John Christopher Ise – 1996 Inductees

One of the foremost Kansas educators of the twentieth century was born June 5, 1885, in western Ross Township of Osborne County.  Named after his maternal grandfather, John Christopher Ise was the seventh of twelve children born to Henry and Rosena (Haag) Ise on the homestead Henry had claimed in June 1871.  As an infant John was stricken with polio, which caused his right leg to become withered and nearly useless.  His parents decided early that his best chance at success in life was for him to become a scholar.

John attended the nearby one-room Ise School and learned to play the guitar and the violin.  With the latter he occasionally gave recitals in the area.  In 1902 he taught a term at the Prairie Bell School in Bethany Township, receiving thirty dollars a month in pay.  Later he also taught at the Rose Valley School in Ross Township.  In 1903 his damaged leg was amputated and he was fitted with an artificial one, after which he could walk almost normally.

Ise entered the University of Kansas (KU) and graduated with a degree in music in 1908.  He followed this with Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Law degrees.  In 1911 he was admitted to the Kansas bar.  The next year he received his master’s degree from Harvard University, where in 1914 John also became a Doctor of Philosophy.  He was an assistant professor of economics at Harvard and Iowa State College before joining the faculty at the University of Kansas in 19l6.  He became a full professor there in 1920.

Dr. Ise’s interest in natural resources economics made him internationally known and internationally debated.  “As crusty as the Kansas sod, Ise had the self-imposed mission of shocking both students and the public from their intellectual lethargy,” wrote Clifford Griffin in his The University of Kansas: A History (1983).  Then-radical ideas such as conserving national oil reserves against future shortages and restricting drilling and mining in national parks and other federal lands caused Ise to be branded a Communist by some.  But as time went on his ideas and writings earned him lasting respect both as a resource conservationist and a prophet of the energy crisis of the 1970s.

On August 4, 1921, John married Lillie Bernhard in Lawrence, Kansas.  They had two sons, John Jr. and Charles.  John was an independent in politics and a charter member of the League for Independent Political Action.  He also served as president of the American Economics Association, the Mid-West Economic Association and on the editorial board of the American Economic Review.  He was given life membership in the Kansas Illustriana Society in 1933 and later was named to Who’s Who in America.

John was a member of several local organizations in the Lawrence area.  He and his wife gave $25,000 in 1955 to the Lawrence Humane Society for an animal shelter in memory of their son Charles, who had died in a plane crash, and spent much more time with this cause.  Dr. Ise’s efforts in this area were recognized in 1968 by the American Humane Association.

John’s eight books ranged in subject matter from a comprehensive test on economics to a collection of humorous comments on current condition, interspersed with the classic story of his pioneer family in Osborne County.  The United States Forest Policy (1920), The United States Oil Policy (1926), and Our National Park Policy: A Critical History (1961) all reflected his economic views on the nation’s natural resources.  The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, better known as OPEC, was formed in 1961 based on Ise’s conclusions in his Oil Policy book.  Economics (1940) was a classroom textbook by Ise that was used at KU and several other colleges and universities from 1940 to 1965.  Sod and Stubble (1936), a look at his parents’ life on the Kansas prairie in nineteenth century Osborne County, is still in print over 75 years after its initial publication.  Ise also edited Howard Ruede’s critically-acclaimed Sod-House Days:  Letters from a Kansas Homesteader (1937).  These latter two books are considered to be the finest literature ever written about homesteading life on the Great Plains of North America, and have made Osborne County a focal point for scholarly study of the region.  Ise’s final book, The American Way, was actually a present to him by his colleagues at KU upon his retirement in 1955 and is a collection of his finest speeches and letters.

Ise kept in touch with his boyhood home in Downs, whether giving the commencement address at the high school graduation or just visiting old friends.  It was also customary for him to hold in Lawrence a yearly dinner for all Osborne County students attending KU.

John retired in 1955 with more earned degrees than any other KU faculty member. Up to fifteen thousand students had passed through his classes in thirty-nine years of teaching.  He retired a world-renowned economist and is considered one of the three greatest professors in University of Kansas history.  Currently the John Ise Award is given annually to recognize the student with the most outstanding achievement by the University of Kansas Department of Economics.  John continued in the post of professor emeritus and also taught as a visiting professor of economics at Amherst College in Massachusetts, Groucher University in Baltimore, Maryland, Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and at Harvard University.

John Ise passed away March 26, 1969, at Lawrence and was buried there in the Oak Hill Cemetery.  His legacy of teaching and his writings will continue to shape and inspire the world we live in for many years to come.




