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Robert Southard Display

A set of photo panels in the lobby near the entrance to The Dulany Inn, Davies Center 122, pays tribute to Robert R. Southard, the student body president who presided over the groundbreaking ceremony for the original Davies Center in November 1957.

Robert Southard, Student Body President

Bob Southard was born May 13, 1934, in Marshfield, Wisconsin, the second of five sons of Willard and Eva Southard. He grew up in Rice Lake, and after graduating from high school in 1952 he began classes at what was then called Wisconsin State College at Eau Claire.

In June 1954, the summer after his sophomore year, Bob Southard was injured while swimming with college friends at Big Falls. Firm-packed sand refused to give when he made a running surface dive, and Southard’s fourth cervical vertebra jammed against the fifth, crimping his spinal cord.

“I opened my eyes,” Bob Southard recalled. “From my neck down there was numbness.
I was unable to move.”

The accident left Southard a quadriplegic, with limited bicep movement in both arms.
He spent the next two years hospitalized, first in Chippewa Falls and then at the University Hospitals in Madison. After many months he was transferred to the Wisconsin Neurological Foundation for a long period of intensive treatment. Even at that early stage, Southard showed his concern with the problems of others by tutoring a young boy who was also hospitalized. Southard also became interested in writing his autobiography, hoping that it would encourage others whose lives were permanently changed by disability.

Fitted with orthotic devices and trained in self-care, Southard painfully exercised his way into a wheelchair. He and his twin brother Jim designed a shoulder harness and attachments for his wrists that allowed him to write, use a knife and fork, and dial a telephone. He taught himself to operate an electric typewriter with a pencil, typing at a rate of 45 words per minute.

Twenty-seven months after his accident, in the fall of 1956, Bob Southard returned to
Eau Claire as a full-time student. He was the first student to attend the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in a wheelchair.

“You would not believe the accommodations this college made for my brother,”
Don Southard said more than 50 years later.

Bob Southard lived with President William R. Davies and his wife Delpha, in a lower-level apartment in their home on the edge of the campus. Southard’s brothers and friends carried his wheelchair up and down the stairs of the Old Main Building (now Schofield Hall), which had no elevator. The administration rearranged the schedule so most of Southard’s classes met on ground level, in the barracks buildings in front of Old Main.

Southard was elected to the student government in the fall of 1956, and the following spring he was elected President of the Student Body. In November 1957, Southard was master of ceremonies at the groundbreaking ceremony for the campus’ first college center, later named Davies Center in honor of W.R. Davies, the college’s second president.

Due to his remarkable memory Southard made the Dean’s List despite being unable to take notes in class. Elected to Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities in 1958, he graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in economics.

“Robert Southard is one of the most remarkable graduates of Wisconsin State College at Eau Claire,” wrote President Leonard Haas, W.R. Davies’ successor. “Because of his splendid outlook and congenial nature, friends and fellow students were quick to come to his aid in his physical needs. They were amply compensated by the experience of life with such fortitude. … The great traits of individual initiative, the desire to be independent, the will for life and the desire to be of service are represented in this one person in a degree that heretofore has not been measured in this college community.”

"I always was of the opinion that I should be in some business for myself,” Bob Southard said. “Then my time would be my own and I would not have to be obligated to anyone.”

In 1958 he founded Southard Insurance Agency — a business that has made affordable health insurance available to UW-Eau Claire students for more than 50 years. Southard also became increasingly active in helping others with disabilities.

“To me, life has become more precious and worthwhile than it was before my accident,” Southard said, “for I believe I can help more people spiritually and inspirationally than I ever could before I was injured.”

In 1959 Southard was a founder of the Shelter for the Handicapped, Inc., today called L.E. Phillips Career Development Center. It was the first of three sheltered workshops he helped establish to evaluate, train and employ people with disabilities — placing them in local businesses and industries, or providing continuing employment for those who were unable to compete in the labor market.

Southard was elected the organization’s second board president and served as its executive director. He spoke throughout the state and worked for legislation that would provide some measure of federal and state assistance to nonprofit projects like the shelter. He became a personable, persuasive and persistent force in securing disability rights at a time when no state or federal legislation supported them.

Named Wisconsin’s Handicapped Person of 1960 by the Governor’s Committee on the Employment of the Physically Handicapped, Southard received a citation from President John F. Kennedy for his efforts on behalf of others.

“A person is not handicapped by his physical disability. He is impaired by his own state of mind,” Southard said as he received the award from Lieutenant Governor Warren P. Knowles. “If he does not accept himself as he is, if the community in which he lives does not accept him, if employers will not accept him, then he is truly handicapped.” Southard paid tribute to “my rehabilitation team” — his family, his doctors, and Wisconsin’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program.

In 1962, Bob Southard founded a diversified recreation program for developmentally disabled adults called Par-Te-Rec. Swimming, bowling, cards, checkers, ping pong, bumper pool and shuffleboard were among the many activities that became available to Par-Te-Rec participants through the program, which is now incorporated into the Eau Claire Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department.

In 1963 he accepted the gavel of president of the Eau Claire County Day Care program, a joint effort with the state department of welfare that provided training, work opportunities and activity programs for people with mental disabilities. Southard also served on the legislative committee of the Wisconsin Rehabilitation Association.

Named Eau Claire Man of the Year by the Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1964, Southard earned a listing in the 1965 edition of the Jaycees’ Outstanding Men of America.

At the time of his death January 3, 1965, from a respiratory infection following minor surgery, Southard was planning a sheltered workshop for Marshfield, where his brother Jim lived. Bob Southard was 30 years old.

“When fathers tell their sons about courage they should not forget the story of the life of Robert Southard,” wrote the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. “His hope was that Wisconsin should have many shelters to provide places for handicapped persons to bridge the gap between unemployment and a gainful job in regular business and industry. Failing that he sought for them at least a place to work on worthwhile projects with others also seeking dignity. Bob Southard believed in the hard sell when it came to helping the handicapped find a productive place in society. All he asked was that they get a chance to show what they can do instead of being asked to describe what they can’t.”

The Robert R. Southard Memorial Fund was established with the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Foundation, Inc., as a memorial to one of Eau Claire’s most distinguished graduates — a man who devoted his entire adult life to helping others. 

In creating the Bob Southard display panels, graphic designer and photographer Amanda Obenhoffer selected and edited images from the Special Collections and Archives area of McIntyre Library and the photo archives of the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. Obenhoffer received a bachelor of fine arts degree in photography from UW-Eau Claire in 2006, and a BFA in graphic design in 2010. She joined the University Centers staff in 2009.

An adjustable height e-mail workstation is in this lounge for those in wheelchairs. A second workstation is located in the Blugold Living Room, Davies Center 201.