Skip Navigation

Legends of the Fall Semester

The arrival of another fall semester means that another class of freshmen has come to campus.

UW–Madison has a storied history. If only all those stories were true.

The arrival of another fall semester means that another class of freshmen has come to campus. Even as you read this, these young Badgers are learning about their university from their fellow students. Upperclassmen and -women will soon educate them about UW–Madison and its history, giving them all the important facts. Some of those facts might even be true.

The UW has a long and storied history, and as one generation of students relates those stories to the next, the university’s legend grows somewhat more legendary. Campus characters become more colorful, events merge, and ironies compound. Ultimately, Badger tales become taller.

As we head into a new academic year, let’s scrape away some of the myths that accumulate like barnacles on our campus history. At the risk of mixing a marine-biology metaphor with one that involves wheat, Badger Insider will sift and winnow to find the truth behind UW legends.

(Myth number 1: false. Barnacles do not live in Lake Mendota. They are not a native species, nor are they an invasive species. You’re thinking of zebra mussels. Students in Zoology 315, an undergrad limnology course, discovered that the mollusks had invaded Lake Mendota for the first time in October 2015.)


Cherished Myth: The statue of Abe in front of Bascom Hall is a replica of the one in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

Winnowed fact: False.

If you look closely at the statue in Washington, you’ll see that Abe sits with his right foot slightly in front of his left. On Bascom, Abe’s left foot is slightly in front of his right.

Plus, the Abes were designed by different artists, created from different materials, and sit in obviously different chairs. Further, the “replica” Abe on Bascom predates the one in DC by more than a decade.

The Washington, DC, statue (titled, without a great deal of creative energy, Abraham Lincoln) was carved of white marble by Daniel Chester French, and it was unveiled in 1922. The Bascom statue was designed by Adolph Weinman, is cast in bronze, and was unveiled in 1909. It was a gift to the UW from Richard Lloyd-Jones and Thomas Brittingham.

The UW’s Abe is a replica, but not of the sculpture in DC. It’s modeled on a statue that Weinman created for Hodgenville, Kentucky, the town where Lincoln was born.

If you want to see a Daniel Chester French sculpture in Madison, all you have to do is look at the state capitol’s dome. The gilded statue on top (named not Forward, as many think, but rather Wisconsin) is a D. C. French original.

Cherished Myth: During the 1960s, Playboy magazine once refused to rate the UW as a party school, because, it said, “it would be unfair to rank professionals with amateurs.”

Winnowed fact: True. Probably

For years, this bit of lore was believed to be untrue, even though many Badgers claimed to have seen the passage in question (though never to have looked at the pictures).

The trouble was this: the officially archived issues of Playboy showed no such reference. The magazine rated party schools only once — in 1987 — and never used that famous line. Playboy’s editors denied that the passage had ever appeared in their pages.

The matter became a source of heated contention between the believers and the skeptics. Doug Moe ’79, a columnist for Madison’s Wisconsin State Journal, became a target of a long-running series of letters when he published an article saying the Playboy story was a myth.

But the truth here falls on the side of the believers. It seems that Playboy published multiple editions of each issue, giving different regions different ads — and occasionally these regional editions had slightly different bits of content. In 2010, a Badger sent Moe a scan of a page with the passage included: page 72 of the September 1968 issue.

It seems that, in at least one regional edition, the magazine’s advice column told reader G. C. from Los Angeles that Wisconsin is a professional party school while others are mere amateurs. The official version of that page, archived online, has a different letter (also from G. C. of Los Angeles) in that spot.

For the record, the ranked amateur schools included Florida, Maryland, Southern Methodist, UCLA, Michigan State, UC–Santa Barbara, Oregon, and Arizona State.

Playboy’s staff still declines to confirm this as fact, by the way as the alternate page isn’t part of the magazine’s archive.

Cherished Myth: Bascom Hall is built atop an ancient Native American burial mound.

Winnowed fact: True-ish

UW–Madison’s campus has a lot of burial mounds. Student guides sometimes say that the UW has more Native American burial mounds than any other university in the world. This might be true. Or it might not.

According to Daniel Einstein MS’95, the UW’s historical and cultural resources manager, the practice of building burial mounds was widespread across the upper Midwest, and many of them were lost or destroyed by construction. It’s true in Madison, and it’s true everywhere else.

But the UW does have more recorded effigy mounds — that is, mounds that were created to look like people, birds, spirits, bison, and so on — than any other campus. There are eight extant, visible effigy mounds on campus, plus 27 other burial mounds; and there were 23 other recorded mounds that have been destroyed. So we have a total of 50 known mounds, and that’s a lot. No other university has claimed more.

