Campus Traditions

A Cappella Groups
A cappella groups, which employ the musical style of singing without instruments, have been a campus staple since the 1990s. Ensembles range from the MadHatters to Tangled Up in Blue (an all-women’s group) to Jewop (a coed Jewish group). Covering a wide range of music, from oldies to today’s top hits, the groups release albums and perform at benefit concerts, weddings, sporting events, and popular local venues.
Abraham Lincoln Statue
Photo: New graduate sitting on Abraham Lincoln statue on Bascom Hill Unveiled in 1909 as a gift of the sculptor, Adolph Weinman, the statue is the only replica of a statue he previously erected in Hodgenville, Kentucky, Lincoln’s birthplace. However, the inscription attributes the gift to Madisonian Thomas Brittingham, who had paid for casting the statue and the pedestal on which it was placed. Lincoln is considered a patron of the university because he signed the Morrill Act in 1862 to provide federal aid to land-grant colleges such as UW-Madison. In 1999, the statue underwent a thorough restoration and cleaning that removed years of grime and restored its copper color. Today Abe remains at the top of Bascom Hill. Students rub Abe’s feet for good luck before taking exams, and climb atop his lap in cap and gown to celebrate graduation.
Babcock Hall Dairy Store
Since 1951, the UW has been making ice cream (as well as cheese and milk products) inside the dairy plant on the west side of campus. The frozen treat has become a tourist attraction, considered a must-do experience for alumni, students and visitors. The plant’s small staff churns out 75,000 gallons of ice cream each year, with production slowing down in the coldest months. Among the favorite flavors are vanilla and chocolate chip cookie dough.
Band Caps
When a Badger team wins a game, the members of the band turn their hats around and wear them backward. According to band director Michael Leckrone, the practice started in the 1920s to symbolize the band looking back at their victory in days when they marched out with the departing crowd.
Bascom Hill Displays
Bascom Hill serves as a blank canvas for those who want to get the word out for a group or a cause — or to quietly reflect. Each school year, dozens of organizations across campus fill the lawn with signs and banners to publicize events, recruit members, and raise awareness for their causes. The Pail and Shovel Party created one of the most famous displays in 1979 when it deposited a flock of a thousand plastic flamingos on the hill. Another of the most memorable displays is the annual commemoration of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which involves the planting of nearly three thousand small American flags — one for each of the victims who lost their lives that day.
For many years, bonfires played a central role in Homecoming and other student activities. Often, one class, usually the freshmen, would build a bonfire and another class would attempt to ignite it ahead of schedule. Outhouses were often considered the best tinder, leading to some friction with townspeople. The pyrotechnic practices largely died out by World War II.
Burning the Boat
Pyromania again expressed itself in this crew tradition, popular in the 1910s and 1920s. Prior to leaving town for a meet, the crew would set an old boat afire and push it into the lake as a symbol of good luck for the new shell going east for competition.
Bucky Badger
Photo: Bill Sagal, the first human Bucky Badger, at game in 1949Although badgers in various forms had been the UW-Madison mascot for decades, the version that is currently known as Bucky was first drawn in 1940 by professional illustrator Art Evans. Evans worked for a California printing company and had done several college logo characters, including the Minnesota Gopher and the Purdue Boilermaker. In 1949, a pep rally contest was held to determine the mascot’s name. Reports say there were between zero and 15 entries, and the rally committee opted for its own name: Buckingham U. Badger. The name is said by some to have originated in a line from “On, Wisconsin!” that exhorts the UW to “buck right through that line.”
Cane Toss
One of Homecoming’s biggest spectacles doesn’t involve the marching band or the football team. It’s hundreds of third-year law students with canes charging down the field toward Camp Randall Stadium’s south end zone before kickoff. Law students throw their canes over the crossbar of the goal post and if they catch their canes coming down on the other side, the students supposedly will win their first cases.
Family Weekend
Sponsored by the Parent Program within Campus and Visitor Relations, Family Weekend is held in the fall, and offers a variety of events designed to give the whole family — from grandparents to siblings — a chance to see UW-Madison through the eyes of their students. Attendees can have lunch with deans of schools and colleges, and attend sessions about housing, study-abroad, student organizations, support services, and more.
Founders’ Day
The first class at UW, taught by John Sterling, inspired the Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA) to create a celebration for Founders’ Day in 1924. Commemorating the first day of classes at UW-Madison, the WAA brings cake and other treats to University Residence Halls. Each year, Founders’ Day highlights the Wisconsin Idea and UW-Madison’s mission of academics, research and public service. Alumni chapters around the country and the world celebrate Founders’ Day with food, conversation and an address, typically by a university faculty member.
Freshman Caps
In 1901 it was decided that freshmen would wear small, dark green Eton caps, and strict rules were drawn up to enforce the new dress code. In 1912, however, following several cases of frostbitten ears, the cap law was partially rolled back to allow freshmen to wear heavier headgear through the long Wisconsin winter. In 1923, the cap rule was repealed altogether, but not before UW students had come up with another tradition of fire. Cap Night, held in May to represent the end of servitude for the advancing freshman class, was celebrated by building a large bonfire, dancing around it and burning the caps. Sophomores tried to light the pile ahead of time, leading to several incidents involving broken bones and serious burns — and the ultimate abolition of Cap Night in 1923.
