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CU traditions of old and new
Kay Oltmans can tell you the University of Colorado at Boulder did landscaping around Old Main back in 1879. She can even tell you that the oldest tree on campus is just west of the south entrance of Old Main and that it’s a Giant Plains Cottonwood tree.
As the director of the CU Heritage Center, she probably knows more about the history of the university than anyone else. The job fell into her lap just as her interest in history started growing.
“Well, I’d worked a lot with community volunteers and I’d worked as a volunteer in my children’s school—which is the oldest school in Colorado,” said Oltmans. “I’d been very involved there and had gotten interested in local history through Historic Boulder, and there was a job opening for an assistant to the — it just seemed like a good match at the time.”
In her 19 years as an employee, she’s been able to witness some historical events herself.
“I think certainly big exciting events such as the awarding of Nobel Prizes to CU faculty members, I think academically that would be at the top of the list,” said Oltmans.
As part of her work she conducts research, comes up with exhibit ideas, gives tours, answers questions, preserves artifacts and learns more about the university every day. Oltmans knows that some school traditions died off because they weren’t safe.
“Big bon fires at homecoming—that used to be a tradition—and people would collect old couches and any sort of old furniture that they could find, but that’s not going to be allowed right now.”
She knows how other traditions were started.
“Ralphie was not always our mascot, we had a variety of different animals, a goat, a donkey, a bulldog at one point,” said Oltmans. “But since 1934, we’ve been the Colorado Buffaloes and that seems to be a name and an animal that the people have gotten excited about.”
With all that history about CU Boulder, Oltmans has a history herself. She attended the university for graduate school and settled in a famous house in Boulder.
“I’ve lived in Boulder for 40 years, I think we feel a strong attachment here,” said Oltmans. “We live in a really old house downtown and that has sparked our interest in preserving Boulder’s history.”
When she decides to retire, she hopes that there will be someone in her family who can share in CU Boulder’s rich history with her. Her grandson.
CU Buffs know your traditions: