|THE WISCONSIN UNION: THE FIRST 75 YEARS (1904-1979)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The Pre-College and College Years of the Interviewee, Porter Butts 3
Prelude to Butts’ Appointment as Union Director, 1924-26 9
The Union’s Earliest Years, 1904-26 12
Fund-raising for the Memorial Union. Role of the Alumni Record’s
Office and of Students 17
The Planning, Financing, and Construction of the New
Building Problems and Successes 26
The Governing Organization of the Union. Emphasis on Student
Leadership and the Concept of Membership as Determinant of
Eligibility to use Union Facilities 31
The Question of “Who’s in Charge Here?” 34
The Development of Educational Functions and the Designation of the
Union as the University’s Division of Social Education 37
A Comprehensive Outdoors Recreation Program: The Wisconsin Hoofers 53
Building Planning Errors, Lessons Learned, Adjustments Made 63
Wisconsin’s Cultural Heritage Reflected in Rooms’ Names and Decor 69
How the Theater Wing Came Into Being 71
Post-War Needs for Expansion 82
The Lower Campus Master Plan That Didn’t Happen 84
The Union South Controversy and the Disabling Outcome 87
Expansion of Facilities: Set-back for Theater but Gain in Parking 92
Information Kiosk: Classic Example of Bureaucratic Delays 94
Recollections of the Experimental College 96
Appointment of Henry Herman as Associate Director 100
The First 75 Years: Pluses and Minuses 102
Achieved major building through gifts despite no tradition of
giving, no available tax funds, and of possibility of borrowing 103
Broad base of interest and support, more than 50,000 Union life members 104
"The Most Complete Community Theater Center" 104
Wisconsin changed concept of Union from men’s club to cultural center 105
Emphasis on preparation for citizenship and volunteer service 108
Wide-ranging outdoor recreation program: The Wisconsin Hoofers 110
More Wisconsin Union “firsts" 111
Economic benefits for students 112
New kinds of services and programs, substantially changing pattern of
campus life and interests: Minuses 113
Difficulties of establishing Union self-government and student
decision-making within tight state and University controls 113
Adverse effect of University expansion on Union purpose of
providing for a common life 115
Emergencies which prevented attainment of goals of
“Division of Social Education" 116
Lack of understanding and support for Union purposes
on part of the U.W. administration 117
Effects of University merger legislation 120
The continuing difficulties in accomplishing physical plant
remodeling or expansion 121
Campus changes in the ‘60s and ‘70s effect on the realization
of Union purposes and financial health. Some off-setting pluses 123
Impact on the Union of the student protests in the ‘60s 126
The Union of the Future: Primarily a Service Center or an Educational Force? 129
The Pre-College and College Years of the Interviewee, Porter Butts
This series of interviews is with Porter F. Butts, the noted, long-term director of the Wisconsin Union. It is being conducted by Donna Taylor Hartshorne in Mr. Butts’ office in the Union beginning on August 2, 1979.
DH: I think I would like to start this morning, Mr. Butts, with some information from you about your early years, where you were born and grew up, how you came to the University, and maybe a little about your undergraduate days here.
PB: All right. My birth place was Pana, Illinois, a small coal mining town near Springfield, Illinois. That was in 1903 and we stayed there only three or four years and so my early school education was all in Springfield, Illinois’ primary school, high school, etc. And for whatever reason, possibly as much as anything due to the influence of my father who was a very busy and active person, I guess I became what you would say “a doer.” A doer outside as well as inside the classroom. So in high school, I found myself as I went through the years of high school, active on the basketball team, president of the chemistry club, president of the high school debating society, president of senior class. And of assorted other minor organizations, active in musical shows of the high school and Friday morning assemblies (translated means partly singing in a school quartet and after school playing in the school orchestra and independent pickup dance/band and playing in school plays).
DH: What instrument did you play?
PB: Well, I started playing what was called a banjo ukulele and then I moved on to clarinet and saxophone and actually earned part of my way later on in college days playing in a dance orchestra during summer seasons back home.
