Lawrence Commemorates 50th Anniversary of Consolidation with Milwaukee-Downer College

Posted on: June 17th, 2014 by Rick Peterson
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Colors Day at Milwaukee-Downer College in 1946.

The 50th anniversary of one of the seminal moments in the college’s history will be commemorated June 19-22 as part of Lawrence University’s annual alumni reunion celebration.

A consolidation between Lawrence and Milwaukee-Downer College, one of the first all-women’s colleges in the Midwest, was finalized on July 1, 1964, ending an era for a pioneering institution that traced its roots to the mid-1800s.

That fall, Lawrence welcomed 21 former Milwaukee-Downer faculty and 49 of its  continuing female students to Appleton.  Forty-four of the original 49 Milwaukee-Downer students went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Lawrence while 11 of the faculty members remained at Lawrence until their retirement.

Marjory Irvin, one of the faculty members who made the transition to Lawrence, recalled the 1963-64 academic year at Milwaukee-Downer as a very trying one for all parties involved.

“For those (students) who chose to come to Lawrence, mostly upperclassman, the future was straightforward. There would be no stumbling blocks on the road toward graduation,” said Irvin, who taught piano and music theory. “The problem arose with those students who charged us, the faculty, with finding them a college just like Milwaukee-Downer. That wasn’t just difficult, it proved to be impossible.”

Irvin, who began a 40-year teaching career at Milwaukee-Downer in 1947 and ended it at Lawrence with her retirement in 1987, said one of the challenges she faced at Lawrence was dealing with a set of student questions completely foreign to her.

“In 50 years we have come from tears to cheers. Milwaukee-Downer
is alive and well as an integral part of Lawrence University.”

     — Marlene Crupi Widen, M-D ’55

“In my 16 years at Milwaukee-Downer, I dealt with all manner of problems facing young women, but those were very different from the ones that came knocking on my door once I got to Lawrence,” said Irvin, who will participate in a discussion on the consolidation Thursday (6/19) morning in the Warch Campus Center. “Because of gender, there were all these new problems with which I had no experience.”

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Some of the 21 Milwaukee-Downer faculty and 49 students who transferred to Lawrence in the fall of 1964.

In looking back on the transition, Irvin recalls fondly the welcome she received from her colleagues.

“The Lawrence faculty members were incredibly hospitable. It seemed everyone invited me for dinner and entertained me royally with gourmet cuisine and fine wines. My career at Lawrence grew from an inauspicious beginning to a tenure of pure joy. I’ll always treasure the memories of my 23 years at Lawrence as well as my 16 years at Milwaukee-Downer.”

Lee (Dodds) Chemel was a junior from Stamford, Conn., at Milwaukee-Downer when the word came out the college would be closing.

“It was quite a shock,” said Chemel, a television and film director now living in Los Angeles. “There were a lot of women on campus for whom it was a very negative experience. They had chosen a women’s college, and a small one at that, for the kind of intimate and even protective environment that was offered there.

“But for me, though I loved my years at Downer, I was ready to expand, to be on a larger campus with many more opportunities. And I was really excited that I was going to be with guys.”

Before the end of her last year at Downer, Chemel visited Lawrence and was invited to participate in what was then an academic encampment weekend.

“I got to meet and know some of the most involved students at Lawrence, some of whom would become life-long friends,” said Chemel, who graduated from Lawrence in 1965 with a major in English. “I also had a chance to see a great production of ‘Macbeth’ and knew that the theatre department was going to be a place where I wanted to work and learn. By the time my visit to Lawrence was over, I was locked and loaded and ready to leap. I’m so glad I had the chance.”

Even though she had graduated from Milwaukee-Downer nine years earlier, Marlene (Crupi) Widen was still directly affected by the consolidation announcement: she was the incoming M-D alumnae president at the time.

“I was unsure of my new role, but my husband wisely told me, ‘you need to stay involved. Milwaukee-Downer is bringing much to this merger and you need to help make it happen,’” said Widen, who was recognized at 2013’s reunion with the college’s Presidential Award. “I’m so glad I did. We all can be so proud of an educational legacy of which we all share. In 50 years we have come from tears to cheers. Milwaukee-Downer is alive and well as an integral part of Lawrence University.”

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In 1965, some former Milwaukee-Downer students planted a hawthorn tree in front of Main Hall.

A series of events during the weekend will highlight the Milwaukee-Downer and Lawrence connection. They include:

•  a discussion on the consolidation moderated by Ruth Legler Qualich and Ted Katzoff, 1955 Milwaukee-Downer and 1965 Lawrence graduates, respectively.

  a presentation by Lawrence archivist Erin Dix, examining the historic context of how and why the consolidation took place and its impact today.

an art exhibition featuring works of three Milwaukee-Downer studio art faculty — Dane Purdo, Carl Riter and Arthur Thrall — who joined the Lawrence faculty at the time of the consolidation.

•  a presentation on Catharine Beecher, a renowned 19th-century educator and champion of higher education for women, “founding spirit” for Milwaukee College and sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, by Carolyn King Stephens, a 1962 Milwaukee-Downer graduate.

  a ceremony commemorating the new Jason Downer Common on campus, including the addition of historical signage of the consolidation, followed by a tour that will include numerous Milwaukee-Downer treasures, including the exquisite Teakwood Room.

“We are very much looking forward to this weekend’s celebration,” said Mark Breseman, associate vice president of alumni and constituency engagement at Lawrence. “It is a wonderful opportunity to commemorate the joining of two special colleges. It has been a particular thrill for me to work with many wonderful Milwaukee-Downer alumnae to plan this exciting and historical series of events. Lawrence takes pride in the many ways it has kept the true Milwaukee-Downer spirit alive on campus.”

Fifty years after the consolidation, Lawrence counts nearly 1,000 living Milwaukee-Downer graduates among its alumni.

About Lawrence University
Founded in 1847, Lawrence University uniquely integrates a college of liberal arts and sciences with a nationally recognized conservatory of music, both devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. It was selected for inclusion in the Fiske Guide to Colleges 2014 and the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College.” Individualized learning, the development of multiple interests and community engagement are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,500 students from nearly every state and more than 50 countries.

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