"What a turnout," exclaimed Bob Hagenow, Poynette. "We have 411 people from 23 states and two Canadian provinces registered. Most of them will be attending the gala dinner and celebration tonight."
The occasion? The 100th anniversary of the Iota Chapter of Alpha Gamma Rho (AGR), a social/professional fraternity based at UW-Madison, which since 1969 has had its home in a huge brick house on the shores of Lake Mendota.
In its hundred years of existence, some 1,650 UW-Madison students have been recorded on the fraternity's membership rolls with a current student membership of 60, of which 39 live in the house.
Agriculture is the common bond of AGR members with members (past and present) being raised on a farm or growing up with some close contact with farming. All but a very few of the current members are majoring in agricultural-related majors, with dairy science being the most popular.
AGR alumni are present throughout the world of agriculture locally, nationally and worldwide, but many have also worked in non-ag professions with great success.
Back to the campus
The two-day (April 8 and 9) centennial celebration brought many AGR alumni back to the campus where they had spent four (or more) years. For many, it was their first visit in decades. Thus, a bus tour of several sites, old and new, was offered. (Note: While UW-Madison offers many world-famed education attributes, readily available visitor parking is not one of them.)
A popular tour stop was the recently remodeled on-campus dairy center with its expanded and relocated milking parlor and 80-cow dairy barn. I overheard several older alumni reminiscing about the days — so long ago — when they worked as student employees shoveling manure; feeding and milking cows; and doing other chores.
"Yes, and that's about the last time I ever milked cows," one commented.
"Your lucky," his friend said with a chuckle. "I milked cows for 40 years and have the bad knees to prove it."
The dairy center tours were led by a threesome of current Alpha Gamma Rho members (and students), all farm raised, who work 10-15 hours a week in the barn: Brad Warmka, Fox Lake, grew up on a 500-cow dairy; Charlie Hamilton lives on a 75-cow farm in Cuba City; and Andy Sell comes from a 100-cow dairy in Watertown.
Warmka and Hamilton plan to return to their home farms after graduation, while Sell sees himself somewhere in the agricultural industry.
Although the historic and original 1897 UW dairy barn, now a National Historic Landmark (the only barn to be such) was not a part of the tour, several folks got a glimpse of it (a few hundred feet away). "I'm glad it's still standing," one man said. "It's a nice connection to the past."
Meat and milk go together
Some of the tours included a stop at the UW Meat Lab and Babcock Hall, both closely tied to Wisconsin's dairy industry.
Babcock Hall, one of the most popular stops for students and visitors because of the famed ice cream, is actually the training ground for future cheesemakers and dairy industry leaders worldwide. While most ice cream eaters only see the ice cream counter, Babcock Hall is also home to a full-fledged dairy plant (soon to be remodeled) where cheese and ice cream are made and several floors of research facilities where new dairy products are developed and researchers schooled.
The Meat Science and Muscle Biology Laboratory, a part of the Animal Science Department, is less known to most, including those on the tour. The program has improved meat quality and safety for almost 70 years as new technology and increasing concern about food-borne pathogens change and challenge the meat industry.
Tony Schmitz, an AGR and farm boy from a 200-cow Fond du Lac dairy, led the group through the facility from the slaughter area where beef, hogs and lambs are butchered on Wednesday afternoons and through the meat processing area to the meat sales counter. It's a farm-to-table operation in its truest sense.
Although we might not often think about it, the meat tradition runs deep in Wisconsin, a land of 500 processors. The northern Europeans who settled the state 150 years ago introduced dairy farming and its sister, meat processing. Today, America's Dairyland has become the largest meat processing state east of the Mississippi. Logical: where you have cows, you have meat.
Those attending the 100-year Alpha Gamma Rho anniversary had a full two days, with "remembering" the most common event of all. Isn't that what reunions are about? And I was not surprised when everyone I talked with, from 20 to 90-plus years old, gave the same reasons why they joined Alpha Gamma Rho.
A home away from home
Dale Bruhn, Florida, was secretary/treasurer of the Iota Alumni Corporation for 46 years and is revered as the historian and "expert in all AGR things."
"We are a professional fraternity made up of primarily farm or small-town boys who came to the big university lost in a big town we were unfamiliar with," he said. "In Alpha Gamma Rho, we found a home and lifetime friends."
Bruhn told of the Alpha Gamma Rho Education Foundation that provides funds for education and scholarship programs and other alumni activities that keep AGR brothers involved for a lifetime.
Yes, Iota Chapter of AGR has a written purpose: "To make better men, and through them, a broader and better agriculture," is a much shortened version.
And it seems to have brought big results, as wherever you go in Wisconsin (or national) agriculture, you will probably find an Alpha Gamma Rho alumnus involved.
UW-River Falls and UW-Platteville also have Alpha Gamma Rho chapters dating to 1968 and 1972, respectively. Yes, my son, John, is an alumnus of the Platteville chapter and no, I was never a member while attending UW-Madison, although I remember talking about it at the time.
On occasion, one reads about a fraternity hazing issue at a college somewhere, and the subject often comes up among new students, but not among prospective Iota Chapter students because in 1992, the fraternity "completely outlawed hazing and pledging. A new member immediately has the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else in the chapter."
Back home and remembering
By now, the hundreds of people who attended the 100-year anniversary of the Iota chapter of Alpha Gamma Rho in Madison have returned home with a good feeling. Maybe most important, they met old friends, made some new friends, toured the UW Campus and, above all, remembered and relived their younger days studying, working, struggling, learning and growing to get where they are today.
Did membership in Iota chapter of AGR and its purpose to "make better men" work? I think they would say, "Yes."
John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him firstname.lastname@example.org.