Campus history – On Wisconsin For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Thu, 20 Sep 2018 14:07:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Washburn Observatory Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:27 +0000 Stargazers take in a nighttime view using the observatory’s vintage telescope. Washburn hosts regular public observing sessions and posts its schedule on Twitter. Built in 1881, the observatory was a gift to the UW from former Wisconsin Governor Cadwallader Washburn, who directed that the 15.6-inch telescope lens be at least equal in size to a rival instrument at Harvard. The telescope’s rusty tube in 2012: its lenses were removed for the first time to clear out dust and debris. “It’s probably working better now than it did in the 19th century,” says Jim Lattis, director of UW Space Place. The dome was refurbished in the 1990s; the rest of the building was restored and updated in 2009. Washburn overlooks Lake Mendota and sits atop Observatory Hill, where students like to sled on campus dining hall trays.

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Scary Story Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:26 +0000 Illustrated cover of book, "Don't Look Behind You!"

The UW’s Science Hall inspired the spooky setting for a onetime professor’s book.

Almost 75 years ago, the preoccupations of World War II left UW professor Samuel Rogers with an acute case of writer’s block.

Creepy inspiration struck when this leading scholar of the French novelist Honoré de Balzac — and a respected writer — got to thinking “what a lugubrious place Science Hall was.” The result was Don’t Look Behind You!, a novel that came to a terrifying end with “someone being chased by a homicidal maniac up through the stairs of Science Hall,” Rogers explained in a UW Archives oral history about his years in Madison.

Anyone who’s opened the heavy oak doors of the Romanesque Revival building, climbed the winding staircase — past the exposed brick walls bearing the ghostly signatures of students from long ago — to a tiny landing on the top floor where a pair of locked doors seem to lead nowhere, can appreciate his impulse.

In the 1920s, when Rogers began teaching at the UW, Science Hall housed the university’s anatomy department. First-year medical students and the cadavers they worked on jointly occupied a series of windowless rooms on the fourth and fifth floors — a fact that no doubt further inflamed his imagination.

In the summer of 1943, he crafted a Hitchcock-style psychological thriller set in a fictional Midwestern university town with lakes and many twisting paths through the woods. For a would-be victim, he fashioned a fetching nursing student named Daphne.

As possible suspects for the psychotic killer, he stocked a faculty lounge with maladjusted characters, including a professor way too immersed in his studies of abnormal psychology. After a series of frightful walks through dark woods, the ending comes as promised: Daphne is chased up the stairs to the upper reaches of Science Hall.

The tale caught the attention of Alfred Hitchcock himself, and the director bought the rights to turn it into a television script for his eponymous NBC drama. The 1962 episode starred a Hitchcock favorite, Vera Miles (who played Janet Leigh’s sister in Psycho), and remained quite faithful to the book. As for Rogers, Don’t Look Behind You! sold well enough to encourage him to write two more mysteries while continuing to serve on the UW faculty until his retirement in 1960.

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Reckoning with History Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:26 +0000 People walk past a decorative wall in the Memorial Union

Bryce Richter

Between 1919 and 1926, two UW student organizations took the name Ku Klux Klan, and a report delving into that era of campus history “does not make for comfortable reading, nor should it,” says Chancellor Rebecca Blank.

In the wake of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last fall, Blank appointed a study group to research the organizations and their connection to the national KKK. She also asked members of the group, which included UW history professors, to advise her on how the university can respond to this painful history.

The group’s report, released in April, found that the campus community in the early 1920s did not question the presence of two organizations bearing the KKK name, including one that was affiliated with the national white supremacist group Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The report also detailed what Blank calls “shameful examples” of the UW community’s treatment of black and Jewish students and of Native Americans, who were excluded from the student body during that era.

“The history the UW needs to confront was not the aberrant work of a few individuals but a pervasive culture of racial and religious bigotry, casual and unexamined in its prevalence, in which exclusion and indignity were routine, sanctioned in the institution’s daily life, and unchallenged by its leaders,” the report says.

The study group also considered the question of renaming campus spaces. But members decided that, first and foremost, the university needs to take more substantive action to address the past and reinvest in institutional change. “We want our collective reckoning with this history to consist of a great deal more than the purging of unpleasant reminders,” the report says.

