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Playing It Forward: One Man’s Wisconsin Union Legacy

Long before there was a Memorial Union, or even a groundbreaking ceremony, students were gathering support and raising money for the new Union.

Nathan N. Grabin was working his way through school at the University of Wisconsin when the Wisconsin Union project was first gaining momentum.

A banjo player in an orchestra on campus, he was playing for University and private events to pay for his expenses.

He also taught banjo lessons in Madison, even having the daughter of the Chancellor as one of his students.

“He said that when he got a call from the Chancellor, he was terrified, not knowing what he might want,” Nathan’s daughter, Marilyn G. Putz, said.

He was working hard to support himself, but Marilyn says he always found time and resources to support the fundraising efforts for the new Union.

“Even though he could hardly afford it, he made sure that the Union project received whatever he could afford,” Marilyn said.

The original banner for Nathan’s orchestra.

Those early supporters like Nathan were essential to creating the Wisconsin Union that we have today and that has endured through the years.

When the Union was first suggested, the idea relied heavily on donations from students who, like Nathan, would not even be on campus by the time the building would open.

“Regarding my father’s choice to support the creation of the Union, I can say that he believed strongly in its purposes,” Marilyn said. “He was a very loyal Badger, as was my mother, and was interested in promoting as many causes as he could, even though the Union and the Carillon Tower were his major interests.”

Although Nathan graduated with the Class of 1925 before the Union was completed, he still came back to the area and took advantage of his Wisconsin Union membership when he did.

Marilyn remembers visiting Madison and the Union with her family and staying in the rooms at the Wisconsin Union, an opportunity that we offer to our members to this day.

“As an alumni, he made sure that our family would visit Madison as often as possible and that we would stay in the hotel rooms that were available at the Union, as well as take all of our meals there,” Marilyn said. “He took such great pride in the entire University, but especially the Union.”

A 1954 graduate of UW-Madison herself, Marilyn also spent time at the Union as a student.

Though she used a different name for it (she used to call it the “Onion”), the Union offered many of the same experiences and opportunities that student’s still take advantage of today.

“My favorite memories of the Union as a student consisted of spending time in the “Rat” (der Rath), going to movies, bowling, studying in either the lounge or small rooms upstairs that offered classical music backgrounds, the Terrace – I could go on and on,” Marilyn said. “I loved that place.”

The legacy and enduring memories of both Marilyn and her father are perfect examples of what the Wisconsin Union is all about.

Just as Nathan and others did 90 years ago, members today support the Union for future generations. It is their children and grandchildren who will share in the legacy of that support and commitment.

“He was so proud of everything it stood for and offered at the time,” Marilyn said. “I imagine he would be absolutely delighted to know what a wonderful and encompassing place it has become.”



All photos courtesy of (and a big thank you to) Marilyn G. Putz.


Author: Maddie Boulanger

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