Wisconsin School of the Air Lives On

December 30, 2011

To fulfill a requirement for a course on distance learning, doctoral student Megan Murtaugh decided to create a web lesson about the Wisconsin School of the Air.  Designed for use in primary and secondary classrooms, this radio-based education series grew out of the Wisconsin Idea, a philosophy maintaining that all Wisconsin residents should have access to the university’s services. Or as the motto goes, “The boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.”

Fannie Steve hosted an award-winning WSA program for young children. Photo: Wisconsin Public Radio.

WHA broadcast Wisconsin School of the Air in various forms for forty years, between 1931 and 1971. Megan got in touch with me regarding vintage WSA audio she found on Portal Wisconsin. Along with these audio files, the lesson she created includes an audio overview of the WSA; a blog post composed by a former student in a WSA classroom; images; an assessment and more.

Until I listened to Megan’s web lesson, I hadn’t really thought of Wisconsin Public Radio as a pioneer in distance learning. I usually associate that term with big schools offering entire degree programs online. But of course, distance learning encompasses a sweeping range of experiences–from full-on virtual campuses like the University of Phoenix, to the individual courses or portions of courses that you can find on PortalWisconsin.org, to the training webinars I sometimes view from my desktop.

In a way, Wisconsin School of the Air lives on in Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television–both based at the University of Wisconsin-Extension. University of the Air, a descendant of the WSA, still airs Sunday afternoons on WPR. Through programs like University of the Air, University Place (WPT’s virtual lecture hall), and many, many others,  we have access the state’s best thinkers–poets, politicians, scientists and scholars.


By the way, I was curious how Megan Murtaugh, a Florida graduate student, came to select the Wisconsin School of the Air as a project focus. She told me she came across the story of the WSA while researching for another class. She says she was also motivated by her husband Jimmy: “He lived and went to school in Wisconsin for a good portion of his academic career. I thought it would be fun to investigate some of Wisconsin’s history and then see if he knew about it. It turned out this project was an educational experience not only for me but for my entire family, my friends and my peers as well.”

How’s that for above and beyond the Wisconsin Idea?

Link to Megan Murtaugh’s Wisconsin School of the Air web lesson.

–Tammy Kempfert

Wright’s Style

November 30, 2011

In early November the Lake Geneva Regional News reported that the local library had installed two original windows from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Lake Geneva Hotel. The setting is fitting since the library, which opened in 1954, was designed by Wright apprentice James Dresser, the subject of a post to this blog earlier this year.

The hotel in Lake Geneva was one of only a handful of Wright hotels that was constructed.

An early image of the Lake Geneva Hotel (Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID 36456)

In this instance, the commission came in 1911 from Arthur Richards and John Williams. Richards had also engaged Wright to design a hotel for Madison (not built) and would, within a few years, launch his American System Built House project with Wright. A number of these structures still stand, including a row of six houses and duplexes on the south side of Milwaukee.

The Lake Geneva Hotel opened in 1912 and financial problems soon arose. It held on for nearly 60 years through various owners and at least one name change, to the Hotel Geneva, before being demolished in 1970.

In the world of Wright, however, that is rarely the end of the story.

A night light using the window design from the Lake Geneva Hotel

Even Wright’s demolished work lives on through merchandising. So while the Lake Geneva Library is fortunate to have original windows from the hotel, you can buy the window design on a table clock, night light, magazine rack or doormat.

The commodification of Wright and his work has been going on for several decades and I confess to having some Wright tchotchkes of my own. The upsides are exposing a wider audience to Wright’s work and generating income, through licensing, for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. The downside is reducing Wright to a mere stylist. He is so much more and we are fortunate to have a rich array of his  buildings in Wisconsin to help remind us.


Remembering Mildred Fish-Harnack

November 7, 2011

A new WPT program premiering tonight has all the suspense and romance you’d find in a Hollywood thriller — but this one is a real Wisconsin story, with a genuine hero and a tragic ending. Wisconsin’s Nazi Resistance: The Mildred Fish-Harnack Story tells the tale of  Milwaukee-born Fish-Harnack, who joined the resistance movement in Berlin and paid for it with her life. In fact, she was the the only American woman executed on the personal orders of Adolf Hitler.

It was at UW-Madison where Mildred Fish met her husband Arvid Harnack–she a student and teacher there, and he a Rockefeller Fellow from Germany. With him, she moved to Germany in the late 1920s, and they soon witnessed Hitler’s rise to power. At great personal risk, the couple worked with other activists to oppose Hitler’s Nazi regime: distributing literature, helping Jews and transmitting intelligence information about the Third Reich to the American and Soviet governments.

In 1942, the Harnacks were arrested along with a number of other resistance fighters. Within months, Arvid was sentenced to death and hanged at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin. Mildred, originally sentenced to six years of hard labor by the Reich Court Martial, was sent to the guillotine in February 1943 after Hitler revoked the judgment and ordered a second trial.