Well this was all what was known then, and still is, as extracurricular activities but not, I guess, at the sacrifice of school work because I turned out to be valedictorian of my senior class and gave the valedictory speech at commencement time, and so on. But I was very school-oriented and activity-oriented. Anything that had to do with life in the high school was for me.
In fact, when the First World War armistice was signed in 1918 and the whole town was celebrating this spectacular occasion and all the schools were closed for that purpose, I went to high school as usual and was very disoriented and disappointed that the school wasn’t opened. I didn’t know why. In short, I hadn’t kept tract of national events. I was locally involved in the ongoing daily activities at high school. I wandered back down town where everybody was and found this big celebration. This gives you a kind of a clue to my liking for participating in whatever the school had to offer, whether inside or outside the classroom.
Well then came the time, of course, of graduation and trying to decide on college and my brother had gone to the University of Illinois and was not enchanted with it. Left and did not, therefore, want to go back to Illinois so we took a family tour to the Midwestern universities, the big ten universities: Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Chicago, and Normal, Illinois. One hot summer day I actually enrolled in the University of Michigan thinking that was going to be it, and my brother with me. But on our way home we stopped at a friend’s house in Bloomington, Illinois. This was a friend of my father, and this friend had a son who was a Wisconsin student and the Badger yearbook was on the table. The son wasn’t there but there was the book. They asked if we had thought about Wisconsin. Well, we hadn’t at all but turning the pages of the Badger and seeing the lovely lakes and hills and scenic pleasures that Madison and the campus offered stimulated a very immediate and strong interest on the part of a couple of young chaps who had grown up in the hot corn fields of Illinois and had never been exposed to a water land of any kind. So we thought if you can go to school where it is pleasant, and where there is a lake on the campus shore, why not go there at least for the first year after which we would go to Princeton because in those years you couldn’t enroll in Princeton without four years of Greek and Latin and I only had two years, but Princeton would admit you upon showing a good record in the first year of an accredited major university elsewhere.
DH: Oh, they would.
PB: The whole intent was to go to Wisconsin for one year and then, hopefully, transfer to Princeton.
DH: Why, Princeton particularly?
PB: Princeton because of some friends in Springfield who were Princeton graduates and had encouraged it. We respected them and Princeton was a kind of magical word in the higher education field then as it is now and liberal arts was its emphasis, of course, and we had no specialty in mind as a profession or vocation. So, I think it was the influence knowing particular friends who told us about Princeton.
DH: I see.
PB: Well then, on to Madison, Wisconsin which was a two day drive by automobile trying to seek out the proper turns in the road. No highways were marked then except by symbols on telephone poles, the Black Diamond Trail, Cannonball Trail, the Liberty Trail, and so on, and you had to watch carefully to see where each road turned and how it led on to Wisconsin. But we got here.
DH: Did you have maps?
PB: Of a kind not very precise and not all that helpful but my father had been assistant postmaster back in Pana, Illinois and he knew where towns were in northern Illinois like the back of his hand and so he would say Rockford must be about thirty miles up there and to the left and so on.
Well we got to Madison and since we were socially-minded and had an uncle, I’m his namesake in fact (Porter Paddock was his name), who was a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, so he had written ahead to introduce us to the local chapter of his national fraternity and we just assumed that very likely the fraternity living situation was where we would end up. But we didn’t because we didn’t get invited and this was one of the first indications, perhaps for your archives’ benefits, of what student life was in the early 1920s in Wisconsin.
The Greeks, so called fraternity and sorority people, were the dominant social group/political group/active group on campus, though they numbered only 600 out of maybe seven or eight thousand students and the other some thousands of students were rather deprecatingly called barbarians or “Barbs” which was the custom that day. We now call them, or did in the years after, “independents.” But the fraternities and sororities had ample and rather posh buildings for chapters for living and dining and social life and independents or barbs did what they could to find rooming house accommodations and dining up and down the street in hamburger joints and there was one cafeteria down on State Street and Lawrence’s Restaurant on State Street which was a kind of general gathering place for everybody for breakfast and late evening snacks, and so on. But the so-called independents or barbs led a pretty thin kind of existence because at that time in the ‘20s, and presumably before I came too, there were literally no general meeting places, no university provisions for housing. Dormitories hadn’t happened yet except for one women’s dormitory, Chadbourne Hall, and no university provisions for food service except a tea room over in Lathrop frequented mainly by the faculty and by girls. And so there was literally no way to find fellow students or to fraternize with them or to meet together in club groups or social groups except if someone was aggressive enough to find a classroom that was empty to meet in and this was an especially painful experience for anyone who had hoped to be associated to a fraternity or sorority. They were high prestige groups in those days and in the case of the girls, in particular, if they were not bid or pledged, there was deep sorrow, tears. Many girls left school soon because they felt rejected and were unable to establish a reasonable social life on their own.
