While most of us have never heard of Carl Beck or William Purdy, we all have heard the stirring strains of “On Wisconsin”, the University of Wisconsin fight song.
After the Notre Dame University “Cheer, Cheer for Old Notre Dame” college song, perhaps “On Wisconsin” ranks next as the most familiar college football fight song.
Here at the end of football season fans should know that “On Wisconsin” was not composed by a Badger, but by two Hamilton College students some 94 years ago.
Aurora, New York native William Thomas Purdy prepared for college at Auburn High School and finished Hamilton in 1906.
In college Purdy was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon Fraternity(DKE), a member of Squares, the college organist, and the leader of the glee club.
After a brief stint with Bell Telephone Purdy devoted himself to a career in music in the Chicago area and provided programs for civic and social groups; he became well-known as a composer, orchestra leader, and musician.
Purdy died of tuberculosis in 1918 at age 35 leaving his wife and two children.
But back to the story of “On Wisconsin” and Purdy’s DKE Frathernity brother Carl Beck, a New Haven, Connecticut native who attended Hamilton College his freshman year only when Purdy was a senior. Beck later was a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
After graduating from Wisconsin Beck served as a civic secretary in Superior, Wisconsin and later became an executive at the People’s Institute at Cooper Union in New York. He was a founder of the High Standard Manufacturing Company in New Haven, a drillmaking firm. He died in 1964, age 79.
In any event while Purdy composed “On Wisconsin,” Beck is credited with providing the familiar lyrics.
In 1909 both the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin wanted to adopt a football fight song. Minnesota was offering a $100.00 prize for a new football song. Aware of this Beck, who was rooming with Purdy, heard the tune and suggested that he provide the words. Some discount Beck’s role, and simply say he collaborated with Purdy.
Purdy’s daughter maintained that Purdy gave Beck credit as the co-author because of his ties to the University of Wisconsin to enhance the chance that Wisconsin might adopt it.
In 1909 the new song spirited a pep rally prior to the Minnesota vs. Wisconsin game and was an instant success in Madison.
John Phillip Sousa acclaimed it the best college fight song, and over 200 schools and colleges have adopted the tune and substituted words to fit their locales and needs. Today the copyright is in the public domain.
The original 1909 version had four verses led off by the familiar “On Wisconsin! On Wisconsin! plunge right through that line, Run the ball clear down the field, A touchdown sure this time.” In 1913 and 1951 Beck supposedly revised the words to contain a more general meaning.
An account in the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1959 reported that “On Wisconsin” went to the Mexican border in 1916 with the Wisconsin National Guard and to American training camps in England and France in 1917 where it was very popular with military bands.
In June 1959 it became the official Wisconsin state song when Governor Gaylord Nelson signed the bill.
So, the next time “On Wisconsin” is played at a football game or on television, remember the Clinton and Hamilton College connections of the two Easterners who attended the College and are attributed to be its co-authors.
While their names are now obscure, their song lives on each fall at fields and stadiums across the land.
Information in this article is as correct and factually accurate as possible. If you notice a fact that you believe is incorrect, please let us know. Comments are always welcome.