In 1861, Charles Wakeley — one of the first 20 students to attend the nascent University of Wisconsin in 1849 and one of the first two men to graduate five years later — founded the Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA). The Civil War had just begun, and the university was having financial and administrative difficulties. Wakeley brought together the university’s 40 alumni to keep alive the spirit of loyalty to their tottering alma mater. They gathered at a dinner held on June 26, 1861: the evening of the 1861 commencement ceremony.
The following year, alumni, faculty, regents, and friends met for the first all-alumni dinner. Held at the Capital House, it served to toast the university and those who had given their lives in the Civil War. In 1898, alumni in Milwaukee convened at Hotel Pfister for the first official chapter meeting on record. The following year, in 1899, WAA appointed a committee to create the Wisconsin Alumni Magazine, a monthly publication that today’s alumni know as On Wisconsin.
WAA has certainly evolved over the years. Since its inception, WAA’s contributions to the campus have included rallying the alumni leaders who helped to create the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation in 1925 and the UW Foundation in 1945, and to found the Wisconsin Union in 1907.
In 1967, alumni built the Wisconsin Alumni House, and in the 1970s, WAA became independent from the university.
Then, in 2011 WAA celebrated its 150th anniversary and presented UW–Madison with new street signs to mark key intersections near academic buildings, laboratories, and libraries on campus. That October, during the Red Tie Gala commemorating the organization’s anniversary, Alumni Park, a true legacy gift to campus, was announced. Envisioned as a celebration of the university’s most hallowed tradition, the Wisconsin Idea, Alumni Park opened to the public in October of 2017. Part green space, part art gallery/museum, and all about Badger achievements and traditions, the park has quickly become an iconic campus destination.
In 2014, WAA merged with the UW Foundation, and now both are divisions of the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association. Today, WAA continues its mission to promote the welfare of UW–Madison and serve the interests of more than 450,000 alumni, keeping them connected to the UW and to each other through a variety of programs, services, events, and more.