As 1972 approached and the Class of 1922 began to make plans for its 50th reunion, some members of the class came to the planning meetings with a big idea about their class gift: “Let’s do something about the lake,” they said.
Lake Mendota had deteriorated noticeably in quality in the fifty years since class members had been students. In those earlier days, swimming in the clean waters of Lake Mendota had been a big part of undergraduate life.
Fifty years later, the water seemed much less welcoming. Weed beds of the invasive Eurasian Milfoil had appeared almost everywhere along the shoreline. Unpleasant algae blooms were becoming annual affairs. Part of University Bay was silting in with the runoff from Madison’s near west side. Construction runoff had not been well controlled and along with general urban runoff after big rains, Willow Creek, now a storm water outlet, was bringing in tons and tons of silt.
“So let’s do something about the lake,” they said, and began to plan a class gift to do it.
Leading the way toward a class gift
The class included several members who cared a great deal about this issue and so decided to encourage their fellow alumni by making generous lead gifts themselves. They knew the task would be a large one and even larger it was to become. A steering committee was named by the University and two class members were included ex officio.
As discussions developed, the group talked about relationships between the lake and the land, and how closely the two were together in an ecological community. To improve conditions in the lake, one also had to improve conditions on the land. For some purposes, “the land” meant the large drainage basin that fed the Yahara River. It especially involved neighboring urban areas in Madison and Shorewood Hills. And of course, it also included the lakeshore lands of the campus itself.
The group developed a broad vision that anticipated in important ways that of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve–even though the Preserve would not be created as we know it today for another thirty years. Their concern for Lake Mendota began to focus on University Bay and then expanded to include the lands around the bay as well.
As a result, the project to be funded by this gift from the Class of 1922 would address major problems not just of the bay, but also of the immediately adjacent campus lands. This included areas very familiar to all UW students and friends: the Lakeshore Path, Picnic Point, Tent Colony Woods and Eagle Heights .
Amazingly, this class decided to focus on most of the area we now know as the Lakeshore Nature Preserve.
The largest class gift to date in UW-Madison history
The project was challenging and exciting and it evoked great enthusiasm among class members. By the time of their class reunion, contributions summed to the largest class gift the University had ever received—and the amount available was destined to grow larger still.
The Steering Committee for the University Bay Project asked for and received additional funds from the Brittingham Foundation, a major UW benefactor for many years. These additional funds would be used to improve the condition of Picnic Point, which had been farm land in 1922 but still well known to students as a favorite destination. The University had acquired Picnic Point just before World War II, but had committed few resources to its upkeep. The Class of 1922’s gift thus set in motion new efforts to take better care of this much-loved place.
In the comprehensiveness of its vision, and in its commitment to conserving water and land together, the Class of 1922 pointed the way toward the kind of stewardship and ecosystem management that would become hallmarks of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve in subsequent years. The gift was thus not just impressive in its size, but inspiring in the goals it aspired to set for future management of these then underappreciated campus lands.