However, the Wisconsin Union Council, which governs Memorial Union, voted in August to change the names of the Porter Butts Art Gallery and the Fredric March Play Circle — named for the union’s first director and the Oscar-winning actor, respectively. Both men belonged to an interfraternity society that used the Ku Klux Klan name in the early 1920s but was not affiliated with the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

The surviving family members of Butts publicly supported the move, which council members said would allow the Union to fulfill its mission by being more welcoming to students of all backgrounds. Butts ’24, MA’36 worked for inclusivity later in his life, including his refusal to allow segregated groups to use Wisconsin Union spaces. And in the 1950s, March ’20 fought persecution of Hollywood artists, many of them Jewish, by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Union council plans to acknowledge the professional achievements of Butts in another way at Memorial Union.

In response to the study group report, the UW has committed up to $1 million to research and install a public history project “that will document and share the voices of those on campus who endured, fought, and overcame prejudice” throughout its history, Blank says. The university will also fund a proposal to hire a new faculty member in four progams: Afro-American Studies, American Indian Studies, Chican@/Latin@ Studies, and Asian American Studies.

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Play Time Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:26 +0000 Memorial Union opened its doors for the first time on October 5, 1928, which means that the facility will mark its 90th birthday this fall. The occasion will wrap up 13 months of celebration since the five-year-long Memorial Union Reinvestment — the building’s first major renovation — concluded in September 2017. Come to think of it, the Union has been something of a perpetual celebration: nine decades of fun and games. Here’s how play has and hasn’t changed over the years.



In the Union’s opening year, men play cards in Der Rathskeller. It was only men in those days — the Rath wouldn’t be open to women until 1941.

Historical black and white photo of students playing cards in the Memorial Union

UW Archives S0386


In the 1960s, campus had grown increasingly political, and the Union evolved along with the students. Union Director Porter Butts ’26 etired in 1968 and was replaced by Ted Crabb ’54, who served until 2001. But in Der Rathskeller, students still passed the time with card games.



U.S. Navy sailors mansplain a bowling ball to female students. During World War II, the Union’s dining facilities served more than 2,000 military personnel daily. But the drop in male students meant opportunity for women — the Union’s first female president, Carolyn Hall Sands ’44, was elected in 1943.


Two students experiment with human bowling in Memorial Union’s Tripp Commons. There was no real bowling in Memorial Union when it opened, and there isn’t any today. In 1939, eight lanes were added under the theater wing. They closed in 1970, shortly before Union South opened.



Foosball is older than the Union, having been invented in the United Kingdom in 1921. It reached peak popularity in the United States in the 1970s. Shorts were not to be seen in the Union until 1954, however, when a change to the dress code allowed shorts in the cafeteria and Der Rathskeller and on the Terrace.


Students play video games (Super Smash Bros. Brawl) in Der Rathskeller. Video games are a rarity in Memorial Union today. Arcade revenue declined from the 1980s into the 2000s, and the games room closed in 2008.



Pool tournaments were held in the old Billiards Room, which was part of the original Union. A remodel in 1962 turned the Billiards Room into Der Stiftskeller, and the pool tables were moved to the basement. They later came back.


Students play pool in Der Stiftskeller, which was named for a thousand-year-old restaurant in Salzburg, Austria. The murals were added to its walls in 1978.



Students play chess on the Terrace. The Union first made Terrace chairs available for purchase in 1982, though you can only buy red or white, not the traditional green, yellow, and orange.


A chess game enlivens an August evening on the Terrace. Some things change very little.

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Home Field Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:09 +0000 Casting long shadows, students play soccer on the Near East Fields near Dejope Residence Hall. The fields are due for reconstruction by 2022 under the Rec Sports Master Plan.

Photo by Jeff Miller

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Halloween Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:09 +0000 On the one night of the year when it’s perfectly acceptable to be someone (or something) else, there are sure to be just as many tricks as there are treats in Madison.