Actress and Greendale native Jane Kazcmarek narrates the documentary, which airs Monday, Nov. 7, at 8 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television and Milwaukee’s MPTV. WPT has also launched a companion website that provides a wealth of video, documents, photos and a timeline.

Football Comes To Oshkosh High

September 21, 2011

Michael Goc

When twenty-three year old Walter P. White signed the contract to teach mathematics and science at Oshkosh High School in 1891, he was more than qualified for the job. He had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst College and was completing work on the master’s degree Harvard University would award him in 1892.  The young scholar brought his love of learning to the sawdust city on the Fox and he also brought his love for football. 

Walter P. White in 1906. (Carnegie Institute for Science)

With its roots in English rugby and rough-and-tumble American playground games, football became a more or less organized sport on Ivy League campuses like Amherst, Yale and Harvard in the 1870s. It was the ideal sport for energetic young men from the middle and upper classes who liked to run, chase balls and knock shoulders, elbows and heads. Working class fellows were less interested since they got more than their fair share of running, chasing and head knocking at their jobs in mill, mine or factory.

           Few, if any, of the boys attending Oshkosh high when White arrived were working stiffs. Quite the contrary, their parents presumed their boys were in school to prepare themselves to take their rightful places as leaders in business and the professions. Some of the boys felt that school should be about more than book learning. When White showed them his yearbook pictures of “husky padded-suit gridders” he “flamed their athletic imaginations.”  

 The number of males enrolled at Oshkosh high was small and not all of them were football-flammable. Baseball was the “American pastime” and football fans were hard to find. As one of White’s first players, Earl A. Clemans, reminisced “the average adults were convinced that football was on the level of a bullfight and ought to be outlawed.” Of greater import to the boys was the fact that high school girls hated the game and no young lady would willingly appear on the sidelines.

 Parental opposition was also strong. Some fathers might be supportive but rare was the mother willing to allow her boy to jam his unhelmeted head into a scrimmage. White was not able to field a team of twelve “men” until 1893. The school board showed grudging support by approving the purchase of one—and only one—football.  Fearing for worse if they did not step in, mothers sewed cotton padding into the heavy canvas pants and jerseys they bought for uniforms and insisted the boys wear strap-on nose guards. No helmets.

 Motherly caution was justified. The rules gave the offense three downs to move the ball five yards for a first down. With no forward passing allowed, plays consisted of variations on the tactic of giving the ball to the burliest player and aligning blockers in front so one and all could bully their way down field. Play did not stop until the ball carrier was down flat, usually with half the opposing team on top.

Finding other teams to play was also difficult and Oshkosh’s first opponents were second team college squads from Lawrence and Ripon. Oshkosh met Fond du Lac and Ripon high schools in 1894 and, in 1895, White’s squad was playing high school teams from Milwaukee.

 As grudging acceptance morphed into popularity, coaches and principals realized that high school football had to be organized.  Rules of play, of substitution, even the size of the field were not standardized. The quality of referees varied and spectators could be unruly and intimidating to visiting teams. The most serious problem, especially in the eyes of educator/coaches like W.P. White, was the practice of allowing and paying non-students– “ringers”– to play for high schools.

 After the Milwaukee Sentinel reported on “a scandal….involving ringers on high school teams,” White invited his colleagues from Fond du Lac and Ripon to meet in Oshkosh. In late 1895, they organized the “Eastern Wisconsin High School Association,”   to set standards and regulate high school sports in their region. About the same time, Milwaukee’s three high schools also agreed to play by the same set of rules.

 With strong encouragement from coaches at the University of Wisconsin, other high school coaches and administrators began to see the need for a statewide athletic association.  They came together at the Wisconsin Teachers Association annual meeting during Christmas break in 1896. After a day of discussion they agreed to create what became the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. It was the first statewide high school athletic association in the United States.

 “We want fair play, we want sport, not professionalism,” said Janesville superintendent D.D. Mayne. He was appointed to the Association’s rules committee, along with S.A. Hooper of Milwaukee South and W.P. White of Oshkosh. They drew up rules requiring signed parental permission slips and stipulated that an athlete had to be “an amateur and a student” for no more than four years. To qualify as a student and play sports, an athlete had be enrolled full time and “passing” three courses, including no more than two free-hand drawing classes. White later said that his goal was to “keep out athletic bums, fellows who attend school only for the purpose of participating in baseball and football games.” While it may not have achieved that high-minded goal, the association rules did set statewide standards for high school sports. By 1899, Oshkosh was playing and defeating teams from Milwaukee, Racine, Green Bay and Marinette. After vanquishing a total of six teams that year, Oshkosh claimed the “state championship.”

