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History of Alumni Weekend

Since the 1890s, Badgers have returned to the UW-Madison campus to meet up with old friends, see what’s new on campus, and honor their alma mater.

Wendy Krause Hathaway '04
April 20, 2011

Class of 1875, pictured in front of University Hall

Sharing Badger Spirit

For over 100 years, the Wisconsin Alumni Association has set aside one special weekend every spring to invite UW-Madison alumni back to campus to celebrate their school spirit and reconnect with fellow Badgers for Alumni Weekend and class reunions.


In 1854, alumni Levi Booth and Charles T. Wakeley, founder of the Wisconsin Alumni Association, became the first graduates of the university. A few decades later in the late 1890s, WAA began sponsoring the first class reunions on record. Alumni Day and reunion activities were tailor-made to entertain Badgers of the day, including picnicking along the shoreline, boat rides on Lake Mendota, fireworks and performances by the Glee Club and Pep Band. An alumni reception and ball in the gymnasium capped off the festivities.

In the following decades, classes began experimenting with elaborate and exciting ideas for Alumni Day ranging from renting elephants for a parade, to talent contests. As a result, alumni attendance began to increase each year, reaching over 500 in the 1920s.

By the 1960s, class reunions proved to be such a success that WAA extended Alumni Day to a full weekend, moving the celebration from June to May so that alumni would have an opportunity to return to their alma mater when school was still in session. Alumni took part in boat races, baseball games and track meets, fancy dinner banquets and live singing performances during the 1960s and 70s Alumni Weekend events.

Class of 1875: 35th Reunion (1910)

Class of 1875, pictured in front of University Hall

"1875: A Retrospect"
By Isaac S. Bradley '1875
Published in Wisconsin Alumni Magazine, June 1910

"Were it possible that any member of the class, who may be present at the coming reunion, had not kept in touch with his Alma Mater during the
intervening thirty-five years, the changed conditions at the university would certainly be a revelation and surprise to him. While we take pride in the wonderful development the university has made since our day, when we consider the great changes that have taken place, it is not strange that the esprit de corps, that personal acquaintance and friendship which was found among the members of the earlier and smaller classes can hardly be said to exist at the present day."

The most dramatic changes at the university occurred during its early years, something that did not escape some of these first alumni. Between 1875 and 1910, the number of faculty grew from 11 members to 400, and the number of students nearly quadrupled, from 300-400 students to almost 5,000. Also during that time, 40 new buildings sprung up. When these alumni were on campus, only University Hall, North and South Hall, and a "Ladies Hall" (which came to be known as Chadbourne) existed, along with the presidents living quarters, and a one-story wooden structure used at the time as both armory and gymnasium.

According to Bradley "football, baseball, track teams and other intercollegiate athletic contests were unknown to the students of that day." Even the class gift grew: "Our class ivy, planted 35 years ago at University Hall, then a small shrub, is now a strong and sturdy vine, extending its many branches to the top of the building."

Of the 31 graduating members of the Class of 1875, only 21 were still alive by 1910, and 14 attended the reunion at Lathrop Hall. By the next reunion in 1920, only five alumni were present. That reunion held special meaning, as the remaining graduates gathered to dedicate a new ivy, after their original class gift died, likely as a result of the University Hall fire in 1916.

"As we stood there in the glorious light of that perfect June day beside the walls which enclosed the rooms where we had so happily gathered as a class of enthusiastic young men and women," wrote Alice Baily Gorst in Wisconsin Alumni Magazinein 1920, "each of us were mentally recalling the members as they were in 1875—thinking of those who have vanished from earth—and of those still alive but absent from us, and of the great changes on the University grounds, but seeing still the same wonderful slope of green with its border of noble trees extending as it did in 1875 from University Hill down the long distance to the street in its matchless beauty, and the gleam of Mendota's waters just as radiant as when in college days it lured us to wander along its shores or adventure on its surface."


Class of 1923, 50th Reunion (1973)

"'We made it.' These were the triumphant words of our class president, Whit Huff, as he greeted over 300 returnees of the 1923 Golden Anniversary Class on May 12." So reported Class of 1923 graduate Merle Shaw McGowan '23 in an issue of Wisconsin Alumni Magazine.

McGowan went on to share many details of her experience at the reunion: "Evening brought our class together by ourselves in the beautiful new addition of the Edgewater Hotel on Lake Mendota. As a final event of the evening, a nostalgic story of our past was presented in the form of a recorded and filmed production. The text was original and full of humor and the slides, many of them taken from the Badgers of our day, unbelievable, but authentic.

"Saturday morning found many of us on buses touring the campus, watching for familiar landmarks and viewing with unconcealed awe the striking and handsome new buildings. For those who have been away for some time, it was a breathtaking experience, and for all of us, it was an impressive tour."

"In the optimistic words wired to us from our absent classmate, Dora Ingraham Roach, now serving in the Peace Corps in Ghana, 'See you at our 60th.'"