The city has a history of wild nights when Halloween weekend rolls around. Although the UW has hosted a number of spirited events, such as pumpkin carving and a costume ball at Memorial Union, the soul of Halloween in Madison has long been found on State Street.

Partygoers began flooding into the downtown hub starting in the late 1970s. By the 1980s, as many as 100,000 costumed people — students among them — would line the street and patronize its bars. With informal programming and little crowd control, the event spurred some revelers to set fires, damage property, start fights, and climb light poles. In 1983, a man tragically died after falling from a rooftop.

In 2006, the City of Madison sought to rein in Halloween’s more raucous antics by setting up Freakfest, the region’s largest Halloween festival. In its first year, the gated, ticketed event reduced the number of State Street arrests by nearly 200, from 334 to 148. By 2016, only 13 arrests were made.

Freakfest embraces live music: more than a dozen acts perform across three stages lining State Street. Country stars Kip Moore and Jon Pardi — along with pop groups MisterWives, OK Go, and Timeflies — are among the prominent musicians who have provided a soundtrack for the spooky night.

Although attendance has dropped to a more manageable 30,000 or so per year, there’s no shortage of excitement in the air when All Hallows’ Eve arrives. A summary from the 1982 Badger yearbook rings true today: “If the multitudes of partiers who flock to State Street every year have any say in the matter, rest assured there will never be an end to this most popular of holidays.”

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Alnisa Allgood Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:07 +0000 Alnisa Allgood

Courtesy Montae Creative

When Alnisa Allgood moved to Madison in 1991, she didn’t have much of a plan. She had studied chemical engineering at Penn State University on an Air Force ROTC scholarship, expecting to serve. But then she came out as gay. Discharge papers arrived before active duty called.

Allgood hitched a ride to Madison at a friend’s recommendation. She attended a meeting for the 10 Percent Society, a gay student organization, and learned about a years-long struggle to start an LGBT center on campus. Allgood, now an executive director of two nonprofit organizations in Madison, combined her passion for problem-solving and helping others to open the university’s LGBT center in 1992.

Over the years, the center has changed in structure (from a student-run organization to an administrative unit), location (from off campus, to the Memorial Union, to the Red Gym), and name (newly the Gender and Sexuality Campus Center). But its core purpose — to be a space for support and community — remains the same.

What inspired you to start the LGBT campus center?

The 10 Percent Society and other LGBT organizations were trying to get the LGBT center [started] the same way as the multicultural center — approved by the regents and funded through the [UW] System. I thought that was always a good thing to work toward, but that it could be another 20 years. I had read about other possibilities for funding a center, a mixture between student segregated fees and grants. So that’s what I did.

In an oral history with UW Archives, you said, “The first reaction was to go into protest mode as opposed to going into planning mode.” What did you mean by that?

Students had been fighting for [regents’ approval] for over 10 years. But just having a campus center would be a win, right? I went to the dean of students [Mary Rouse] and GLEMA, which was the Gay and Lesbian Ethnic Minority Association. I brought them my sketch outline of how it could get up and running. It moved pretty rapidly.

What were some of the original services?

We started talking to various professors and instructors about including [LGBT materials] into their curriculum. Back then it was important because it was hard to access good materials that had new research — not old theories of homosexuality being a mental illness. We also offered lesbian and gay fiction [in our lending library] so that students and the community could start feeling more comfortable with themselves.

Did you receive any public backlash when it opened?

When we were going after the student segregated fees, there were people who argued against us [with] things like, ‘Oh, money shouldn’t be spent on that type of sinful lifestyle.’ … We also had blackout blinds because some people were concerned about identity and people looking into the windows and trying to see who was part of the group. So we came up with protocols — you might even tell people to show up before the announced time, so that somebody’s not sitting there waiting to capture pictures.

The center seemed ahead of its time in terms of wider inclusivity. Why?

There weren’t a lot resources for lesbian and gay students of color. We wanted to make sure that the campus center was not just increasing LGBT visibility, but also [supporting] ethnic minorities and other disenfranchised communities within the LGBT community.

With growing acceptance of the LGBT community, does a center serve different needs today?