 White stayed in Oshkosh about a decade. In 1901, he began work on a doctorate in physics at Cornell University. Awarded his Ph’d. in 1904, White took a position at the newly-founded Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.  He spent the next thirty years at Carnegie, focusing his research on the physics of extreme high temperatures. He died in 1946, leaving a legacy to science and high school sports.

Ten Years and a Thousand Miles

September 10, 2011

According to Mapquest, my office on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus lies 937 miles west of Ground Zero, 846 miles northwest of the Pentagon, and 840 miles from the crash site of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. Ten years and nearly a thousand miles away seems so far in space and time. So while I was counting years and miles, I assembled some numbers to give clarity to my own connection to a somber anniversary.

Ten years ago we often heard that the September 11 attacks, which claimed 2,977 victims, brought Americans together as a nation. We gathered, we prayed, and we wept. We didn’t know how else to help, so we waited in lines to donate blood. (The Journal of the American Medical Association reported a 2- to 3-fold increase in donations in the first week after the attacks.) We bought American flags. (The dollar value of imported U.S. flags peaked at $51.7 million in 2001, up from $747,800 the previous year, according to the Flag Manufacturers Association of America). We stood overwhelmingly behind our president. (Gallup polls show that George Bush’s approval rating spiked–from 51% to 90%–in the weeks following September 11.)

Since then, presidential approval ratings have never equaled 2001 levels. President Bush’s ratings dipped to a low of 25%, while his successor Barack Obama’s high and low are 69% and 38%, respectively. This year Congress’ approval rating bottomed-out at 13% twice.  Americans are cynics when it comes to media bias and news stories, too:  Pew Research Center reported in 2009 that “just 29% of Americans say that news organizations generally get the facts straight,”  a two-decade low.

As of last month, 6,230 American servicemembers have died in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and related conflicts around the world. This is according to USA Today’s website, which had the most recent tally I could find. Reports on the number of civilian casualties in Iraq vary widely, but estimates I found begin at around 100,000 deaths since 2003. Pinning down the number of casualties in Afghanistan is a more dizzying exercise, with no single official figure in existence. I can credibly report that thousands of Afghans have died since 2001 as a result of war in their country.

Of the American casualties, 115 soldiers came from Wisconsin. As a university employee, I get email alerts from the governor’s office regarding the status of the state flag. I estimate I’ve received 17 of these solemn messages in my tenure as PortalWisconsin.org’s project manager. They inform me when flags at the Capitol are flown at half-staff, as a mark of respect for a Wisconsin citizen who died serving his or her country.

Here is the story of one:

And here are the faces of many.

More personally, two of my family members served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. One of them returned home, safe and sound.


I’ve lost track of how many times in these ten years I’ve watched video of the towers falling, but seeing the smoke, the rubble and the bodies never fails to put a lump in my throat. Yesterday my 14-year-old son watched television coverage of the September 11th terrorist attacks at his school–from the initial impact of American Airlines Flight 11 at the north tower to its stunning collapse. Remarkably,  it was the first time he’d viewed the footage, and the experience clearly moved him. The conversation between us last night comforted me: my son, alert, compassionate, and somehow able to put 9/11 into the context of tragedy everywhere; and me, struggling to make sense of the numbers swirling in my head. Maybe we all need to listen more closely to the kids.


This weekend in Wisconsin, communities are offering numerous opportunities to gather in observance of the September 11 attacks. I counted 18 on PortalWisconsin.org’s calendar alone. Wisconsin Public Television and Wisconsin Public Radio will broadcast performances and ceremonies throughout the day; if you’d prefer to gather, please see what we have listed for your area.

One event I recommend is the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters’ Perspectives on a Post 9/11 World, taking place all Sunday afternoon at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison (video of the talks will be available online at a later date). The Wisconsin Academy has a reputation for presenting clear-headed, nonpartisan public discourse around issues important to Wisconsin residents. Its series of three free public talks on Sunday will address U.S. military operations since 9/11, attitudes towards Islam and American citizenship, and how art can help us understand tragedy.

I’m especially looking forward to what the artists have to say.

–Tammy Kempfert


The Muskego Manifesto

August 24, 2011

Campaigning in Iowa a few weeks back, presidential candidate Michele Bachmann made reference to the “Muskego Manifesto” and its impact on her ancestors’ decision to migrate to the United States. Be that as it may, since it was a “manifesto” the Muskego document must be a weighty declaration on some matter of great import, right?

It certainly was important to the eighty men who signed it. They were Norwegian immigrants, among the first Norse to settle in Wisconsin. They had followed the age old immigrant pattern of following those who had come before and settled in the vicinity of what became the Waukesha county village of Muskego.

