the athletic department.
No one knows the Jayhawk better than Acker. His devotion began long ago when his father, a KU grad and commercial artist, gave his young son a decal of the Jayhawk in 1955. He still has it today.
“This was a real decal, the kind you soaked in water and slid off the paper to put it where you wanted it,” Acker recalled. “I studied that Jayhawk. The drafting on that Jayhawk was better back then than some of the things I see coming off computers now. The funny thing is that the colors are exactly the same colors we are using today. As they say, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’.”
There have been many Jayhawks, but since 1946, the Jayhawk everyone sees is known as the “Sandy Jayhawk”, named for its creator, Hal Sandy. That Jayhawk has fascinated Acker and led him to his greatest challenge yet – to bring that flat one-dimensional Jayhawk to its full dimension for display at the football complex. He admitted it was easily the biggest project of his career.
“We were taking a flat image that we knew nothing about and figuring out what all these lines mean,” Acker said. He had been drawing the Jayhawk for years with this thought in mind. “I did this just to find out what was going on inside that bird.”
“I like to call this Tuxedo Jay,” Acker said while pulling out one of his drawings of the bird dressed in all its plumage. What stands out in the drawing is what stands out on the new football bird – the feathers. It is as if Acker held a real bird in his hand while drawing. Every detail had to be accurate before he turned his drawings over to sculptor John Free from Pawhuska, Oklahoma.
Even then, Acker kept thinking like the bird. While studying a clay model from the front with Free, Acker noticed he could not see the bird’s eyes.
“‘If this bird is going in to kill a prey,” Acker said he told the sculptor, “he can’t see where he is going. The bird can’t see me, and I can’t see his eyes.” Acker added, “The beak was way out here. We took some blades and shaved the beak until we could see his eyes. Those are the kinds of things we ran across.”
Acker and Free struggled with the proportion of the chest and the tail. “There really is no way to tell how thick he was or how much girth he has,” Acker said. “It doesn’t sound like much of a problem until you get to working on it.”
By now you can understand that Acker is quite compulsive when it comes to the study of the Jayhawk. Others have created three-dimensional Jayhawks. There were the “Jayhawks on Parade” allowing local artists an opportunity to express their creative design on a large plastic Jayhawk. In front of the campus’ Strong Hall stands the “Pterodactyl Jayhawk,” the popular name for the often photographed bird. Former Director of Athletics Lew Perkins gifted another rendition of the Jayhawk to well-known guests.
As an artist, Acker believes in the free expression displayed in all these Jayhawks. He just does not believe they do justice to the “Sandy Jayhawk.” Some have “robin” tails, meaning the tail feathers are horizontal and not vertical. Others smile too much and others seem fat to Acker. One Jayhawk, no longer displayed in the athletic department, “made me furious,” said Acker. “The artwork was so bad, I think a kindergartener could have drawn a better bird.”
When it comes to artwork, no project was quite as large as the 26 foot, two-inch Jayhawk painted on the floor of Allen Fieldhouse in 2003. Acker meticulously outlined and painted the initial giant bird.
“It wasn’t that hard to do. I treated it like a coloring book,” recalled Acker. “Once you get the outline, you just fill in the color.” While Acker no longer paints the bird on the court, his initial design is still used every time the court is refinished.
In my years at KU, a mutual respect developed between us that led to me to ask Acker to help me with a very special project for the highly anticipated surprise reunion of former Topeka Capital-Journal photographers in the summer of 2010 honoring our director, Rich Clarkson.
This was a group of very visual people who have won Pulitzer Prizes and many other national awards. The gift for Clarkson had to be special. After outlining my hopes for the plaque, it was time to step back and let Acker be creative. Frequent meetings ironed out important details such as the laser-carved wood Capital dome my wife suggested and the etched glass cover Acker designed.
The result was overwhelming to all in attendance. The plaque now hangs proudly in Clarkson’s Denver home. Nothing could have meant more to me. The credit, and my thanks, have to go to Acker and the talented group of people he brought in to work on the project with us.
In everyone’s life, there are always a few people who are “characters.” They are wonderful people and fun to be around. They are just a bit different in some quirky way. Acker is a “character.” A recent departmental hire came back to KU after many years. Seeing Acker in one of the buildings, he asked, “Are those the same jean shorts you were wearing when I was here before?” Without hesitation, Acker replied, “Probably.”
Any conversation with Acker can never be short. He gets wound up and words start flying around as fast as the drawings of the Jayhawks he has done over so many years. The Sandy Jayhawk is a friendly Jayhawk. With the end of World War II, the thought was for the official mascot to be less of a fighting Jayhawk.
That has not stopped Acker from drawing rough and tough birds. His personal favorite is the “Jammin’ Jayhawk,” a lean and muscular bird slam dunking a basketball. KU coach Bill Self used the dunking bird often on recruiting letters before the University adopted a unified Jayhawk look campus-wide. Acker’s wife loves the powerful Jayhawk squatting heavy weight used in the past by the weight room staff. The glee in Acker’s voice as he talks about his work is the evidence of man truly in love with his calling.
Watching football fans last Saturday run up to the new Jayhawk to have their picture taken is the undeniable proof that Acker’s fascination with a bird is a just reward for a true artist, one deserving of being called, Mr. Jayhawk.