Confessions of a Button Man

Confessions of a Button Man

Pete Christianson is stuck on UW history — by his buttons.

I confess: I’m a button fiend. I wear my love of the Badgers pinned to my chest — or sometimes hang it on the wall in a shadowbox. I seek out UW buttons and other memorabilia in the way that art connoisseurs gather paintings or paleontologists pile up bones.

I became a UW student when I checked into Room 367 in Fish House of Ogg Hall — the old, un-air-conditioned, loud-as-a-boiler-factory Ogg Hall — on my birthday in August 1967.

I’ve been a Badger for much longer — but I’ll explain that later.

Among the first things I did after arriving on campus was buy football tickets. Football at Wisconsin in 1967 was far different from the Camp Randall experience in 2009. Rather than today’s twelve-game regular seasons, teams then played only ten, which was merciful. In ’67, Wisconsin lost nine games, a slog broken only by a 21-21 tie against Iowa late in the season. That winless streak continued through an 0-10 ’68 season, and the Badgers didn’t win a game until midway through the ’69 season. Between my enrollment and when I graduated in 1971, they compiled a record of 7-32-1.

No one wants to watch that kind of weekly massacre alone. Before the season started, I talked a fellow Fish House resident into going to the ticket office with me, and at the last moment, a female student from a place near my hometown in northern Wisconsin went along, too. And so I ended up sitting in the front row of Camp Randall’s upper deck with Allen Bergum ’71 from Pennsylvania and Margaret (Meg) Olson x’71 from Cameron, Wisconsin.

Somewhere between the first football game of the 1967 season and the last, two lifelong romances began to bloom. One was between me and Meg. Now when we attend football games, we are usually accompanied by one or more of our three children, all of whom are also UW graduates and fellow WAA members. Attending home football games has become a cherished family ritual for all of us.

The other romance that blossomed that summer was more figurative. That’s when I fell in love with the rich history of Camp Randall Stadium.

UW Homecoming Button Collection

While it’s obvious from the name that Camp Randall has a military background, many fans are unaware of its important role in the Civil War. Wisconsin sent roughly eighty thousand young men off to defend the Republic, and most of them were trained on the grounds at Camp Randall.

For those who died in battle, many spent their last night on Wisconsin soil at this special place. Afterward, Camp Randall served for a while as the State Fair grounds, and later it became a football field.

The transformation from open public ground to home of the Badgers wasn’t smooth. Early bleachers were borrowed from the Ringling Brothers Circus in Baraboo, but so many people crowded into the stands for a game against Minnesota in 1915 that these temporary bleachers collapsed. The public cried out for game-day safety, and the state legislature responded by appropriating funds to begin building a new stadium at the current location on the property. The first game at the current site was played in 1917.

I’ve learned all this, and much more, thanks to buttons — as well as programs, fliers, and photos. My Badger education is a byproduct of my hobby: collecting UW football memorabilia.

I’ve been a Badger from birth, or possibly before, as generations of my ancestors have come to study in Madison. I’m not sure when I first felt the desire to collect, but it has its seeds in family lore and tradition. At my family’s cottage in Rice Lake in Barron County, my great-grandfather’s diploma from 1896 hung on the wall, along with a peace pipe and university crest from some ancient campus ceremony. My grandmother, who graduated in 1920, taught me to sing “Varsity” and “On, Wisconsin!” almost as soon as I could talk.

UW Homecoming Button Collection

I didn’t really start collecting, though, until 2001. That year’s Homecoming theme evoked my time on campus, with a bright, DayGlo 1960s daisy and the slogan “Badger Power.”

At the Badger Huddle preceding that year’s game, I grabbed the colorful button and stuffed it in my pocket. When Meg and I got home, I started to search for the “Cartoon Collage” button used for our first Homecoming game in 1967. I didn’t find it, but I did find the 1936 button given to me by a friend during law
school. That one has special meaning, as Meg’s father, Stan Olson ’37, was in the stands for his last Homecoming game.Later we found some wonderful photos Stan had shot during that game.

Soon, a full-fledged effort to locate a Homecoming button from every year since 1911 — the very first Homecoming, now almost a century ago — was underway. At the moment, my collection consists of buttons from eighty different years. Many have come from friends, who kept them after graduation or spotted them at garage sales. eBay has been a fertile source as well.

In addition to buttons, I have accumulated a sizable collection of “real photo” postcards taken at Camp Randall during football games. The Photoart House in Madison sent photographers to take pictures of action on the field as well as of fans in the stands. These photographs became postcards, which were sold on campus on the Sunday after each game. Students purchased the cards and wrote messages to family and friends, many of which contained comments about the game or the festivities surrounding the Camp Randall experience. The pictures of the fans in the stands offer a vivid portrait of campus life in the early 1900s. Most men wore suits and top hats to the games, and women generally wore dresses and fancy hats — a far cry from today’s typical fan garb.

Collecting UW memorabilia has also resulted in some great friendships. Regular Badger Insider readers may recall an article about fellow alum Dave Vitale ’90, MS’98, PhD’05 of Watertown, who has an amazing collection of athletic memorabilia, including personal items from famous historical figures in Badger sports. (He appeared on the cover of the Winter 2003 issue.) Ken Werner ’68 of Muskego is on a mission to obtain the program from every football game played by the Wisconsin Badgers, both home and away. Collecting the Homecoming buttons made it possible for me to meet both Dave and Ken, who have become friends. I am also indebted to a wonderful friend, former WAA President Gayle Langer, who helped me fill in many of the holes in my collection.

Curiously, finding I Homecoming buttons from the last thirty years has been more difficult than locating buttons from the early years. Let me close with a selfish request. If you have a button from one of these missing years, I would like to visit with you as soon as possible. On, Wisconsin!

Pete Christianson ’71, JD’77 was the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s chair of the board from 2009-2010.