TOPEKA, Kansas — Burdett Loomis, a longtime University of Kansas political scientist known affectionately as “Bird,” died Saturday at his home in Lawrence just months after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of thyroid cancer. He was 76.
Elected officials and political figures mourned his death and recalled how he inspired them as students during his 40-year KU teaching career.
“I’m one of thousands of former students working in government and politics because they took a class with him at KU,” Christie Appelhanz said in a Facebook post on Sunday.
Appelhanz is a former reporter, lobbyist and congressional staffer who now heads the federal Administration for Children and Families office in the region that includes Kansas and Missouri.
The head of KU said the flood of comments shows the influence Loomis had.
"Bird embodied KU's mission of education, service and research,” KU Chancellor Doug Girod said. “The outpouring of love and respect for Bird during the past day has been remarkable, and it confirms the impact he had on students, colleagues, elected officials and journalists who had the pleasure of engaging with him."
Eric Pahls, a Republican consultant who managed U.S. Senator Roger Marshall’s 2020 campaign, said on Twitter that while he and Loomis agreed on little, “we greatly enjoyed talking about the horse race.”
Another former student, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, called Loomis “a respected commentator on Kansas politics.”
“He will be missed,” said Schmidt, a Republican gearing up to challenge Democratic Governor Laura Kelly.
Before arriving at KU in 1979, Loomis was an assistant professor at Knox College, a small liberal arts school in Galesburg, Illinois. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Carleton College in Minnesota and his master’s and doctorate’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin.
While at KU, Loomis chaired the political science department twice and served as interim director of the Robert J. Dole Institute for Public Service and Public Policy. He also managed internship programs that placed students with elected officials in Washington, D.C. and the Statehouse in Topeka.
In 2005, he took a brief break from teaching to work as a communications advisor to Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius.
Former Topeka Mayor Larry Wolgast, a longtime friend who, along with Loomis belonged to a breakfast group that met regularly to talk politics, described him as “warm, genuine and self-effacing.”
“He had so much yet to give and will be sorely missed,” Wolgast said.
Democratic Governor Laura Kelly joined others in saying Loomis’ voice would be missed.
“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,” Kelly said Sunday on Twitter.
For reporters, whether writing for the Washington Post or the Iola Register, Loomis was the go-to person for a comment on Kansas politics, said Steve Kraske, host of KCUR’s “Up to Date” talk show and a former reporter for the Kansas City Star.
“He helped me understand the nuances of Kansas politics for 30 years and he was always insightful — I mean always,” Kraske said, during a segment devoted to Loomis on Monday’s “Up to Date.”
After learning of Loomis’ illness last week, Democratic U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids took to the floor of the U.S. House to praise him as “an irreplaceable member of our community.”
“He’s been a trusted friend and advisor to many Kansas officials over the years and I’m personally grateful for his guidance throughout my time in Kansas,” Davids said.
Loomis and Michel, his wife of 53 years, lived in a stately house near downtown Lawrence that friends likened to an art gallery. They frequently opened it to groups for receptions, book signings and musical performances.
After retiring, Loomis busied himself editing books, writing columns with other political scientists for Kansas newspapers and playing tennis.
In his last Insight Kansas column, published August 9, Loomis called for a statewide vaccine mandate.
“As the delta variant wreaks havoc, unnecessarily, with our lives,” he wrote, “it’s past time for Kansas institutions to require vaccinations.”
“We have tried pleas to reason, we have used incentives, we have appealed to a sense of community,” he wrote. “Now, we must push the unvaccinated hard to do the right thing.”
Jim McLean is the Statehouse Bureau Chief for Kansas Public Radio and a contributor to the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio - focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. KPR and Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.