Two of these mounds, according to newspaper clippings from the 19th century, were on the site of what’s now Bascom Hall: a round mound and a water-spirit mound.

(North Hall, the UW’s first building, also wiped out a burial mound. Our founders were less inclined to historical preservation than today’s UW leaders.)

Though Bascom’s Native burial mounds were destroyed, there are still people buried on the hill, just in front of Bascom Hall. In Madison’s earliest days, before the UW was founded, two settlers — William Nelson and Samuel Warren — died in 1836 and 1837, respectively. Both were buried on what is today Bascom Hill. Their grave markers — small brass plaques that show their initials — are embedded in the pavement on either side of the Lincoln statue.

Cherished Myth: The copyright to “On, Wisconsin” is owned by Paul McCartney.

On Wisconsin

Winnowed fact: False.

“On, Wisconsin” is a very popular school song (everyone who reads this magazine seems to enjoy it), and its melody is even more popular. The UW Department of Athletics estimates that about 2,500 grade schools, high schools, colleges, and other institutions have adapted the tune for their own fight song, as well. This would make “On, Wisconsin” a hot property to a musical money man such as Paul McCartney, who made a mint off of Beatles royalties.

But McCartney doesn’t own the rights to “On, Wisconsin.” No one does. They’re in the public domain.

The lyrics for “On, Wisconsin” were written by Carl Beck, a UW dropout, in 1909. His friend William Purdy wrote the melody — somewhat earlier — to submit to a contest to choose a fight song for Purdy’s own alma mater, the University of Minnesota. Beck convinced Purdy to withdraw his music and use Beck’s words instead.

The UW liked the song so much that it adopted “On, Wisconsin” as our fight song. The state legislature liked the song so much that, in 1959, it adopted “On, Wisconsin” as the state song. Meanwhile, Beck and Purdy both passed away, and the song’s copyright passed into history.

And our western neighbors? They chose “Minnesota Rouser” for their fight song. This means that they aren’t among the 2,500 other institutions humming our tune.


Cherished Myth: Science Hall was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Winnowed fact: False-ish.

Frank Lloyd Wright x1890 is a famous architect; he was on campus from 1886 to 1887. Science Hall is a famous campus building, and it was erected in 1887. The former had to work on the latter, right?

Not so fast. The architect for Science Hall was Henry Koch of Milwaukee, and UW professor of civil engineering Allan Conover supervised construction. Conover made several significant changes to Koch’s design, and Wright, in his autobiography, claimed that he served as a student assistant to Conover.

But there’s no independent evidence to show that this is true. And Wright wrote about the building making use of iron beams, when in fact, Science Hall’s beams are made of steel. It’s possible that he misremembered or was being general, but Science Hall’s steel is one of its most important features: it’s one of the oldest buildings in the world to use significant amounts of structural steel in its design. In this way, it forged the path for modern skyscrapers.

Why so much steel? To make the building fireproof. The first Science Hall had burned down, and the university (and particularly Conover) wanted to make sure that it never happened again. UW leaders knew that science classes would always require a lot of combustible materials, and because they couldn’t make the classes safer, they could at least protect the classrooms.

One result of all of this fireproofing is that Science Hall also was, at the time of its construction, the state’s most expensive building to erect. The legislature was so outraged at its cost ($285,000 — 150 percent of its initial appropriation) that it created a committee to investigate the overruns.

Wright claimed that he had designed windows for Science Hall, but that his designs had been passed over. So even if he did work on the building, none of his work was incorporated.

Cherished Myth: An ax murderer once stalked the halls of Memorial Library.

Winnowed fact: False, but close.

Many students find Memorial Library to be a scary place: the high pressure of studying before an exam, the cage-like study carrels, the mechanical bookshelves that slide together, threatening to crush any underweight freshman who fails to trip the sensor. But an ax murderer? Nope. Merely an ax-wielding maniac.

The year was 1979. On the night of May 2, nearing midnight, Eugene De Voe — a 25-year-old Madisonian with a history of mental illness — attacked a grad student with a fire ax in one of the library’s typing rooms. The student suffered a head wound but recovered. De Voe was arrested and pled insanity. His plea was rejected, and he was convicted.

The attack prompted the university to set a higher level of security at Memorial Library. The building had become a bad-weather hangout for homeless people, and UW officials feared that another incident might occur. This is why Memorial Library has a security desk and people have to show an ID to enter.

One postscript: After De Voe served his sentence, his criminal days on campus weren’t over. In 1997, he attacked a woman in the Teacher Education building, hitting her in the head with a stapler. At least the lethality of his weapons had decreased.

Featured News and Stories