Wisconsin Union president Sarah Bergman has only touched the Union gavel twice.
The first time was a year ago on the day she assumed her leadership role in the Wisconsin Union Council and Wisconsin Union Directorate, taking her place within a tradition of student-led governance that dates back nearly a century.
The second time was Thursday, April 30 as she handed the gavel over to her successor, incoming Union president Jack Comeau, in Memorial Union’s Tripp Commons.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” says Bergman, a 22-year-old senior. “It’s rare that you get to be a part of a tradition that’s 100 years old.”
The ceremony and the gavel itself are relics little known outside of Union leadership circles. But the institution they symbolize is the heart and soul of UW-Madison: the Wisconsin Union.
In a farewell speech before dozens of university officials and Union devotees, Bergman recalled how she initially struggled to find her niche in Madison and how the Union community helped foster a sense of “home” for the Philadelphia native.
“This place has been more special than I could ever say,” she says.
She passed the gavel on to Comeau along with a floating lounge chair — the first item a symbol of his responsibility to lead the Union, and the second a reminder to take time to enjoy life on Lake Mendota.
Calling his involvement with WUD the “defining experience of his college career,” Comeau told the audience his goals for the coming year — goals that reach beyond providing university-wide programming and events.
“I think the Wisconsin Union Directorate is about a union — and I don’t mean Union South or Memorial Union,” he says. “We’re here as a union for the function of unity.”
The Wisconsin Union was formed in 1907 to extend the college community outside of the classroom. In 1928 the Memorial Union opened. Its first director, Porter Butts, is considered the grandfather of the “college union idea” — fostering the university’s academic mission through co-curricular relationships and experiences.
“The Union is the community center of the college, for all the members of the college family — students, faculty, administration, alumni and guests,” Butts wrote in a statement adopted by the Association of College Unions in 1956. “It is not just a building: it is also an organization and a program. Together they represent a well-considered plan for the community life of the college.”
Butts received the gavel in the mid-1950s as a gift from Charlie Peterson, an international billiards champion who visited campus to expand interest in an intercollegiate billiards program, says Ted Crabb, who succeeded Butts and served as Union director from 1968 to 2001.
Made out of vintage ivory from old billiard balls, the gavel doesn’t actually get used — it’s stored during the year for protection and brought out at the time of “changeover” to a new group of student leaders.
“It’s a symbol of transfer,” Crabb says.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the passage ceremony occurs behind the scenes — after all, much of the work done by Union leadership is not obvious to the thousands who flock to the Terrace or attend WUD-sponsored events and programming each year.
But behind the Union Council and the 11 Wisconsin Union Directorate committees is a team working to produce publications, to showcase art, music and film and to satisfy curiosities about society and politics.
“It’s a really special thing,” Comeau says. “It makes a campus of 40,000 feel like home.”
Wisconsin Memorial Union
Directors: Porter Butts, 1926-1968; Ted Crabb, 1968-2001; Mark Guthier, 2001-present
Wisconsin Union Council: 15 voting members (nine students and six non-student members representing students, faculty, alumni and staff).
Number of Wisconsin Union Directorate committees: 11