DH: How did you and your brother feel about it?
PB: Well, we were quite disappointed. We were huddled in a little first floor room in a rooming house over on Dayton Street that had been converted into a bedroom and shared a bath with some of the other family members of that house. It was rather dreary. It really was, and we shortly found that our existence consisted of moving from our rooming house to class and back with a detour for breakfast somewhere and lunch and so on, wherever we could find it and the disappointment was quite real and since we both had been presidents of our senior class, my brother as well as myself, and highly socially motivated and active, this sudden isolation was a new experience and frightening, I must say. Well, it didn’t last long because one of the fraternities that didn’t seem to be attractive to us as members, one or two members of it nevertheless told another fraternity that we were on the loose and that fraternity that needed members rather badly to fill the partly empty house, came around and did ask us to join and we did and so this established us as part of what was really the mainstream of student life.
DH: Which fraternity was this?
PB: Alpha Tau Omega and in the end I became president of that too which is, I guess, and indication that almost anything I achieved or gotten exposed to I kept up with and continued in, and the fraternity was helpful not only to us but all of its members, as freshmen, as was the custom in those days. In fact, pushing them into university activity was supposed to reflect favorably on the fraternity if their members were out doing things and reaching some place of recognition on campus and all the fraternities throughout would spell this out to all of the prospective members, that we have members who are active on the football team and are leaders of publications, of the “Union Board", or whatever, you see. Well it was that self-interest partly on the part of the fraternity but it was also a rather gratuitous and helpful nudge for a stranger like myself. This campus was totally new and foreign. We had no other friends of other kinds. No contacts that represented a point of reference to ask questions even.
So one of the early things that fraternity apparently did in our case was it noticed we both sang and had been in variety shows in high school, and so on, and got us to try out for what was called
Union Vaudeville and I mention this because it does represent my very first original contact with something called a union. This was in the fall of my freshmen year in 1920. And for whatever reason we were in the tryouts and we were accepted as one of the acts. Union Vaudeville was one of the Union Board’s many means of raising money to build the Union building. This wasn’t all that apparent to me at the time but it right off made me aware that there was such a thing as a Union and an active Union Board and we were adopted as one of the acts of the show and this was just the year following Fredric March’s spectacular success in Union Vaudeville which we had heard about and we didn’t know that he was going to be all that famous at that time but we heard a great deal of Fredric March (Fredric Bickel as he was known) at the time and you know what happened to Fredric March from there on. As you know, fifty years after this building opened we dedicated our small theater to Fredric March partly because he got his first start in the theatrical world in the Union Vaudeville and, indeed, was a member of the Union Board itself.
Well, the fraternity also, by the following fall had another idea. A fraternity brother was on the staff of the humor magazine called the Octopus and knowing that I was in part a journalist and was already working on the Daily Cardinal, he got me to be a kind of a promotion person, advertising person, for promoting the sale of the Octopus humor magazine and that fall there came along what seemed to be fairly characteristically the so-called Homecoming Parade with the theme often being the oncoming, hoped for Union building. And so I was given the job of designing a float for the Octopus with a Memorial Union theme to it and did do that. It was an old Ford which we dressed up and I still have a photograph of it. It was on the theme of a gift to the Union, support the Memorial Union campaign, and so on, and I got a telephone call from the parade management of the night after the parade saying this float had won first prize. And so I thought well of the Union at that point, too.
