Leslie Crocker’s idea for a book started in the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s archives.
It was there that the 71-year-old retired art history professor came across photographs that would supply imagery for a two-volume visual history of the university.
On Oct. 1, Crocker will present the first volume, “We’ve Hung the Lantern: A Visual History of the First 50 Years of UW-La Crosse.” The book includes about 260 photos, including interior and exterior photos of campus buildings, Crocker said. But the UW-L veteran professor goes beyond bricks and mortar, starting with the university’s beginnings as a school for future educators.
“I was kind of fascinated by this whole idea of a school to produce teachers,” Crocker said. “The faculty had it. The students had it. They were on a mission to educate the people of Wisconsin.”
The mixture of architectural styles on campus tells a story, Crocker said. During his 32-year career with the university, Crocker often delved into local architecture with his art history students, he said.
His upcoming book will chronicle the university’s beginnings in 1909, the same year UW-L’s oldest building, Graff Main Hall, opened.
“We’ve Hung the Lantern” will be just the second book about the university’s early days, offering a valuable new perspective on the local campus, UW-L Chancellor Joe Gow said.
“These buildings don’t remain the same,” Gow said. “It’s nice to remember how they once were.”
Graff was designed using a variety of revivalist elements, while Wittich and Morris halls were built with an English renaissance design. The university’s first dorms adopted the first “internationally modern” architectural techniques, Crocker said.
“There is an order to it,” Crocker said.
The blend of styles on campus shows a physical evolution, but it also highlights something that hasn’t changed: the “curious” relationship between students, faculty and administration, Crocker said.
“Like any institution, it has changed over time,” Crocker said. “As it responds to the changes of the public.”
Crocker’s book also includes photos of the people who shaped the university. In one picture, a young man sits on a couple of suitcases in front of Graff Main. Crocker guesses the photo was taken between 1909 and 1912, but like many, it didn’t have a date or a name.
“I guess his parents had dropped him off, and he’s sitting there waiting to go into the building,” Crocker said. “It was a photo that told a story, about a time and a place.”
Crocker’s idea for the book started with architecture, but he mixed in photos of “all the various things that make up a university,” he said.
Pictures of students, professors and athletes all contribute to a tale of the region’s history as a melting pot for European immigrants, and a piece of Americana that any college student — current or former — will find relatable, Crocker said.