UW-Superior: 125 years of educating northern Wisconsin
The campus of the University of Wisconsin-Superior from the sky in 2016. (Jed Carlson /

The campus known today as the University of Wisconsin-Superior started out small — one building, in fact.

The Superior Normal School, dedicated Sept. 5, 1896, consisted of a single building where students learned to be teachers.

It was a community effort that built the school in Superior, said Peter Nordgren, professor emeritus of library science and a 1974 UWS graduate.

And the community is invited to the biggest celebration planned as the university wraps up its celebration of 125 years of education; the celebration starts at 5 p.m. Tuesday, June 11, and features a free barbecue on the Yellowjacket Union Plaza, sidewalk chalk art festival, alumni artists, games for children and family, a campus scavenger hunt and tours of campus. The evening culminates with a free outdoor concert from Big Top Chautauqua at 7 p.m.

“Celebrating the end of the commemoration of our 125th anniversary year with a campus-wide celebration and concert means that community is important to us,” UWS Chancellor Renée Wachter said. “I hope that people bring their families and children, and enjoy a day of celebration, food, fun and connecting together.”


But the university’s story began more than 125 years ago, when the Wisconsin Legislature approve the beginning of the state’s northernmost four-year campus in April 1891. It wasn’t until 1895 when the city solidified the teacher’s training school that has evolved into a liberal arts university in the heart of Superior.

In the beginning, there was just one building, which opened in 1896, and was used until March 27, 1914, when the building burned in a fire, Nordgren said.

According to the March 28, 1914, edition of the Evening Telegram, only portions of the fire-scarred and smoke-blackened building remained the following day.

The fire had been discovered in the middle of the night, and a night engineer and watchman, Thomas Turbirty, had attempted to battle the flames discovered between a bookcase and wall in a school supervisor’s office, but in the end, the building damage totaled $275,000 and the building was a complete loss.

The following day, classes were moved to a local high school, and construction began the same year to replace the normal school.

Superior Normal School stood where Old Main stands today.

When Old Main was built it presented an opportunity to build another school for teachers to learn their craft, educating children, Nordgren said. Erlanson Hall was built shortly after Old Main and opened one year later than Old Main, in 1917, Nordgren said.

The campus went through a number of changes — and names — going back to the 1920s through the 1960s.


“Probably the first change that happened was the movement toward being able to offer a bachelor’s degree — a Bachelor of Education — for teachers,” Nordgren said. “Superior was the first of the normal schools to get that authorization (in 1925).”

Two years later, the school got its first name change to the Superior State Teachers College. Teachers was dropped from the name in 1950, and it became the Wisconsin State University in 1964, but it wasn’t until 1971, when the state universities merged with the University of Wisconsin campuses in Madison and Milwaukee that the campus came to be known as UW-Superior.

But it wasn’t just the name or the physical campus that changed over time.

Especially during the 1950s and ’60s, the breadth of programs offered grew, with more opportunities to learn about sciences, social sciences and the arts, and graduate-level programs were added, Nordgren said.

But even before those programs were added, Nordgren said people in the region could start their college education in Superior and go elsewhere to finish their degree.

Gordon MacQuarrie, a former reporter and editor of the Evening Telegram, and outdoor editor for the Milwaukee Journal, is one example, Nordgren said. He said MacQuarrie, a native of Superior, started his education at the Superior Normal School then attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison where he graduated in 1924.

MacQuarrie is credited with being the first full-time, professional outdoor writer in America, best known for his Old Duck Hunters Association, a literary vehicle used to tell often upbeat and humorous stories.

And the university has had some outstanding graduates over the last 125 years.


Everyone thinks of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor and former California governor who graduated from UWS with the Class of 1979, Nordgren said.

“We haven’t exactly produced large numbers of famous actors, but we produced Rick Sordelet, who taught a lot of actors how to do stage combat,” Nordgren said.

Most notable UWS graduates are outstanding in their fields, like Renee Reijo Pera, a biological sciences researcher and internationally recognized stem cell scientist, and Anthony Bukoski, author and emeritus writing professor at UWS, he said.

In honor of the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s 125th anniversary, the Alumni Association has created a book filled with photos, facts, historical information and stories from its alumni. “Small, But Mighty: 125 Years of Leadership, Innovation and Tradition” tells the story of what the university means to its alumni and the community.

Nordgren was a contributor to the book that is now available on Amazon, as well as in the Alumni Office in Old Main 237 and the ’Jacket Book & Supply in the Yellowjacket Union. Copies will be sold during the community celebration June 11.

“We really enjoyed creating this beautiful book, and we can’t wait to share it with our alumni and friends,” said Heather Thompson, director of Alumni Relations. “It will definitely take you on a journey through UW-Superior's exciting past — our first 125 years.”

Through all that time, one thing has remained true about the university and its mission — it’s dedication to its original mission of serving the needs of northern communities, Nordgren said. From educating teachers at a time when people were starting to settle in the area, to the development of a new major that is underway to address civic engagement, he said the university has stayed true to its mission to provide educational tools needed in the area.

“I think that’s a great example of the university recognizing that there are greater needs within society for people to be better prepared to be citizens and to function actively, whether in government roles or elected roles or other roles as citizens, and I think that’s an example of very perceptive direction,” Nordgren said.

“We look forward to the next 125 years as partners in supporting a strong and vibrant city of Superior and northern Wisconsin,” Wachtner said.

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