Oral history project provides glimpse of UWM’s pivotal first years

Dignitaries at the opening ceremony for the new UWM in October 1956 at Temple Emanu-El B'ne Jeshurun include (from left) Albert Davis, aide to Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler; William D. McIntyre, president of the Board of Regents of State Colleges; Charles D. Gelatt, president of the University Board of Regents; Wisconsin Gov. Walter J. Kohler; provost J. Martin Klotsche; Edwin B. Fred, president of the University of Wisconsin; Donald Rambadt, UWM student government president; and Helen Rehlsein, student senate president. (UWM archives)

When UWM’s first chancellor, J. Martin Klotsche, sat down for an interview in 1981, he remembered feeling that Milwaukee’s higher education opportunities needed to improve. After initially opposing the university’s creation, he realized UWM was the solution.

“Even before the campus physically changed, we had a feeling that UWM was the beginning of a new era,” Klotsche said. “One morning my milkman said, ‘Now my children have a chance to go to college, because of UWM. This is an opportunity that I never had.’ That impressed upon me that something was going to change.”

Klotsche’s is one of 21 voices captured in the UWM Libraries Archives’ UWM Oral History Project. The digital collection archives the voices of the university’s first four chancellors, two Milwaukee mayors and a number of UW System faculty and administrators. The collection covers the 1956 merger that created UWM, the new institution’s growing pains and the creation of the UW System in 1974. The Archives Department digitized and assembled the digital collection for UWM’s 60th anniversary.

“Looking back, it’s easy to forget all the drama, politics and hard work,” said Abigail Nye, interim head of archives for the UWM Libraries. “We see the university as fully formed, but it was difficult at the beginning to form our own identity and conceive our mission.”

Setting UWM apart

Many stories chronicle UWM’s struggle to distinguish itself from UW-Madison. When Gov. Walter J. Kohler created the Board of Regents in the 1950s, people wondered if UWM’s predecessor institutions would merge with the state colleges or with the University of Wisconsin.

“Madison was interested in having authority over UWM,” Nye said. “But they were also nervous, because they feared an urban institution in Milwaukee would dwarf Madison.”

In one interview in the archives, Klotsche reflects on devising UWM’s “urban mission,” which distinguished the university from others in Wisconsin.

“We began to think about the university’s unique role, and it was perfectly obvious that its location made it unique,” Klotsche said. “For example, location helped define the student body.” For Klotsche, UWM could make education accessible to people who otherwise could not pursue higher education.

“When we look back, we see the values that UWM still holds,” Nye said. “We see what we have inherited.”

Creating a research university

Many interviews in the digital collection document the university’s growth after the merger. In one interview, the interviewer notes that “the first generation of faculty hired people of greater research potential than itself. They built a great university with doctoral programs, which require high-caliber faculty.”

Joseph Baier, the of the College of Letters & Science, recounted the story of a doctoral faculty member in the music department: The Department of Music had a trumpet vacancy, and the department chair wanted to hire an alumnus high school teacher from the city. But at Baier’s request, the chair found and hired a doctor of music.

At that time there wasn’t a single doctor in the department, Baier said. But that man turned out to be an outstanding faculty member, and the department was better off from having hired him.

In another interview, Adolph Suppan, of the School of Fine Arts, discussed his school’s creation from the School of Education’s Department of Art, the College of Letters & Science’s Department of Music and several theater faculty members in the Department of Speech.

“Dance, as at most universities at that time, was a part of women’s physical education,” Suppan said. “When the School of Fine Arts began, the Department of Dance was one of the only such departments in the country which allowed men into the program.”

“An institution emerged that is quite different from what we envisaged,” Klotsche said in another audio clip. “In 1956, no one was talking about doctoral programs in Milwaukee, but we were offering a PhD in mathematics by 1963. It became a strong institution much sooner than we imaged.”

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