The first Norse settled at Muskego in 1839. Many others followed, and Muskego became a sort of Plymouth Colony for Wisconsin Norwegians. If you could say you stopped in Muskego before moving on to found or join one of the many other Norwegian communities in southern Wisconsin, you could say “I was among the first.”

There were plenty of reasons for immigrants not to stay in 1840’s Muskego. The name derives from the Potawatomi term for—pick one—swamp, bog or mosquito. The cold, the damp, the insects, and the fact that it was a transit stop with a steady tide of migrants bearing who knows what fevers, agues and ills, Muskego experienced more than one “season of sorrow.”  .

Letters went home to Norway, “filled with foreboding and discouragement,” along with “thoughtless rumors, accompanied in cases by curses and expressions of contempt for America…”

By the autumn of 1844, the Norwegian residents who planned to stay in Muskego and had been graciously hosting the transients, decided to tell the homefolks their version of the story. They mailed the “manifesto” as an “open letter” to newspapers in Norway and it was first published in Oslo in April, 1845.

The first Norwegian Lutheran Church in the United States, Muskego, in its latter years. (Wisconsin Historical Society)

Yes, it said, they had had a hard winter or two in Wisconsin, and yes they had had to beg family and friends back home to send kroner so they could build the first Norwegian Lutheran church in the United States, but “we have no reason to regret the decision that brought us to this country.”

“We have no expectation of gaining riches; but we live under a liberal government in a fruitful land, where freedom and equality are the rule in religious as in civil matters, and where each one of us it at liberty to earn his living practically as he chooses.”

It was a classic statement of the immigrant’s idyllic vision of America. For the majority of Norwegians, and other newcomers from Europe, it became real.

One of them was Hans Christian Heg. Born in Norway in 1829, he came to Muskego with his parents in 1840.  He grew up to be an abolitionist who helped organize the Republican Party in Wisconsin and, when the Civil War began, Heg was commissioned Colonel of the 15th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment.

He made it the “Scandinavian Regiment,” by touring the Norwegian, Swedish and Danish settlements throughout the state and declaring:

Hans Christian Heg (Wisconsin Historical Society)

“Scandinavians! Let us understand the situation, our duty and our responsibility. Shall the future ask, where were the Scandinavians when the Fatherland was saved?”

The Fatherland to be saved was not across the Atlantic. It was the United States. The people Heg called to save it were not Scandinavians. They were Americans.

The 15th Wisconsin saw plenty of gun fire and bloodshed, chiefly in Tennessee and Georgia. Promoted to brigadier general, Heg led his troops into battle at Chickamauga in September, 1863.  He was shot in the abdomen and died one day later in an army field hospital.

A statue was erected in his honor on the Capitol Square in Madison. His body was buried in the cemetery of the Lutheran Church in the Town of Norway, near Muskego.

He believed in the high ideals of the Manifesto, lived and died to extend its vision to all Americans.

–Michael Goc


The Shape of a Place

August 11, 2011

I’ve only seen it in pictures, but lately the Ashland skyline has captured my imagination. Perched on Lake Superior’s shore since 1916, the Ashland ore dock dominates the silhouette of the small northern Wisconsin city. And from what both residents and travelers tell me, this dock inspires awe. It stands 80 feet tall and stretches 1,800 feet–or about a third of a mile–into the lake.

Ashland native Michael Sullivan submitted the photo of the ore dock that appeared on Portal Wisconsin’s homepage last week (also seen above). He writes: “I grew up in Ashland and the oredock has always been a symbol of home–whether coming from the east or the west into Ashland, you knew you were home when you saw the oredock. As kids, we used to ride our bikes out to the end and there would always be people fishing from it. It’s one of the last remnants, I believe, of what Ashland was at one time.”

By all accounts, Ashlanders love their ore dock. Just last year, mural artists Sue Martinsen and Kelly Meredith paid it tribute in paint, when they completed a life-sized ore dock mural in downtown Ashland as part of the city’s historic Mural Walk. (The mural “truly is as long as the ore dock is long, and as high,” Sue tells me.) The City Council proclaimed it a local landmark in 2002.  Even the public school sports teams are called the Oredockers.

The ore dock remains as a monument to the area’s maritime culture, but not for long. Once used to load ore boats destined for eastern steel mills,  it hasn’t been employed for shipping purposes since the 1960s.  Now the ore dock’s fate rests in the hands of current owner Canadian National Railway, which has plans to dismantle it. Repairing the disintegrating structure would be too costly, the company says, and they have public liability concerns. A couple of years ago, a pair of endangered peregrine falcons nested on the ore dock and thwarted demolition for a while. Then the city raised water quality and right-of-way issues, stalling the process further. But with permitting issues resolved just this month, demolition could begin soon.

What happens to a community when its shape–perhaps its very identity–is so distinctly altered? It’s a fascinating and complicated story, one I’ll continue to follow.

–Tammy Kempfert