There are still people looking for a safe space to come out, though I would assume that’s drastically reduced. But I think there’s one thing that LGBT centers can still be of service [for]: a connection point — a reflection that there are other people in the world like me, and there are other people who are willing to be our allies in whatever the struggles are.

Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Preston Schmitt ’14

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When Crazylegs Went Hollywood Mon, 27 Aug 2018 13:50:16 +0000 UW alumni know Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch x’45 as a football star who made his name — and earned his nickname — in just one season with the Badgers. Hirsch had a Hall of Fame pro career in Los Angeles, where he played nine seasons for the Rams and led the team to the NFL title. But he also made a name for himself in neighboring Hollywood, scoring credits long before former football players such as Alex Karras, Howie Long, and Michael Strahan made the move to the silver screen. Hirsch starred in three films, the last of which inspired a trio of UW alumni to make a classic considered among the best comedy films of all time.

Hirsch had good looks and a faint resemblance to Kirk Douglas, so it wasn’t surprising that movie producers came calling for him. There was already a tradition in Hollywood of casting college All-Americans and Heisman Trophy winners in their own biographical flicks, including Tom Harmon (Harmon of Michigan, 1941), Frankie Albert (The Spirit of Stanford, 1942), and Bruce Smith (Smith of Minnesota, 1942).

Naturally, Hirsch’s first film was a biopic, named simply Crazylegs for its star and the life story it told. The 1953 movie depicted Hirsch’s close relationship with his high school football coach from Wausau, Wisconsin, Win Brockmeyer (played by Lloyd Nolan), and his hometown sweetheart (and eventual wife), Ruth Stahmer (played by Joan Vohs). A must-see film only for diehard Wisconsin and LA Rams fans, Crazylegs was Hirsch’s favorite of his movies, because it featured actual footage from his college and pro playing days.

Illustrated poster for movie, "Crazylegs"

Hirsch played himself in the 1953 film based on his life story. Everett Collection, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

Crazylegs contains rare film of Hirsch’s 1942 season with the Badgers, including his nickname-earning touchdown run at Soldier Field, which prompted a Chicago Daily News journalist to write, “Hirsch ran like a demented duck. His crazy legs were gyrating in six different directions all at the same time in the 61-yard touchdown run that cemented the win.” In that year, Hirsch took a squad that had a solid base of talent and led them to an 8–1–1 record, a level of excellence that Madison hadn’t seen in football since 1912.

“Hirsch as an actor is both likable and believable,” Los Angeles Times reviewer John L. Scott wrote. “He does very well in his first film assignment.” The Capital Times called the film “congenial.”

Crazylegs did fairly well at the box office, outperforming a new Marilyn Monroe flick, How to Marry a Millionaire, when it premiered in Milwaukee in time for the 1953 football season. Hirsch returned to Wausau for a screening in early November, and a big crowd came out to see the hometown hero in the flesh along with his wife and former coach.

Hirsch’s acting, while hardly Shakespearean, showed enough promise to win him the leading role in Unchained, a 1955 prison drama set in Chino, California. Hirsch, often shirtless, got some surprisingly decent reviews for his role as an angst-ridden convict torn between serving his time and busting out of the minimum-security prison that gives prisoners so much latitude that escape is a constant temptation.

His final movie role came in 1957 at the end of his playing career. Zero Hour! was a forerunner to 1970s disaster films such as Airport and The Towering Inferno. Hirsch played the pilot of an airliner already in the sky when an outbreak of virulent food poisoning strikes him, the copilot, and dozens of passengers. Who on the plane could possibly fly the commercial flight to safety? Fate points toward Ted Striker (Dana Andrews), a World War II pilot who has followed his estranged wife onto the plane in the hopes of reconciling. Unfortunately, Ted is haunted by a war tragedy in which much of his crew was killed due to his error at the stick. Not only are his nerves shot, but he hasn’t set foot in a plane, let alone a cockpit, for years.

Illustrated poster for movie, "Unchained"

Hirsch starred as a prison inmate in Unchained. Everett Collection, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

If that plot sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it was stolen, right down to the exclamation point in the movie’s title, by Jim Abrahams x’66 and the Zucker Brothers, David ’70 and Jerry ’72, for Airplane! — surely, one of the funniest movies ever written. (We are serious. And don’t call us Shirley.)