Well, these were my first two introductions to what was an ongoing student effort to get a Union building for this campus. There were annual fund-raising campaigns amongst students. One of the remarkable things in the background of this building and Union development was the outpouring of interest and funds by students to get this building to happen. And as you probably have seen in our literature of the 1920s, about one out of every two students pledged and paid, some did not pay in the end, but most did, fifty dollars or more for a life membership in the Memorial Union, and fifty dollars in the 1920s would be equivalent to around $250 in today’s dollars. So, when half the student body comes forth with that kind of interest and support, you can tell something was happening and there was great excitement over the prospects of having a union because everybody knew what I’ve told you: that life was pretty grim on this campus unless you lived in a fraternity or sorority and one of the advertised benefits of having a union would be that there would now be a general social meeting place for everybody, a place to eat, a place to find your friends and talk, and ultimately there would be a theater. So there was an air of excitement about it all on the part of students who came to realize it would never be built while they were still in school and, therefore, they could see they would not be the users of it but they wanted it to happen for their student successors and whatever benefit there might be when they came back as alumni.
DH: So they still contributed the money even though they knew they would not benefit from it.
PB: That’s right and in the end the students contributed more money to build this building then the alumni did, which is another interesting facet of our financial history.
Well, I was only peripherally related to the Union in the two ways that I mentioned in the beginning, because my other impulses for out-of-class activities ran to the Daily Cardinal and to the Haresfoot Club. In the case of the Daily Cardinal I moved up the ladder and after four years ultimately became the editor-in-chief, and concurrently with that this business of appearing in a Union Vaudeville that attracted the attention of the Haresfoot show people. Are you familiar with Haresfoot?
DH: Oh, yes.
PB: Did you see the special feature article last week where a Capital Times gal came and interviewed me about that?
PB: And as a result of the Union Vaudeville’s appearance someone nudged me to try out for the Haresfoot show my second year, my sophomore year. We weren’t eligible in our freshmen year, and I seemed to make it because I was one of the few who apparently could carry a tune at that time and was small enough to borrow a dress from Delta Gamma House and a pair of shoes that the girls loaned me and so on. So Haresfoot became a major interest for the succeeding years, sophomore, junior and senior years.
DH: You stayed with it then?
PB: Yes, each year, and became the president of the Haresfoot Club in my senior year and then continued on in the first graduate year by writing a book for the Haresfoot show called “Ivan Ho” and some of the lyrics of the Haresfoot serenade songs and so on and so on. Well, these two major activities, the Cardinal and the Haresfoot show, I guess on hindsight, did have some direct connection with the Union in the end and what happened at the Union because the Cardinal editor was obviously someone that the Memorial Union fund-raising group wanted to enlist for support of the student campaigns, and support of the union idea. So I was one of each succeeding editorial staff who was so enlisted and persuaded that it was an enormously good thing to have happen. So, therefore, many editorials written by me and my associates in support of the Union venture and anything related to the Union got front page play and a real public relations boost from the Cardinal and partly for self-interest reasons, too, because the
Daily Cardinal had no offices worth mentioning. We operated out of a couple of rooms not much larger than the two rooms we are sitting in here. They were in the so-called old union building, a private residence, and the Daily Cardinal was in one or two of the bedrooms up on the second floor. So we knew as Daily Cardinal people that the Union was going to provide office space and access for reporting purposes to all the other student organizations that would be housed in the Union instead of having to search them out and try to find them by moving around the campus or by telephone and then in the case of Haresfoot shows, we had the very difficult and distressing experience of trying to find a place to rehearse. The rehearsals started, say, in
December with our show in April and we took any church basement or Women’s Club rooms or ballroom downtown whatever we could find for the dance chorus to rehearse, the orchestra to rehearse, and not to mention putting the show together for dress rehearsals which had to happen at the old Fuller Opera House, now the Parkway, after the last movie show was over two nights before we opened the show.
DH: Oh, that late.
