The Milwaukee-Downer College legacy

Bonnie Tilland

This past weekend, on Oct. 12-14, some 150 Lawrence alumni, along with their families, arrived on the Lawrence Campus for their sesquicentennial reunion. However, these alumni are actually part of an earlier institution, that carries on its legacy at Lawrence: these are women of the Milwaukee-Downer Women’s College.Milwaukee-Downer merged with Lawrence College in 1895 to form Lawrence University. Milwaukee-Downer College was itself the result of the 1861 merge between Milwaukee Female College (1851) and Downer College (founded as Wisconsin Female College in 1855).

The program of events for the weekend was varied, and gave the women a chance to reconnect with old friends and see what Lawrence University is like today. There were several Alumnae College sessions that took the alumnae on tours of Wriston Art Center, to a student panel, to an information session on Bjorklunden, and other events.

Several of the women said that they found the student panel very informative in understanding student life at Lawrence today. They also said that they enjoyed meeting students who are benefiting from the Downer Trust Fund, which totals approximately $45 million. One highlight from the weekend was the Alumnae College session on Emily Groom, a former art professor at Downer College, whose artwork is currently displayed in Wriston Art Center. Many of the Milwaukee-Downer alumnae recalled fond memories of Groom from their years at Milwaukee-Downer.

Another highlight of the reunion was the Alumnae College session “A Common Bond: Professor Serafon.” This session featured the work of Katie Jo Moore, ’00; Sarah Phelps, ’01 and Liz Ritzenthaler, ’01, who, along with other members of their French senior seminar class, brought to life a collection of letters written in French between a Milwaukee-Downer French professor and her student.

These letters, written between 1918 and 1957 by Amelie Serafon and her student, Bessie Wolfner, were discovered by library archivist Carol Butts in March of 2000. Judith Sarnecki, a current French professor at Lawrence, assisted her students in translating the letters, which have now been published as the book, A Common Bond: Letters from Mlle. Serafon. The French students who translated these letters got a chance to meet with some of Serafon’s former students this past weekend, giving them further insight into their project.

Current Lawrence students, along with generations to come, will see lasting effects of this memorable sesquicentennial. The women of Milwaukee-Downer have given a seal to Lawrence University, which will join the other seal in front of Main Hall in a few months. A Lawrence College seal will also be added soon.

Perhaps the most noticeable and generous gift is the transformation of the Heritage Room in the library to the Milwaukee-Downer room, which has been filled with comfortable furniture and archives from Milwaukee-Downer for Lawrence students to look at. In looking at the documents, current Lawrence students can get a sense of the strong Milwaukee-Downer College legacy, which has contributed to the quality education offered at Lawrence University.

More information about Milwaukee-Downer College and the sesquicentennial can be found on Lawrence’s homepage.