For years, State Street was home to a raucous and loosely organized costume party on Halloween night. In 1979, the Wisconsin Student Association began sponsoring the event, which grew in size and fame each year as revelers crowded the eight blocks between the Capitol and Library Mall. Today, the city of Madison sells tickets to gain entrance onto State Street the Saturday of Halloween weekend, as people from all over come to celebrate Halloween in Madison. Dave Cieslewicz, then mayor, branded the event “Freakfest” in 2006. State Street is gated off and ticket-holders receive wristbands to see concert stages along the city blocks. Sponsors now endorse the event, as more than 50,000 people are expected to pack State Street each year.
Photo: 2011 Homecoming Parade A tradition for more than 100 years, Homecoming brings alumni together back to their alma mater for a weekend of football and UW-Madison spirit. Students have heavily influenced this annual event, as they run a weeklong series of events leading up the football game. These events have evolved from house decoration contests and a Homecoming Ball to Yell Like Hell and the On Wisconsin Society, an award recognizing outstanding student leaders. Homecoming epitomizes Badger traditions, as it is an event that brings students and alumni together.
Started in the 1940s, this annual musical-comedy show is sponsored by campus Greek organizations and is now the largest student-run, nonprofit philanthropic organization in Wisconsin. The event’s half-dozen mini-musicals are tied to a central theme, with groups auditioning during fall semester for a spot on the final bill. Don’t mistake the rowdy atmosphere on stage: the event raises more than $20,000 each year.
Kiekhofer Wall
Once standing on the 600 block of Langdon Street, the 120-foot wall was erected in 1884 and had long been used as an informal student bulletin board. Dozens of layers of paint covered it. Although efforts were made to save the wall, it was eventually destroyed to make room for the Jewish Student Community Center. The wall was named for UW-Madison economist “Wild Bill” Kiekhofer, who owned the property on which the wall stood.
Lake Rush
Popular at the turn of the century, the lake rush was an annual student raid during which sophomores attempted to throw freshmen into Lake Mendota. The practice was discontinued after a particularly violent clash and a fatality in 1908, but it was soon replaced by the bag rush, where classes fought for possession of 16 straw-filled bags lined up on the campus mall. Students used fire hoses to thwart opponents and often attempted to strip the opposing team, leading State Street neighbors to complain about indecently clad students. The short-lived tradition died in the mid-1920s.
“On, Wisconsin!”
Image: On, Wisconsin! sheet musicThe tune was composed in 1909 by William Purdy of Chicago, with words written by UW alumnus Carl Beck, who rewrote them in 1951. The song was an instant hit on campus, and it soon spread throughout the world, becoming very popular with military bands. Some 2,500 schools and colleges have adopted the music and changed the words to suit their needs.
Open Research
Actually more of a policy than a tradition, open research on the UW-Madison campus became the rule after World War II, when federal involvement in campus research had expanded. Open research means that all work conducted by university personnel must be publishable — an idea seen by the framers of the policy to be more closely in line with the mission of a state university. Although Wisconsin was one of the first major universities to move in this direction, concern over federal control of research dollars soon led to similar policies at campuses around the country.
Peace Pipe Ceremony
From 1890 through the 1930s, officers of the graduating senior class, appearing in Indian headdress and blankets, attached their class ribbons to the pipe and passed it on to officers of the junior class, similarly attired, as a symbol of the end of conflict between the classes. The pipe, currently in the possession of University Archives, was chosen in 1928 as part of the Memorial Union’s coat of arms, superimposed on an Indian arrowhead symbol of war.
“Sifting and Winnowing”
Photo: Sifting and Winnowing plaque on Bascom Hall These famous words are taken from a report of the university’s Board of Regents in 1894: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” This statement was made in the wake of an investigation of charges that liberal UW-Madison economist Richard Ely openly advocated social revolution and was fomenting strikes in Madison. An investigating committee exonerated Ely. The words were written by Charles Kendall Adams, seventh president of the university, and are set on a bronze plaque affixed to the front of Bascom Hall, a gift of the class of 1910. The 100th anniversary of the statement was celebrated in 1994 and the plaque was rededicated.
St. Patrick
Beginning in 1912, engineering students held an annual beard-growing contest to determine which of them would play St. Patrick during the traditional Spring Celebration. The contestants stopped shaving around the first of the year, and they were judged on a variety of criteria. The contest, which lasted into the 1960s, eventually became a facet of the bitter debate between engineering and law students as to whether St. Pat had been a lawyer or an engineer. The two groups often engaged in somewhat violent clashes following the engineers’ annual St. Pat’s parade.
Photo: Cheerleaders lead fans singing 'Varsity' at the Kohl Center in 1998 The traditional arm waving that comes at the end of the song “Varsity” was the 1934 brainchild of then-UW band leader Ray Dvorak. He originally got the idea from University of Pennsylvania students who waved their caps after a losing game. Dvorak later instructed UW students to wave as a salute to UW President Glenn Frank.
Varsity Band Concert
The UW Marching Band’s one-of-a-kind director, Mike Leckrone, conceived of this now annual event in 1975 to reward band members for their hard work. The first year drew a crowd of about 400 to the Humanities Building venue; these days the April concerts fill the Kohl Center. Fans can count on high-energy performances featuring Leckrone flying on wires, fireworks, video and more.
Venetian Night
Popular during the 1920s and early 1930s, Venetian Night was a colorful annual event celebrated in late May with lighted floats, illuminated piers and fireworks on Lake Mendota. Unpredictable weather often disrupted the occasion, however, and eventually lead to its demise.