The Witter and Mead families have been connected to the State of Wisconsin and to the University of Wisconsin since before the notes of “On, Wisconsin” were ever heard. For more than a century, the university’s expansion and achievements have played like an accompaniment to the accomplishments of the industrialist family that developed the coated-paper industry in the state and the nation. This fall, their 64-year-old Mead Witter Foundation commemorated that long and mellifluous history with a $25 million legacy gift to the University of Wisconsin.
The gift will provide major funding for the UW-Madison School of Music’s new performance building, sited at the corner of University Avenue and Lake Street and scheduled to begin construction in late 2016. In appreciation of the gift, UW-Madison will name its music school the Mead Witter School of Music, and the large concert hall within the performance building will be known as the Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall.
“Though none of our family studied music at the UW, a fondness for music unites us,” says George W. Mead II, chairman of the foundation. “Everyone needs music. It is an inspiration point for all areas of creativity and learning. This is a way to recognize the connection we’ve enjoyed with the UW and to project that connection into the future.”
“Until the Mead Witter Foundation provided incentive to build the entire music performance center at once, the center was to have been built in phases,” UW–Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank explains. “We are deeply grateful to the foundation for its generosity that will provide our music program with a superb concert space.”
“Chancellor Blank enthusiastically and effectively took the lead in procuring the final pieces of funding to complete the now much larger $55.8 million project, complementing the gifts of the two major donors,” Mead says. The music performance center had its beginnings in 2007 when the Hamel family of California pledged $15 million toward Phase I of the project, and in 2014, the UW announced it would name the new building the Hamel Music Center.
“The University of Wisconsin System, particularly the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has touched the lives of dozens of Mead and Witter family members through their studies at the UW. The UW impact has also affected probably thousands of our employees and their children who have attended the UW since Consolidated Water Power Company began in 1894,” Mead says. In addition to chairing the Mead Witter Foundation, he was the fourth-generation leader of the corporation that his great-grandfather J.D. Witter began and his grandfather George W. Mead I built to be a world leader in coated papermaking.
Witter came to Wisconsin in 1850. He amassed his fortune from banking, timber, manufacturing and hydropower on the Wisconsin River. Having the highest regard for education, he sent his two children, Isaac and Ruth, to the University of Wisconsin. They were the first generation in the family to receive a college education, and it was at the UW that Isaac met George W. Mead I, who graduated in 1894.
Several years later Isaac introduced George to his sister, Ruth. Ruth and George eventually married, and when her father died unexpectedly in 1902, George took over the waterpower and papermaking enterprise.
“My grandfather George had the greatest connection to the UW. He served as a University of Wisconsin regent from 1928 to 1939, and in 1950 the university awarded him an honorary doctorate. Our legacy gift is in honor and commemoration of the Mead and Witter ancestors whose hard work, along with the hard work of our tens of thousands of employees over the last century and a half, generated the prosperity that allowed for this gift,” Mead emphasized.
“The ability to construct the entire music center at once is an incredible gift to our students,” says Susan Cook, director of the School of Music. “These are spaces where our undergraduates will perform their capstone projects; where our graduate students will do their final doctoral recitals; where our large student ensembles will perform; and where we will hold chamber recitals, lecture recitals and public events. It will be a magnet for faculty, students and the public for generations.”
The University of Wisconsin was chosen for the gift, Mead says, because it would have the greatest impact for the greatest number of Wisconsinites.
“The Mead Witter Foundation attempts to find projects which enhance the well being of the people of Wisconsin. We have invested heavily in higher education, both through student scholarships and institutional support. We also have a history of helping libraries. Many environmental projects, ranging from the 30,000-acre, state-owned Mead Wildlife Area to the reintroduction of the whooping crane, have received assistance,” Mead says.
At the UW, the Mead Witter Foundation also supports scholarships and professorships in engineering. The foundation was a contributor to the recent Chazen Museum of Art addition, as well. Organized in 1951 as the Consolidated Civic Foundation, the foundation, based in Wisconsin Rapids, has provided more than $67 million in support to colleges, universities, civic organizations and other charitable organizations.
The new performance facility is designed by Holzman Moss Bottino Architecture of New York, in partnership with Strang Architects of Madison. Acoustic design is by Richard Talaske/Sound Thinking of Oak Park, Illinois, and theatrical design is by Fisher Dachs Associates of New York. The center will open in 2018.