Remembering Karl Onthank, Conservationist and Humanitarian

Onthank_Karl_1Karl Onthank played a prominent role as a humanitarian and conservationist at the University of Oregon during the first half of the 20th century. For four decades, Onthank served in a variety of administrative roles at the university and contributed significantly in his service to students. We are pleased to highlight some of his key contributions to UO and the state of Oregon throughout his career.

Onthank first arrived at the UO campus in 1909 as an undergraduate student. During his time as a student, Onthank helped found the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity and served as the editor of the student newspaper and yearbook. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from UO in June 1913, Onthank returned to the campus during the next few summers, earning his Master of Arts in 1915.

He was first employed by the university in 1916, when he became the executive secretary to President Lucien Campbell. In 1918, Onthank assisted Colonel John Leader in preparing a University battalion during World War I. From 1924 to 1926, Onthank participated on the team that took over campus administrative duties during President Campbell’s illness.

In 1930, Onthank was promoted to the dean of personnel administration. In that role, he initiated and managed the effort to relocate UO Japanese-American students during World War II as a member of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council. Following the war, Onthank was again promoted, this time to the position of associate dean of students and director of graduate placement and employment. He served in this capacity until his retirement in 1957.

Onthank was also an ardent conservationist. In addition to serving as president of the Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs from 1955 to 1957, Onthank also helped form the Friends of the Three Sisters Wilderness and the Save the McKenzie River Association.

Onthank was first honored in 1959 by the University of Oregon on the 50th anniversary of his time at the university. The celebration coincided with Homecoming that year, and the Saturday of the Civil War game with Oregon State was a day-long salute to his service to the UO community. On November 21, 1959, he was treated to both a pre-game luncheon and a post-game reception in his honor.

The Karl W. Onthank Scholarship was established a year later as a legacy to his service for the university. Five years later, he received the Distinguished Service Award at the UO Charter Day observances in October 1965. He was also nominated for an Alumni Recognition Award in 1967, though there is no record that he received that honor prior to his death later that year.

Onthank was recognized further by the university after his death. In July 1969, he was bestowed posthumously with the Distinguished Alumnus Award. Most notably, in 1974 the university commissioned a statue to be placed outside the Museum of Art in his honor. The statue was dedicated on November 16, 1974 in a ceremony outside the museum. Most recently, former Oregon governors Robert Holmes and Charles Sprague issued commendations of Onthank in April 1986 that recognized his varied service to the university.


Onthank’s work is detailed in several collections in the UO Special Collections and University Archives. The following resources provide more information about his work within the university and the community:


~ Zach Bigalke, University Archives Research Assistant

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