Washburn College Bible a testament to what almost didn’t happen

The alumni center that opened in 1996 on the northwest edge of Washburn University’s campus is named in Bradbury Thompson’s honor.

 

Yet as time passes, perhaps fewer people know much about Thompson, a proud Washburn alumnus who became an internationally acclaimed graphic artist.

Thompson, a Topeka High School graduate who died in 1995 at age 84, maintained a lifelong affinity with Washburn. Among his most enduring works is the Washburn College Bible, a nearly Herculean effort that almost didn’t see the light of day despite years of painstaking efforts.

When funding for the Bible appeared to be drying up in the 1970s, Thompson went to Washburn University with hat in hand to see whether funds might be available to complete the project.

The university wasn’t able to provide financial assistance to Thompson, but after word of his plight reached the right ears, funds were provided and the Bible project was completed amid international fanfare and acclaim.

Thompson’s career as a cutting-edge graphic artist took him to the ivy-covered halls of Yale University and beyond, but he never forgot his hometown. And it has become clear that the university he loved never forgot him, as evidenced by the Bradbury Thompson Alumni Center at S.W. 17th and Jewell.

The story of the Washburn College Bible is well-documented, yet it bears repeating as much as a reminder of the process that led to its publishing as to honor the visionary behind it.

What sets this Bible apart from others published through the centuries was its design. Thompson used his layout and design talent to create a new rendering of the classic King James Version of the Bible, featuring an abundance of white space coupled with both flush-left and ragged-right typography.

The Washburn College Bible was arranged in free-verse form, with each statement receiving a line of its own. Its 66 full-color art masterpiece reproductions, some dating to the 3rd century, are perhaps its most impressive feature. Renderings of the birth of Jesus Christ were included in the artwork selected for the Bible.

The results are as stunning now as they were when the Bible was released about 38 years ago.

The Washburn College Bible originally was published in 1979 in a limited-edition, three-volume set, with only 398 copies printed. In 1980, Oxford University Press released a single-volume edition. The Book-of-the-Month Club made it a special selection, and 25,000 copies were purchased.

Today, none of the three-volume, limited-edition sets is available for purchase.

The one-volume edition, which originally sold for $75, also is out of print, although some copies remain available through such websites as Amazon.com. “It was the most thorough reassessment of the Bible since Gutenberg,” the late Ruth Garvey Fink, a longtime local philanthropist and driving force behind the project, told The Topeka Capital-Journal in 2006. “Thompson was the most versatile graphic artist in the world.”

Fink, who died at age 90 in 2007, was a member of the Washburn Bible Committee, a group that met for nearly 30 years and helped move the project forward. The Ruth Garvey Fink Convocation Hall in the Bradbury Thompson Alumni Center is named in her honor.

Thompson spent 10 years on the Bible project commissioned by Marshall Field &Co. of Chicago, which then owned the World Book Co.

Marshall Field’s funding for the project dried up after it experienced financial difficulties in the early 1970s, jeopardizing 10 years of intensive labor by Thompson. It was then that Thompson — who in 1938 designed Washburn’s mascot, Mr. Ichabod — returned home to seek help.

In the mid-1970s, Thompson approached Washburn’s alumni office to see if it might be interested in seeing the project through to completion. However, endowed funds weren’t available for such entrepreneurial projects, and it appeared Thompson had hit another brick wall.

Help came after Fink’s mother, Olive White Garvey, heard about the project. Garvey, a philanthropist who provided funding for Washburn’s rebuilding after the 1966 Topeka tornado, at first expressed little interest, but that changed as soon as she saw the manuscripts. She was enamored with the Bible and agreed to fund its completion.

The committee whose members oversaw the Bible’s sale, with proceeds benefiting Washburn University, disbanded more than a decade ago. Yet those who were involved in behind-the-scenes efforts to see the work published remain astonished by its breadth — and how easily it could have been lost.

Jim Maag, 78, of Topeka, who was on the Washburn College Bible committee, credited Fink for her unyielding efforts on behalf of the project.

The committee on which Maag, Fink and others sat became responsible for sales of the Bible. Proceeds totaled nearly $1 million, which was contributed to Washburn’s endowment and helped pay for the Bradbury Thompson Alumni Center.

Maag said the committee “had control of the sale of the Bibles,” noting that “the Oxford edition was far and away the most popular, obviously, because of its price, which was about $75. The limited-edition, three-volume set was $5,000, and they all sold.”

He said a number of the three-volume sets “were placed in libraries around the world by Mrs. Fink. She underwrote the placing of those limited editions in the major libraries around the world.”

Had it not been for the vision of Fink and her mother, Maag said, neither the Bible project nor the Bradbury Thompson Alumni Center center at Washburn University likely would have come to fruition.

Maag is still mesmerized by the Washburn College Bible. Its beauty and grandeur are as stunning now as when it was first published.

“Every time I look at the Oxford edition, I think, ‘Wow, this was a major accomplishment,’ ” Maag said. “You had to know Brad Thompson to know how meticulous his work was. In many ways, the Bible was his greatest accomplishment, even though he was a world-famous graphic artist.”

Contact reporter Phil Anderson at (785) 295-1195 or @Philreports on Twitter. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/philreports.tcj/.

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