‘He is truly one of a kind’: Burdett Loomis, venerable University of Kansas political science professor, dies

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Burdett Loomis, a venerable professor of political science at the University of Kansas and a fixture of the state's political life, died Saturday night. He was 76.

Burdett Loomis, a venerable professor of political science at the University of Kansas and a fixture of the state's political life, died Saturday night. He was 76.

Loomis, known affectionately to colleagues and students as "Bird," worked at KU for over 40 years and was considered a mentor by generations of students, with many inspired to pursue careers in politics after taking his courses. He was one of the state's most visible political experts, quoted in national and state publications countless times.

Loomis was recently diagnosed with cancer, prompting an outpouring of support among his colleagues and former students in recent days. U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., gave a speech on the U.S. House floor in his honor on Thursday, wishing him a quick recovery.

"He is an irreplaceable member of our community whose contributions are too numerous for me to list in my short time here," Davids said. "He has been a trusted friend and advisor to many Kansas officials over the years and I am personally grateful for his guidance throughout my time in Congress and his unconditional dedication to the state of Kansas and the wellbeing of its democracy."

When news of his death was first reported Sunday afternoon, Davids' message was echoed by public officials, media members and former students.

"I was saddened to hear of the passing of my friend Burdett Loomis," Gov. Laura Kelly said in a tweet. "Burdett was a fixture and a voice of reason in Kansas politics for decades, and a mentor to countless political science students at Kansas University. My thoughts are with his family during this difficult time."

Before arriving at KU in 1979, Loomis served as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an assistant professor at Knox College in Illinois. He wrote or co-wrote a dozen books, mostly on Kansas and U.S. politics and directed the political science's internship programs in Topeka and Washington, D.C.

He also served as director of administrative communications under Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

Joseph Le, chief of staff to Kansas House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said he took a class with Loomis largely on a whim to fulfill an elective requirement, thinking he would continue on to study medicine as he had planned since middle school.

But Loomis' teaching changed that, he said, helping Le channel his political interest in the wake of the 2016 election and showing a more humane, service-oriented side of politics.

Le pointed to meetings among his internship cohort, where Loomis would bring in lobbyists in an attempt to underscore the key role they play in educating legislators on disparate issues.

"He brought some sanity to (the political world) and explained it in a way that gave us some hope," Le said.

Brent Steele, a former political science professor at KU, noted his former colleague's welcoming nature sold him on coming to Lawrence in 2005. He told of Loomis taking him out for coffee, unprompted, where the pair discussed everything but work.

Much as Loomis was a mentor to his students, Steele said he had a similar impact on younger faculty members.

"If you don't have people that are good mentors, good sort of counselors, so to speak, in terms of giving you advice, (academia) can be kind of a rough and an anxious and uncertain place," Steele, currently the chair of the political science department at the University of Utah, said. "And he did everything he could to make it less anxious." 

Outside academia, Steele said Loomis was someone with "an amazing range of topics he was knowledgeable in." He recalled holiday parties and receptions at Loomis' house, where the professor would be enthusiastic about his art collection, giving guests the lowdown on the history of individual pieces.

"There is no other person like Bird Loomis," Steele said. "He is truly one of a kind."

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.