This past February, we mentioned the passing of Tom Gering, one of the Union’s first Mini Course instructors. We found this article in our archives, published in Fall 2008, that profiles Tom and his history with the Wisconsin Union as a ballroom dance teacher. Read his obituary here.
By Ben Young
Though he readily admits he has forgotten a few of the steps, Tom Gering’s great history with the Union began in 1958 when he taught dance as an undergraduate.
“It began with rejection,” Tom said with a chuckle. “At first, the Union Social Committee thought my eight-week course plan was too long. Then, when I shortened it to four weeks, they didn’t think class-weary students would be interested in learning to dance after a long academic day. They explained how they had weekend dances often enough, along with pool, bowling, etc. for entertainment. Despite the double rejection, I wasn’t ready to give up yet.”
Tom then walked up State Street and began teaching adults basic ballroom dancing at the YWCA. After the course finished, he took a survey of the class. “Eleven of the 20 were UW students,” Tom said. “So, I went back to the Union and told them, ‘If a majority of the students are UW kids willing to walk up State Street to take the class, why not teach it right in the Union?’ Then they said ‘ok.’”
This meant Tom would be the first person to teach a class at the Union, which now offers many Mini Courses. He started with swing dancing, basic ballroom, the foxtrot, moved to Latin-American and finally advanced swing dancing. The cost was $2.50 Per person and $4 per couple. By the third semester, the class grew to 76 students and had to be moved from the Old Madison room to Tripp Commons.
“I was in charge of advertising the class at first,” Tom explained, reflecting on a glossy snapshot, which shows him demonstrating a dance step with a young woman before a group of students. “There were always far more guys than girls signing up for dance, so I recruited at the sororities and Lathrop Hall to balance the class. I was on the UW boxing team at the time, so the guys on the team participated.
“Once the dance courses became successful,” Tom added, “the Union took over everything. They really came through on advertisements, giving me posters, fliers, handouts and even little diplomas for when class members graduated.” From there, dance became hugely popular and truly snowballed into what it is today. Tom is astonished by the sustained popularity of dance courses within the Union. “It’s fantastic. There are up to 18 dance courses offered. Sometimes I visit the classes, and I’m really impressed with what they’ve become.” He credits the excellent management of the Mini Course program to the skills of Director Jay Ekleberry and his assistant Scott Spychalla.
Tom worked with the Social Security Administration for 30 years before retiring at age 56. His main job was helping citizens receive their benefit checks, and he conducted more than 20,000 interviews during his career. He then taught a college-level psychology course for 12 semesters and, a retirement planning course at Madison Area Technical College (now Madison College) for 15 years. Now, you can find Tom teaching “Your Healthy and Rewarding Retirement,” a non-financial Mini Course focused on finding enjoyment after retirement. The course will run again on October 23, 2008. “It’s been 50 years since I taught dance here, and to be teaching again in the same room gives me a warm and fuzzy good feeling. Think about it, that’s spanning half a century!” Tom said.
To Tom, Mini Courses are one of the best features of Union. “Don’t you think it’s fantastic they have this many courses?” he asked, brandishing a Mini Course catalogue. “They’re great classes, and they’re short classes.”
Tom feels everyone can benefit from taking Mini Courses. For students: “They need an active release from studying and working hard…something physical yet mentally relaxing. Students need something different to sort of recreate themselves.”
For faculty and staff: “They’re looking for something interesting to improve and augment their lifestyle,” Tom said. “These courses do so; they’re practical courses: how to write a will, how to buy a digital camera if you’re confused by them, yoga, craft classes, just a wide range of eclectic courses.”
For the general public: “This is where the Wisconsin Idea comes into play,” said Tom. “Broadly speaking, the Idea urges the University to use its great education resources and spread it to all the residents of Wisconsin. This applies to Mini Courses because at the Union, anyone can become a member. It’s a nice idea, an introduction to the Union.”
Tom enjoys the Union in many ways. He has attended writing courses, which he absolutely loves, and he likes to sit on the Terrace and have a bratwurst. “It’s a great way to unwind, relax and view the lake. There are always interesting people to meet out on the Terrace.”
Tom’s first date in the Wisconsin Union Theater was with his future wife, Joan. They watched a Pulitzer Prize-winning play titled “jb” by Archibald Macleish. Tom and Joan will celebrate their 47th anniversary on October 21, 2008. They have three children and five grandchildren. “My kids all now live in Dane County,” he said. “I’m lucky and thrilled I don’t have to jump on a plane to visit them.” He will be 75 this fall, something he believes is “as great an accomplishment as teaching at the Union 50 years ago and then teaching at the Union again now.”