FOR AT LEAST two decades Wisconsin graduating classes had left memorials, usually gravestones bearing class numerals, to be placed in the woodlot behind Main Hall. The presentation and acceptance of the memorial had become a traditional feature of Class Day exercises prior to 1910. As events proved, the presentation of the 1910 memorial was of special significance in the history of the University.
While the Goldman and Sercombe episodes were still under discussion the Class of 1910 was busy with class politics. One candidate for the presidency, James S. Thompson, campaigned on a platform which called for the popular selection of the class memorial and guarantee of its dedication at graduation time.21 Despite the fact that Thompson lost the election to Francis Ryan Duffy on March 18, 1910, his voice was heard when the memorial committee considered the selection of a gift.22 Thompson urged that no gravestone mark the resting place of the Class of 1910; instead he recommended that the class memorialize itself through the 1894 academic-freedom proclamation, the statement to be cast in bronze and erected in a prominent place on the campus.
This novel suggestion did not originate with Thompson. It came from Lincoln Steffens. While preparing his article on the University, Steffens had discovered the 1894 statement, and had expressed regret that it had never been adequately publicized and preserved. To Fred MacKenzie, managing editor of La Follette's Magazine, he suggested the use of the class memorial to rededicate the Regents to the 1894 principle. Through MacKenzie the suggestion was transmitted to James S. Thompson, and through Thompson to the memorial committee, "I can still recall very definitely that Fred called me out from luncheon one day at the Phi Kappa Psi house to propose this idea," said Thompson. "He cautioned me against revealing too much of the source of the subject for fear that political discussion or argument might hamper the execution. He and I agreed that the idea was fundamentally excellent and that political implications ought not to be permitted to interfere with its successful adoption by the class. Fred was always enthusiastically gleeful in observing the success of our efforts."23
Even though the majority of the classmen had not the slightest hint that Lincoln Steffens had conceived their memorial, the suggestion seemed so reasonable that it was quickly agreed upon. Hugo Hering, chairman of the memorial committee, recalls the homely manufacture of the much-publicized plaque:
I personally prepared the pattern of the Tablet for casting. It was purely a hand-made job, in which I used a three-ply wood veneer panel as a background. I bought white metal letters, such as used by Pattern Makers, and fastened these letters to the veneer back. Each letter had prongs on the reverse side, and after being properly aligned, was hammered down into the wood. I carted the pattern to the Madison Brass Foundry, and Henry Vogts made the casting, at a cost of $25.00.24
With the plaque ready for dedication, class officers approached the Regents on the matter of its acceptance and erection. The members of the board were cool and evasive. Some asserted that as individuals they could not grant approval; that the question must be decided by the entire board at a formal meeting; that there would be no formal meeting prior to graduation day, at which time it would be too late. Others objected that the classmen had by-passed President Van Hise in bringing the question before the board directly; others that the approach had been too oblique, through the board's secretary and executive committee. There was also an opinion that it would be inadvisable to extend to each graduating class the privilege of prescribing the character and placement of its memorial gift. Like Laocoon, high priest of Apollo at Troy, the Regents feared the Greeks even though bearing gifts.25
Baffled and disappointed, but determined to wring eventual victory from present defeat, the classmen conducted the traditional Class Day exercises on June 20, 1910. Despite the withholding of Regent approval, class orator Carl F. Naffz of Madison presented the tablet to the University. Genial and popular Professor William A. Scott of the School of Commerce accepted the plaque and made the response. His response must have been made in purely personal capacity, however, for the record shows that Scott's acceptance was authorized neither by the Regents nor the faculty. The response seems to have been Scott's valorous gesture of friendship towards the class and its project.
If the classmen hoped that Scott's gesture would effect a transfer of the gift to the University, their hope died quickly. On June 22, two days after the exercises, the following entry was made in the records of the Board of Regents:
A request from the President of the senior class to place a memorial tablet in one of several locations named was presented and was referred on motion of Regent Thwaits, with second by Regent Keller, to President Van Hise with instructions to notify the class why the request could not be granted.