PB: We could get on the stage at Parkway at about midnight for dress rehearsal. We would finish up the rehearsal at maybe four or five o’clock in the morning after the last movie. We got dressed and on-stage about midnight and on to four or five o’clock in the morning. Then we’d get the second night and we were out on the road for what amounted to about a ten day trip. So, the Haresfoot club as a whole was a strong supporter of the Union because they saw the possibility of an on-campus theater coming. The theater wing was shown as part of the Union physical plan as early as l920 or 1921.
DH: Oh, it was.
PH: So there was no theater worthy of the name at that time and never had been. The nearest thing to it was a flat-floored auditorium in Lathrop Hall. Are you familiar with Lathrop Hall?
PB: It has a stage that lies between the women’s gym on the one hand and then a small flat floor auditorium-type place on the other side of the stage.
DH: I also know that some performances were held in Bascom.
PB: Well that was a bit later.
DH: Oh, yes.
PB: Much later. Starting not earlier than the late ‘20s or 1930s but in the mid-‘20s there was no Bascom theater either. That had been added as an addition to Bascom Hall that came later. So the Haresfoot Club as a whole was on record as ardently supporting the construction of this new union and I had had the three or four years of direct personal experience with the difficulties of trying to put a student show together and it was an all-student enterprise. We wrote the music. We wrote the book. We designed and built the scenery ourselves. We scoured the campus for girls’ dresses which came somewhere near fitting and a little later on we got a little more professional than that and began to design costumes and get them made by seamstresses, and so on. But except for the director to the show production, the whole thing was a student-created extravaganza, as they used to call it, with a pit orchestra being all students, and so on.
Well, I guess you can see it was not hard for me on becoming Union Director in 1928 to continue to put forward progressively the hope that my result in building a theater wing. The theater wing was not part of the original building. We didn’t have enough money to do it. As you probably know, the first units of the building were the central social and meeting unit and then the dining room wing as the second. So I guess it is fair to say that my own personal experience with Haresfoot was a factor in putting some steam behind the effort to keep going until we got the theater wing.
Well, I’ve talked I guess exclusively about out-of-class activity at college. There was, of course, also the in-class effort and I found myself to be an English major with a minor in dramatic literature. Again, the theater interest turning up and then upon undergraduate graduation in 1924, I continued with graduate work as well as I could. I had a full-time job. I continued with one or two courses each term including summers for some twelve years.
Prelude to Butts’ Appointment as Union Director, 1924-26
DH: What was the full-time job?
PB: Well, I guess I haven’t mentioned that, have I? Because I was editor of the Cardinal and had done, apparently, an acceptable job of promoting the Union’s fortunes while at the Cardinal, the executive secretary of the Union fund-raising committee asked me the week after I graduated to come into the Union organization as his assistant to do the publicity and promotion for the total Union fund-raising campaign. And so in 1924 beginning the week after graduation, I had a full-time job. It was rather masked by the title. The title was “Alumni Recorder.” This was a way to get the University to pay for an assistant without drawing upon gift funds to do it but to justify it because the University at that time in 1924 had no mailing list of its alumni. It had no record of who its alumni were other than their transcripts and registrar files and other than the membership lists of the Alumni Association which added up to maybe 2,000 names out of some 90,000 that attended the University. This was all discovered to be a vital problem because of the Union’s fund-raising campaign. The fundraisers went out to raise funds all over the United
States and Wisconsin cities and there was no way to find out what Wisconsin alumni were in the given town to call together to talk to. And so the leaders of the union campaign, two or three of which were former alumni presidents, persuaded the University to make a major investment in the creation of an Alumni Record’s Office to find as many of our 90,000 former students as we could and get them on an active mailing list. Not just for the purposes of the Union fund-raising but for all University public relations purposes which were critical at that time. In the same year that I talked about, the legislature threatened to make a steep cut in the University budget. As I remember in those days it was a cut of half a million dollars out of a total five million dollar budget. Well that doesn’t sound like much when you’ve got a budget of almost one billion for the State system now but five million for the University at Madison in the middle ‘20s was considerable, and indeed was in dollar value, in those days a big sum and the legislature thought so too and so they set forth to cut it by ten percent which would have been devastating to the University. And so the University, and this was mainly by way of the stimulus and leadership of George Haight. (Do you remember George Haight’s name?)