The Cockefair Chair was established in 1964 to honor Carolyn Benton Cockefair, an exceptional teacher who devoted her life to education. The chair’s activities continue as a monument to Mrs. Cockefair’s belief that a community needs “open and responsive minds” if it is to be politically and socially healthy, and serves those goals by bringing scholars, writers and public intellectuals to UMKC in a continuing education program.

Carolyn Benton Cockefair was in love with education. Married to a farmer and the mother of three children, she taught in Missouri high schools and colleges in the early 1900s, sharing her enormous passion for learning.

In 1922, the University of Missouri hired her to teach Extension Service courses. There she discovered her people — adults who had not continued their formal education but loved learning for its own sake. At the age of 63, she came to what was then called the University of Kansas City (UKC) in 1947, despite strong objections to her lack of a doctoral degree and her age.

Black and white photo of Carolyn Benton Cockefair

Alarmed by the public perception of the school as elitist and aloof, she set about to demystify UKC. By bringing Greek, Roman and English classics to life, Mrs. Cockefair inspired her students to relate the lessons of the past to their daily lives.

Mrs. Cockefair retired from UMKC in 1964 at age 80. Her former students raised money and petitioned the university to establish a chair in her name.

The Cockefair Chair continues to bring a variety of scholars and writers to give free presentations to anyone who is interested in attending. A brief sampling of outstanding scholars brought by the Cockefair Chair to UMKC include Norman Cousins, Carlos Fuentes, Molly Ivins, Tony Kushner, Rick Steves, Judith Martin (“Ms. Manners”), John Updike and Robert Massie.