While the record gave no hint of the explanation which Van Hise was to offer, newspaper reports summarized the ostensible reason. A local paper said the Regents were opposed to "making a 'graveyard' out of the university grounds," and they hesitated to "establish a precedent which would lead to the mutilation of the buildings..."26 Regent Magnus Swenson was quoted as saying, "You know, they allowed that to occur some years ago until the campus began looking like a graveyard and then they dug up all the old memorials and put them back in the woods. People pass by and say, 'Well, who's buried there?'"27
On the day that the governing board decided against accepting and erecting the memorial, President Van Hise, in his commencement address, spoke on the dangers to state universities from political control, from the demand for returns measurable in dollars and cents, and from restrictions on freedom of teaching. This did not imply that Van Hise was championing the memorial crusade. As one Regent recalled, Van Hise"showed considerable feeling at the want of courtesy on the part of the students in not having in any way consulted him about this tablet, and appeared to be against its acceptance by the Regents."28
After commencement a report was circulated that the class planned to buy a piece of property four feet square, on State Street, on which to erect the memorial.29 Nothing came of this enterprise. Meantime the classmen carried their case to the newspapers. The item most cordially resented by the Regents was an interview given out by class president Francis R. Duffy. Duffy announced that President Van Hise's conservation work had "met with opposition from some interests in the state which do not have the public welfare as their basis." He recalled that Professor Gilmore had been rebuked by the water-power interests and declared that "At about the same time another member of the faculty was instructed not to carry on certain research work in connection with the early history of Wisconsin." These incidents inspired the Class of 1910 to select their special memorial, for the class believed "the search for truth should not be interfered with, in a great university ... ." Events of 1910 also raised the question of how long Wisconsin could retain its place as the leading state university, and as a university of the people, "if the Regents will not allow members of the faculty to express their honest convictions on problems that are of interest to all the people, or at least object to their doing so." Duffy promised that Regent rejection of the memorial tablet would be widely publicized in newspaper and magazine articles during the next few months, and named Lincoln Steffens as a likely commentator.30
The stir created by the classmen was heard in high political councils in the fall of 1910. On September 28, a Progressive-dominated Republican platform convention met at Madison. Whether as a gesture of partisanship towards the Class of 1910, or of reproach to the Regents, or merely as a remarkable coincidence, one plank of the Republican platform pledged the party to the defense of the 1894 view of academic freedom.
Not until 1912 was the memorial question reconsidered by the Regents. The minutes of the board meeting of April 25, 1912, record that:
The matter of the memorial tablet of the Class of 1910 was brought up for consideration. On motion of Regent Mahoney, second by Regent Seaman, the tablet was accepted, Regent Jones voting "No."
Significantly, nothing was said about the erection of the plaque. If unerected, the purpose of the class would be thwarted.
Meantime, what had become of the tablet? Soon after its original rejection it had been carried, by parties unknown, to the dingy basement of the Administration Building. There it accumulated dust and cobwebs for five years, until rescued by the 1910 alumni in the spring of 1915.
21 Shortly after his graduation from the University of Wisconsin, Thompson accepted a position with McGraw-Hill Book Company. He has had no other employer. After a long term as vice-president he was elected and still serves as president of McGraw-Hill.
22 After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Duffy practiced law at Fond du Lac. In November, 1932, he was elected to the United States Senate as a Democrat. On June 26, 1939, he was confirmed as United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, with offices at Milwaukee. This position he continues to hold.
23 Thompson to Milton J. Blair, April 14, 1944. (In author's possession) That Steffens fathered the project is confirmed by Hugo Hering, chairman of the 1910 memorial committee, in a letter to the author, April 26, 1944; and by Milton J. Blair, in response to the author's questionnaire, in 1942.
24 Hering to the author, April 26, 1944. That the tablet was the work of an amateur is attested by the uneven lines of the finished product.
25 M. E. McCaffrey, then secretary of the Board of Regents, informed the author that within the governing board suspicion was rife; that underneath the ostensibly ingenuous tender of the memorial plaque was an insidious, clandestine purpose to stigmatize or "smear" the Regents.
26 Madison Democrat, June 23, 1910.
27 Milwaukee Journal, June 28, 1910.
28 Granville D. Jones to the Regents, May 25, 1915. Van Hise's position was further defined by Jones in a letter to Francis R. Duffy, June 9, 1915. Copies of these letters, and all correspondence hereafter cited, now in the author's possession, will he placed in the Manuscript Division of the Wisconsin Historical Society in the near future.
29 Milwaukee Sentinel, June 28, 1910; Milwaukee Journal, June 28, 1910.
30 Fond du Lac Daily Commonwealth, June 30, 1910.