A degree of fame for each
Arnold Schwarzenegger was unlike any other big man on campus when he roamed the University of Wisconsin-Superior halls here on the western tip of the Great Lakes 24 years ago.
An ambitious, six-time Mr. Olympia bodybuilder with grapefruit-sized biceps, Schwarzenegger arrived at age 31 determined to win the one title that had eluded him for nearly a decade: college graduate.
“The career he was aiming for needed some kind of credibility,” said Rhea S. Das, a Wisconsin-Superior psychology professor who was largely responsible for recruiting Schwarzenegger. “He realized the lack of a degree would be a hole in the fabric.”
Today, as Schwarzenegger campaigns to become California’s governor, that bachelor’s in international business and international economics, obtained mostly through correspondence classes, has provided more heft to a resume weighted heavily toward big-bang action movies. No matter that the college is largely unknown outside the forested region and is smaller than Santa Monica High, the sheepskin has given Schwarzenegger’s supporters the ability to say he has brawn and brains.
At the same time, it has brought a touch of celebrity to the campus itself, where college administrators stretched some entrance rules and used their famous muscle man to entice students and raise the campus’ profile.
“If you are talking about English 101, Sociology 101 or Chemistry 101, who is going to care?” said Das, now retired and living in Florida. “We thought Arnold would be an attraction.”
The school first came to Schwarzenegger’s attention when Das, at the urging of her children, invited him to campus as a guest lecturer. They were fans of Schwarzenegger’s since seeing him in the 1977 documentary “Pumping Iron” and after reading his autobiography, “Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder.”
But Schwarzenegger also wanted a degree. He was within striking distance because of a hodgepodge of college credits accumulated in the early 1970s, mostly at Santa Monica College and in UCLA’s extension program.
After Schwarzenegger accepted a position as “cooperating faculty member,” administrators could then waive residency requirements so he could participate in the university’s fledgling “extended degree” program while specializing in fitness marketing and business administration. He paid in-state tuition fees, even though he was largely completing classwork from Los Angeles, Das said.
Schwarzenegger received some credits for his “life experience” as a fitness expert. He failed, however, to convince the school’s communications arts department to give him credits in acting for his pre-blockbuster film career, which included the B-movie “Hercules in New York,” in which his accented voice was dubbed. But it did grant him credits for film production.
Schwarzenegger would periodically fly in from Los Angeles to meet with professors and take exams. One time, he created havoc when he plunged shirtless into the university pool for a swimming test.
“All the kids wanted to get in the pool and watch him,” recalled Lydia Thering, retired head of the school’s physical education department. “We had to lock the door. The kids were banging on the door.”
Schwarzenegger’s workshops, conducted as part of his faculty job, also drew crowds. At least one -- a motivational lecture -- was held in a de-iced rink with some 500 people packing the stands.
When Schwarzenegger was around campus, word spread fast.
Debbie Erickson, a computer programmer living in Whittier and an undergraduate then, said “Find Arnold” became an on-campus game.
“You’d hear Arnold was on campus that day, but it was like Bigfoot,” Erickson said. “Nobody I know actually saw him. A couple of us girls who drooled over him would go to the last place Arnold was spotted.”
Schwarzenegger was such a celebrity that students were invited to a special luncheon with him in October 1979. James Hannula, now a U.S. Agriculture Department official in Osseo, Wis., recalled listening in awe to Schwarzenegger describe his physique.
“The jacket he wore was a size 60,” Hannula said. “I was lucky to get into a 40.”
Warming up to Wisconsin
Still, it took Schwarzenegger time to warm to the snowy campus. At 2,800 students, University of Wisconsin-Superior is less than 10% the size of the University of Wisconsin’s main campus in Madison. Across the street from the college’s entrance is a store selling archery supplies and fishing bait.
With black and gold school colors, the university whose teams are known as the Yellowjackets boasts an anthem that urges students to “come on and fight, fight, fight for Superior.” Later this month, its women’s volleyball team hosts the “Stinger Classic” tournament.
In 1979, the campus was “a hotbed of apathy,” according to the Promethean student newspaper. Among the more popular events then were “Sno-Week” and the annual smelt fry.
Raymond Payne, who chauffeured Schwarzenegger around the town and served as his guide, recalled that the actor accepted an invitation to meet members of the city police force and often drew curious onlookers whenever he dined in public. Schwarzenegger declined an arm-wrestling challenge from a local tough, he recalled.
But in an interview with the student paper just before completing his coursework, Schwarzenegger said: “The people talk to you here. They are not spoiled like they are in bigger cities such as Los Angeles or New York.”
Schwarzenegger finished his remaining degree requirements in less than a year, earning the bachelor’s in November 1979 that was formally awarded to him at a May 1980 commencement.
In 1993, after becoming one of Hollywood’s top box-office stars, Schwarzenegger was considered for the school’s first honorary doctorate. He lost to noted Native American artist Fritz Scholder, who also attended the university briefly.
“It was me and Arnold, and I won,” Scholder said. “That kind of made me smile. But he’s the most famous student. I don’t mind being second.”
The actor did return to his alma mater in 1996. That year he finally received the honorary doctorate for his work with Special Olympics and the Inner City Games.
Tickets were required to a graduation ceremony for the first time because of the huge demand. A severe thunderstorm nearly scuttled his visit, but Schwarzenegger arrived in time by car to a boisterous ovation after his plane was diverted to a Minnesota airport 120 miles away.
“How do I look as a doctor, huh?” he asked the cheering crowd.
In thanking the various faculty members who had backed him in his pursuit of a degree, he also cited his wife, television journalist Maria Shriver, who was sitting in the audience. “If I wouldn’t have mentioned her, no sex for a week, you know,” he told students.
True to his school
Schwarzenegger continues his ties to the university, which is now using him to help push for a new $15-million health and fitness center. University officials said the actor put them in touch with equipment maker Cybex, which is helping to design the facility. Schwarzenegger also lobbied Wisconsin lawmakers to prevent them from cutting funds for the project, officials said.
Looking back, retired physical education teacher Thering said Schwarzenegger’s brash confidence was apparent even as a student. She said she once held a dinner at her home for Schwarzenegger and members of the college faculty, where she teased him about his mouthful of a last name.
“I said, ‘Arnold, you’re going to have to change that name.’ He said, ‘No way. Everybody’s going to know that name in a few years.’ ”
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