“I was asked to write a brief summary of my father’s life as it pertained to Osborne County.  Of his early life I know little beyond his own story of his parents’ life as set forth in his book Sod and Stubble.  This book, which I understand is being reissued in 1996, delineates the hardships, sorrows, and joys experienced by Rosa and Henry Ise (nee Eisenmanger) as early settlers near Downs. It ends with the selling of the Ise farm and the move of the family to Lawrence following Henry’s death.

It became abundantly clear to me how much my father’s early farm life had affected him, since for as far back as I can remember (I was born in 1923, in Lawrence, Kansas) he always owned a couple of farms.  These were both quarter-sections, one near Richland and the other near Doniphan.  He let neighbors farm these in exchange for half the wheat crop, which I remember as yielding (at least during the 1930s) a modest negative return.  And just after my brother was born, in March 1926, he moved our family from the rented house on Louisiana Street to a farmhouse a few miles west of Lawrence on Highway 40.  His nostalgia for the farm had apparently overweighed my mother’s misgivings, but after about a year she prevailed and they moved back to 1208 Mississippi Street, where he spent the rest of his life.

He had extremely broad interests in life.  Thus at KU he earned bachelor’s degrees from three schools – the School of Fine Arts in 1908 (in music), the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 1910, and the School of Law in 1911.  He subsequently earned Master’s and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard in economics, which became his consuming interest from then on, particularly the study of conservation and farm economics.  He wrote several books on these subjects, U.S. Oil Policy, U.S. Forest Policy, and U.S. National Park Policy, in addition to Sod and Stubble.

His early life on a Kansas farm had imbued him with several traits that I always found very admirable.  He was scrupulously honest – I can remember once when he found that a sales clerk at the old Woolworth’s store on Massachusetts had given him a nickel too much change, whereupon he walked a block and a half in a light snowfall to return the nickel.  This was not an easy task for a man who had to drag along a heavy artificial leg (prosthetics have come a long way since he had his withered leg cut off in 1903).

He loved animals with an unqualified love.  He had worked his way through college by serving as a mounted officer for the Lawrence SPCA.  His stories of how he had rescued dogs and horses from what seemed to my brother and me as incredible brutality and cruelty made a deep impression on both of us.  After losing the use of his leg at the age of two to polio he had to get to school (half a mile) in a little wagon pulled by his faithful dog, Coalie.  When my brother was killed in a light plane crash in 1955 my father donated money for the Charles Ise Animal Shelter in Lawrence.

And he seemed to have an uncanny way with animals.  During the months that we spent on the farm west of Lawrence a neighboring farmer gave him a large and savage Airedale that had so badly bitten several of the farmer’s hired hands that he had to get rid of the dog.  I can still remember Dad taking me and the dog by the scruff of the neck and saying, ‘Pal, this is Johnboy – you two are going to be friends.’  Not a growl from the fierce-looking dog, who did indeed become my fast friend, twice saving my life ( as I still believe), once from a huge sow who had broken down her pen – this pig had actually eaten two of her own piglets –  and once when I got stuck in quicksand in a wash near the farmhouse.  These incidents may have hastened our move back to Lawrence!

My father was also a firm believer in the Biblical injunction ‘By the sweat of thy brow shalt thou earn thy daily bread’ and he worked harder than anyone I knew.  He would teach all morning ‘up on the Hill,’ come home for lunch and then immure himself in his office, or ‘Library,’ as we called it.  This was the downstairs room in our three story house, which contained many hundreds of books, mostly in his own field.  All the rooms of the house, except for the kitchen, had bookcases, all full and almost all read.  Dad worked, grading papers, preparing lectures, or writing some book or other, all afternoon and for three or four hours after dinner.  This was a daily routine, except on Saturday afternoon when the Metropolitan Opera was playing, or when my parents either went out to dinner at friend’s homes or entertained friends themselves.  My mother was an excellent cook; once being written up in Clementine Paddleford’s Sunday column for her Black Walnut Cake, but no wine or liquor was ever served in her house.  Her father had been a Methodist minister and she and her nine brothers and sisters had been raised quite strictly.  Dad’s parents had actually drunk beer and wine on rare occasions, to the considerable embarrassment of all their eleven children, most of whom remained strict teetotalers.

