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Last updated: Saturday, 14-Mar-2009 19:11:01 Central Daylight Time

Folklorist, Historian, University President
Walker D. Wyman Dies At Age 91

March 30, 1999


Walker D. Wyman, a history professor and university president whose prolific writings on the fact, lore and myths of ranchers, lumberjacks, Native Americans and animals of the Upper Midwest earned him the title of "Wisconsin's Honorary Folklorist," died in Green Valley, Ariz., on Monday, March 29.

At the time of his death, Wyman had recently published his 23rd book, "Great Legends and Stories of Mid-America." He was a contributing author to many other books, in addition to publishing scores of scholarly works and publications. An avid diarist, Wyman had written over 100 personal journals, which he donated to the State Historical Society archives.

His 1979 book, "Wisconsin Folklore," became one of his most popular and rewarding works. It originated from a UW-Extension radio course that was published weekly in more than 10 Wisconsin dailies and 50 weekly newspapers. It contributed in part to Wisconsin Gov. Lee Dreyfus that year naming Wyman as Wisconsin's first "Honorary Folklorist."

For 41 years, Wyman was a professor of history at UW-River Falls, joining the faculty in 1932 and retiring in 1978 to emeriti status. From 1962-67 he left UW-RF to serve as president of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater during a period of extensive growth to accommodate a generation of "baby boomers" seeking a university education.

UW-RF Chancellor Gary A. Thibodeau said Wyman's loss will be deeply felt by the University community and the professor's thousands of former students.

"He is a person who will not be replaced. There is a great reservoir of love, and affection, and respect for Walker Wyman on this campus."

Thibodeau, himself an accomplished textbook author, said that he had written to Wyman to note that his many works can be found in the bookshelves and on the coffee table in the chancellor's office. He added that "even more impressive are the influences you have had on your students."

Thibodeau added, "Walker Wyman's presence on campus is almost tangible in terms of his interaction with students. He is unique to the academy: he truly loved the life of the mind. He was absolutely bonded with this campus. This campus community has long admired Walker Wyman and he will always be fondly remembered by all on campus.

"He was truly a remarkable man."

UW-RF University Press president and journalism department Chair Mike Norman equally marveled at Wyman's accomplishments through a writing and teaching career that spanned more than six decades.

"He's done enough for two or three lifetimes," Norman said. "He was one of the outstanding historians and folklorists in Wisconsin."

Wyman founded the University Press and was a prolific contributor, both in his publications and in generously donating his royalties to maintain the press. Norman noted that Wyman remained a tireless author well into his retirement, regularly at work in his campus office writing or editing.

"What Walker was expert on was finding the interesting stories to tell of real people," Norman said. "Some historians would write about larger issues, like the Normandy Invasion or World War II, but he was one of those historians who believed history was best told through the small story, the common person."

"He was interested in everything. And he was a great listener."

"The sun never set on Walker Wyman. He will be sorely missed," Norman said.

Wyman said in interviews following publication of several of his books that his interest in individual histories was sparked while pursuing his master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Iowa in the early 1930s. He explored the diaries of migrants during the California Gold Rush of 1849-50. "I was hooked," he explained. His research became the basis for his third book, "California Emigrant Letters," published in 1945 by Bookman.

Wyman's story of a late 19th century South Dakota rancher in "Frontier Woman" (1972) remains the most popular book of the UW-RF University Press. It still receives thousands of requests each year.

"The Lumberjack Frontier" (1968, University of Nebraska Press), is his most widely recognized for its historical and social contribution. It was selected by the English-Speaking Union for its Ambassador Book List for interpreting "the lives, backgrounds, regions and culture of America to the people of other countries."

"Choice Magazine" named the book to its "Outstanding Academic Book List" and it became the basis for the musical television production of "Daylight in the Swamp."

Born on a farm in Danville, Ill., on Dec. 7, 1907, Wyman often marveled at the tenacity of the common men and women who made America, whether as a rancher, lumberjack or as a farmer eking out a living on a "hard scrabble farm." As long-suffering and persistent as they were, hardened by years of battling the elements, they were given to delightful myths and a subtle sense of humor.

It led Wyman to chronicle their realm of lore and myths in nine books, whose topics ranged from witching for water and precious minerals, to bear and wolf stories, to hunting and fishing legends, to the origins and stories of mythological creatures. One such example is the "Hodag," a fire-breathing monster with the body and head of an ox, pointed spines, and alligator's tail reputed to roam the deep woods north of Rhinelander.

Wyman once told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel of his interest in cultural traditions, legends and myths. "Folklore is a branch of social history. History is man's experience, I guess, and if you know history, you have the benefit of many men's experience."

He added in another interview that the work of a folklorist often ventured outside the rigor of the traditional historian: "There's no effort made to check authenticity." The job of the folklorist, he was quoted as saying, is only to record stories that exist in the oral tradition.

As an administrator, Wyman led UW-Whitewater through five years of significant expansion.

"When I came to Whitewater in '62, I had talked privately with enough of the regents that I knew what they wanted of me," Wyman said. "They said, 'We want you to open the doors at Whitewater.' "

During his tenure, UW-Whitewater expanded by 5,500 students, to 8,500, some 20 buildings were started or completed, and he preserved the campuses' historic one-room "little red school house" that joined a log cabin built in 1847 that was moved to the campus in 1907. His greatest accomplishment there, he later said, was construction of the campus mall, which was later dedicated to him.

Honors were piled upon Wyman for his many contributions to Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest. He received an honorary doctorate of laws from Illinois State University; an Award of Merit from the Western History Association for his distinguished contributions to the cause of western history; an Outstanding Educator award from the Wisconsin Association of School Administrators; and Distinguished Professor of History at UW-RF.

At UW-River Falls, he and his wife Helen, who illustrated many of his books, were celebrated by the Student Senate by the naming of the University annual fine arts performance series in their honor.

A memorial service will be scheduled for at future date in River Falls.


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