Class of 1929: 50th Reunion (1979)

Class of 1929 Alumni Sing 'Varsity' in the Union Theater, May 1979
Class of 1929 Alumni Sing 'Varsity' in the Union Theater, May 1979

"Report from the Golden Group"
By Bob DeHaven '29
Wisconsin Alumnus, July 1979

Dear Old Pals of Dear Old Yesteryear:

May 18 and 19 the University of Wisconsin Class of 1929 (the last of the Big Spenders) tossed the fifty-year reunion of its members. The readers of this note were not in attendance, so I send along fifteen cents worth of reportage. This was my first college reunion experience, and I know with health, cost and desire limitations there are reasons to stay home. Flagging the train at the last stop appealed to me, so I responded.

State and Langdon streets look tacky with old and new structures, kempt and unkempt; they were the same in our time, but we supplied the freshness and excitement that makes the place a wonderful place to be.

These magic ingredients are still in ample supply. The lakes of Madison will never lose their beauty. Mendota is majestic and still six miles across. Bicycles have replaced jalopies; jeans are the uniform; books ride in a sack on the back. With an occasional tolerant smile, the students were courteous to us oldsters. State Street from Lake Street to the bottom of The Hill is a mall now. The "new library," opposite the "old," on the Lower Campus bears a quotation from Dean Slichter: "We are all in the wills of Homer and Shakespeare." On two street bulletin boards the poster plea of a private detective: "Do you know where Julie is? Last seen hitchhiking at Johnson and University."

Handling of the gathering by the Wisconsin Alumni Association people was thoughtful and efficient. I never would have guessed I would wear a 1929 red badge with a half-column picture of myself, clipped from the Badger. But I did. A stranger would become an old acquaintance, once you looked at the picture instead of the 1979 face. Bo Cuisiner? You
mean Francis X. Cuisiner; you were a football player and a waiter at our house!" "Yeah, and now I have been a lawyer in Chicago for more than thirty years." We lunched in the Union, received fifty-year pins in the theater, dinner at Maple Bluff Country Club, lunched at the Madison Club, dined at the Union (which is fifty years old this year). The programs were a tasteful mixture of nostalgia, academics, school spirit and fun. High marks as speakers (brief) went to Chancellor Shain and Governor (three degrees from Wisconsin) Dreyfus. The Wisconsin Singers delivered a crack, professional performance. Maybe there were some dry eyes in the theater. He who can stand up and sing Varsity with other seventy-one-year-olds and not feel the hymn just isn't living.

A tour of campus showed us the new and enormous Clinical Science Center, replacing the old General Hospital; buildings and dorms sprung south over University Avenue, the Elvehjem Museum of Art and unchanged Bascom Hall with its unchanged garland of old buildings down each side of The Hill. Still ice cream cones are sold on the Ag Campus—about forty cents apiece now," the guide thought.

Any home town, vacation spot or campus lives in the magic of human memory where it is more enchanting than in the past and far more charming than in the present. I missed you coming around the corner of Frances and State where I mailed my first manuscript to a magazine, The Farm Journal. And sold—$10.

No speaker, no officer, no announcement, no guy in a bar or elevator mentioned a future reunion.

Old Bob

"Ora (Campbell) Jones '29 and Virginia (Shaver) Walker '30 kept things lively at the 60th reunion of the Class of '29. The group attended seminars during the day and held a dinner party at the University Club in the evening." —Wisconsin Alumnus, July 1989
"Ora (Campbell) Jones '29 and Virginia (Shaver) Walker '30 kept things lively at the 60th reunion of the Class of '29. The group attended seminars during the day and held a dinner party at the University Club in the evening." —Wisconsin Alumnus, July 1989

1930s Graduates Share Memories, Note Campus Changes (1989)

By 1989, Alumni Weekend reached an all-time high, with over 1,000 UW graduates and friends attending the May celebration, coming from 39 states and Canada.

In an issue of Wisconsin Alumnus, Bob Rehfield '30 said "It was a little tough to leave Phoenix at 102 degrees and wake up to snow on Saturday. But it was interesting to see what the place looks like now. The fraternity house I used to live in at the foot of Pinckney Street (Delta Kappa Epsilon) is a parking lot. On the other hand, Langdon Street looks much the same, with the exception of a few high-rises. I recognized most of the frats and sororitiesbut I couldn't name any of them. They were all Greek to me!"

In the same article, Charlton Runke '39 and his wife, Genie, reported finding the Wisconsin weather to be much like that of their native Seattle. But they felt that the campus had changed a great deal during their years away. "There are lots more buildings and a lot less trees," Runke said. "The Law School building, a grand old stone thing, has been replaced by a new one. What we knew as the engineering building is now the education building, and the ski jump over Lake Mendota is gone. So are the cheap prices! I used to pay $4.75 a week for room and board, and now that will barely buy me lunch."

Browse a complete list of class gifts from 1872-1984, from scholarship funds and arts endowments, to environmental preservation projects, and landmarks you can still find today like the Alumni House, the Memorial Union, and the Carillon Tower. (Special thanks to the University of Wisconsin Foundation for keeping these alumni gift records since 1945!)

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