The three founding members of the comedy troupe Kentucky Fried Theater arrived in Los Angeles in 1972, after a year of performing in a space in the back of a Madison bookstore. They set up shop at a small theater on Pico Boulevard and began performing sketch comedy, just as they had in Madison, largely based on late-night television. They used an old-fashioned reel-to-reel machine to record the odd commercials and otherwise unseen movies that filled air time between Johnny Carson and the television test pattern. They would riff on the recording as it was shown on stage that night, inserting dialogue, spoofing circumstances, and cracking wise.

One morning, they arrived at the theater to find Zero Hour! on the tape. “It was a jewel,” Abrahams says. “Overblown. Incredibly melodramatic. But a perfect three-act story. We were comic writers. We didn’t know how to write a narrative.”

The three were interested in parodying a full movie. On the morning that they discovered Zero Hour!, they thought, “This is it,” David Zucker says.

As Wisconsin natives, they knew about Hirsch and his legendary athletic career. But his presence in the movie was merely a bonus bit of trivia; they knew the movie’s structure and canned melodrama were ripe for parody.

They fashioned a script that hewed so closely to the original that ultimately, they wound up stealing not just the plot and premise, but also whole scenes of dialogue. To obviate copyright issues, they bought the remake rights to Zero Hour!

“Basically, we just recast the movie,” Zucker says. “Elroy Hirsch became Peter Graves. Dana Andrews’s Ted Striker became our Robert Hays’s Ted Striker.” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and Leave It to Beaver’s Barbara Billingsley rounded out the cast. Made on a shoestring budget, Airplane! became the third-highest-grossing comedy in box office history after it came out in 1980.

For Hirsch, Zero Hour! was the end of his film career, but his connection to Hollywood briefly lingered. After his retirement from football, the Rams hired him as general manager in 1960, and he went on to make brief guest appearances on two network television sitcoms: The Bob Cummings Show and The Munsters. For the latter, he played himself in a storyline that had him considering using the big-footed Herman Munster as a punter for the Rams. In 1969, Hirsch returned to Madison to become the UW’s athletic director and spent almost 20 years in the role. During that time, he hosted a radio show and a how-to sports television program sponsored by the Union Oil Company, for whom he worked as a spokesman.

Poster for movie, "Zero Hour!"

Crazylegs ended his film career as a pilot under duress in Zero Hour! Everett Collection, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

He died in 2004 at the age of 80, but he remains a legendary figure in Madison, known to many because of the Crazylegs Classic, the 8K annual race launched in 1982 to benefit university athletic programs.

What he thought of Airplane! or if he ever saw it is unknown, at least by the Zucker brothers and Abrahams. They never had a chance to meet Hirsch to ask.

For his part, Hirsch reminisced a bit about his Hollywood career following his UW retirement, noting it “was a heckuva break,” but not something he ever seriously considered pursuing as a profession.

“You really have no control over what you do. You sit at home and wait for the phone to ring,” he said in a 1987 interview. “I guess I was just never one for that kind of job insecurity.’’

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Photo Gallery: Hirsch on Film Mon, 27 Aug 2018 13:49:23 +0000 Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch x’42 almost turned down the role of playing himself in a biographical film. “I received this letter from (producer) Hall Bartlett asking whether I’d be interested in doing this movie,” Hirsch said in a 1987 interview. “I threw it away, and a couple of months later I received another one.” His starring role in Crazylegs launched a second career for the former Badger football star and future NFL Hall of Famer, including roles in two more full-length films and a handful of TV appearances. It all ended with a comical cameo in a 1965 episode of The Munsters.

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Sailing Through the Years Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:08 +0000 On a campus situated between two lakes, it’s only natural that students take advantage of the water. Just two years after the Hoofer Sailing Club formed in 1939, it already boasted more than 450 registered members. Today, UW–Madison students and community members still enjoy hopping into one of the club’s many boats to pick up a new skill. (For more, read “Learning to Sail.”) View scenes of the sailing club over the years since its inception.

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