There were many things Dad could not teach me and my brother, because of his artificial leg.  Thus there was no ball throwing or family bicycling trips.  But he showed us things that to me were more important.  As a child in Kansas he had had to be very inventive in the matter of playtime activities.  He had learned to whittle with his jackknife–I still have a little box in which he carried his flute, carefully crafted from about a dozen types of wood native to Kansas.  He showed Charlie and me how to crack a long bullwhip, and how to make shingle darts, launched with a stick with a knotted piece of string which fit into a notch in the body of the dart.  He was incredibly precise with those things, and could hit targets at fifty yards as well as my brother and I could with our BB guns.  Because of his missing leg he had had to compensate by using his arms more and had such strength in his arms and hands that he could chin himself with one hand, holding onto the exposed ceiling joists, a feat that his athletic older brothers could not duplicate.  But the most important things he could and did teach us were attitudes and beliefs.  We learned to love the outdoors, what is now called ‘the environment.’  Summer vacations were always spent camping in the western national parks.  We picked up a love of great art, good music and great literature.  His favorite author was always Mark Twain.  He was fiercely loyal to Kansas and to the United States, which belies his frequently controversial views about many things.  He was widely considered to be a Communist sympathizer for many years and the chancellor and even the governor received occasional letters from Kansas businessmen complaining about “that radical John Ise, infecting the young minds in our University.”  This amused Dad greatly, but infuriated me and my brother.  And thanks to a tolerant administration he remained at KU for thirty-nine years and I believe he taught at least a few thousand students how to think for themselves.

During my postdoctoral Fulbright fellowship to France in 1950 I was working with Jean Daudin, then a leading physicist in the field of cosmic rays.  He also happened to be one of the leaders of the Communist Party in southern France and we worked together at the Pic du Midi, on the Spanish border, where he frequently entertained Spanish Loyalists hostile to Franco.  Dad was teaching that summer at a seminar in Salzburg, sponsored by Harvard University, and I can remember the bitter argument he had with Daudin about communism, when the two of them met in Paris, for by 1950 the grim reality of Stalin’s dictatorship was obvious to all.  I had to translate for the two of them for Dad spoke no French and Daudin no English and it was difficult for me to translate Dad’s cusswords into the kind of French I had learned from Mademoiselle Crumrine at KU!

He was a very good economist, serving as president of the American Economic Association, and an excellent teacher.  His textbook on economics was for a time used by the majority of state universities, and I am glad that I was able to take his course in Economics 90, although I was too shy to ever open my mouth in class.  When he retired from the KU faculty in 1955 his colleagues expressed their admiration by publishing a collection of his essays in a book, The American Way.  In 1963 he was very proud to receive KU’s highest honor, the Citation for Distinguished Service, awarded at Commencement exercises.  He remained a true son of Kansas all his life, which was inexorably shaped by his early upbringing in Downs.  In one short essay reproduced in The American Way, entitled ‘No Time To Live’, he recalled one episode of his college days, when the family was still living in Downs, in the following manner:

‘When we went to Lawrence to college we did not expect to make the trip in four hours but rode the unhurried Central Branch, changed trains a time or two, making connections if we were lucky – if not, lounging around the depot for some hours or perhaps all night.  I remember well the evening my sister and I missed connections at Beloit and sat out behind the depot most of the night, reciting poetry and talking of our plans and ambitions and theories of the good life.  It was full moon, and there was a mist on the field of ripening wheat across the fence, and the frogs were croaking from the creek nearby.  Sister has been gone these many years, but I can still close my eyes and see that lovely, peaceful scene as if I had been there only yesterday.  An interruption of our long journey which I, no doubt, cursed with vigor, had enriched my life with an unforgettable experience.  It was enforced leisure, but how rich and enduring.’

One final remark he made about the early settlers among whom he was raised is still relevant:  ‘They had what it took, and it took a lot.’  That about sums it up.” – John Ise, Jr., November 1995.

A young John Ise when he worked as a schoolteacher in Osborne County.


The rural one-room schoolhouse where John Ise attended as a child and later taught at as an adult.

A page of notes from 1924 by Rosa Ise to her son John. It was pages of memories like this from which John got the background for his book “Sod & Stubble.”


The modest gravestone of John Ise in Oak Hill Cemetery, Lawrence, Kansas.

2 thoughts on “John Christopher Ise – 1996 Inductees”

  1. An extremely interesting view of a man whose Economics textbook I used for 3 quarters at the University of Minnesota in 1946.

    I still use it as a reference when dealing with Grandchildren who believe they’ve discovered a new and better way.

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