Founding President standing tall at UNO

Sculpture of Daniel Jenkins installed on campus

UNO’s founding father now stands tall on campus, watching over his ever-growing university and family of Mavericks.

On Oct. 1, a life-sized bronze sculpture of Daniel Jenkins was installed outside UNO's Milo Bail Student Center. Jenkins was the first president of what then was Omaha University, founded in 1908 as a non-sectarian Presbyterian college located at 24th and Pratt Streets. An ordained minister, Jenkins served 18 years as president, sometimes at no pay as the university struggled to find its financial footing.

The sculpture was commissioned through the initiation and generosity of graduates Al (1957) and Beverly (1958) Thomsen, longtime supporters of UNO.

“Beverly and I and our statue team are honored and privileged to have the opportunity to finally bring a small token of appreciation and recognition to Daniel Jenkins, the founder of the University of Omaha,” Al Thomsen says. “While it is a long overdue tribute, better late than never.”

Omaha sculptor Matthew Placzek created the statue, his fourth artwork on campus. Placzek also created bronze sculptures of Dean John Lucas and Dr. C. Glenn Lewis for UNO’s College of Business Administration. The Thomsens funded both pieces through the Al & Beverly Thomsen Art Excellence fund held at the University of Nebraska Foundation. Placzek also created bronze pieces for a wall honoring Walter Scott Jr. on UNO’s Scott campus.

A plaque summarizing Jenkins' role in founding UNO will be added to the monument later this year. It will include a QR code visitors can scan for more information about him.

Jenkins Unveiled

Until now, Jenkins has been a largely unknown figure to most Mavericks. No campus building bears his name, an honor accorded four of his successors. Save for a small display in the basement archives of Criss Library, there is little that tells students, faculty, staff and alumni the story of the university’s first president.

Yet he was widely known throughout the city while serving Omaha University. When he died, in 1927, more than 700 people attended his memorial service, many of them Omaha’s most prominent figures. They remembered him with glowing praise.

“He will be remembered as long as the university stands,” noted his obituary in the Omaha Bee-News, “and it is destined to endure for ages, just because it is well founded. By his act he devoted himself to a work that sapped his vitality, expended his energy, and yet he gave it all because he believed in his work.”

The sculpture honors a man who was a father thrice in thought. He and his wife, Annie, had five children. The youngest, Daniel Jenkins Jr., was born when his father was 50 years old. The younger Jenkins visited UNO’s campus in 1997, meeting then-Chancellor Nancy Belck and past Chancellors Kirk Naylor, Ron Roskens and Del Weber.

Daniel Sr. also was a spiritual father. The ordained Presbyterian minister’s first assignment was as pastor of New Salem, Pennsylvania’s, New London Presbyterian Church, the oldest Presbyterian church in the United States. He later came to Omaha as a faculty member for the Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He was considered an inspiring preacher and deep thinker. William McEwan, a minister in the Third Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, called Jenkins “one of the great theologians of this generation.”

And, of course, Jenkins was father to UNO. His theological initiatives often took a backseat to keeping OU solvent. Asked how many hours he worked, Jenkins once replied, “Well, I’ve averaged from 12 to 14 for so long I’ve forgotten. It has agreed with me. I have never been seriously handicapped by sickness.”

He had opportunities to leave. The American Bible Society offered him its secretaryship, while Southern University and San Pablo University in South America both offered him their presidencies. In 1920, the Presbyterian Seminary of Louisville, Kentucky, recruited him as president at an annual salary of $4,000.

Jenkins declined — he was devoted to seeing his university grow and prosper. But at a cost. In 1926, Jenkins began to experience mental exhaustion and took a leave of absence from his post. He spent time at Johns Hopkins Hospital then in a private New Jersey sanitarium, where he died from dysentery. He was 61.

'Tremendous Growth'

Five years later, the private institution he founded became the Municipal University of Omaha. In 1968, it joined the University of Nebraska to become the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

What Jenkins founded with 26 students and a handful of faculty now numbers nearly 20,000 faculty, staff and students. More than 145,000 degrees have been issued since the first diploma conferred in 1911.  

“Tremendous growth,” Daniel Jr. said during his 1997 visit. His father, he said, “would be amazed” at the changes. “All the buildings and contributions people have made to it. I think he’d be pleased.”

His father’s Bee-News obituary noted that, “The University of Omaha will endure, a visible and outward evidence of his great labor and devotion. Students there should achieve much, for its founder set a noble example to inspire them to their very utmost endeavor.

"Jenkins built a monument in the hearts of men by his inspiring words and example.”

Nearly a century after his death, a monument now honors Jenkins, standing on campus and watching over his Maverick family for years to come.