It turns out UW-Eau Claire isn’t the only one celebrating 100 years of excellence this year.
Jeanette (Lacktorin) Parizino — a 1940 graduate from what was then Eau Claire State — is hitting the centennial milestone right along with her alma mater.
“It sounds ridiculous,” the UW-Eau Claire alumna says with a laugh as she talks about her May 28 birthday, which will include a celebration with 100 family members and friends. “I’m going to be 100 years old … I can’t believe it.”
The soon-to-be centenarian, an energetic retired elementary education teacher who lives (independently) in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, will return to UW-Eau Claire May 20 for spring commencement, UW-Eau Claire’s last official event celebrating its centennial.
It has been 77 years since Jeanette’s own graduation ceremony, but she still remembers how proud she felt standing on the Schofield Auditorium stage, with her parents looking on, as she received her degree in elementary education.
Since then, UW-Eau Claire has grown from a small college that educates a few hundred teachers into a large comprehensive university that prepares thousands of students for many careers.
In 1940, when Jeanette was finishing college, the campus had just one building, Schofield Hall, and a football field.
Today, more than 25 university buildings sit on 330+ acres on upper and lower campus and both sides of the Chippewa River. New partnerships in the Eau Claire community mean the campus will continue to grow in new ways.
When talking about UW-Eau Claire’s centennial, Chancellor James Schmidt often says that while the university has changed in extraordinary ways, the one constant throughout its 100-year history is its commitment to providing students from all social and economic backgrounds an exceptional education.
That century-long commitment to all students is why, despite the many physical changes, Jeanette still feels a strong connection to her university. UW-Eau Claire is a place she says helped her create a new life for herself, a life she always knew she wanted.
Jeanette grew up on a dairy farm near Glenwood City in western Wisconsin, part of a large family that worked hard, but had no electricity and little money. By the time she reached junior high, she knew she wanted to leave farming behind and instead be a teacher.
She also knew that meant she would go to college, something no one in her family had ever done.
“I knew what I was going to do, but I also knew it was going to take some planning,” Jeanette says. “It was going to be difficult because I had to pay my own way. But it was just something that had to be done.”
As soon as she finished high school, Jeanette found a summer job taking care of children in Minneapolis.
By the fall, she had saved $25 — a lot of money at the time — to pay her first semester’s tuition at Eau Claire State.
She packed the three dresses she owned and moved to Eau Claire, where she lived with relatives in a small house.
“It was far from campus and I didn’t know my way around,” Jeanette says. “The first day, I tried to walk to school but got lost. I was late to my very first college class. Luckily, my teacher understood and told me tomorrow would be a better day.”
Tomorrow was a better day and Jeanette quickly settled into her new life as a college student.
She soon moved into the upper part of a house on Niagara Street with friends.
The apartment itself was lacking, but her roommates, some of whom became lifelong friends, were what mattered, she says.
They studied often but also went to the college’s basketball and football games, dances and other social events, filling their days with what she calls “silly things” that were great fun.
To pay for her tuition and rent, Jeanette juggled part-time jobs, doing everything from cleaning and babysitting for her professors to working as a carhop at a local restaurant.
She also received assistance from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, a kind of student loan that paid students to do jobs on and off campus, such as correcting papers at the nearby Third Ward School, where she eventually did her practice teaching.
One year she got lucky and won $25 — a semester’s tuition — in an American Legion lottery.
“I skipped the assembly that day to study, but all my friends were excited afterward to tell me I had won,” Jeanette says. “That money really helped me get by.”
While her friends were important, so, too, were her professors, some of whom also became mentors and friends.
One of those teachers was Laura Sutherland, a popular and respected history professor who later became dean of women at the college.
“She was a wonderful person and became a good friend,” Jeanette says of Sutherland, who now has a residence hall named in her honor.
Jeanette smiles as she tells the story of Sutherland asking if she had seen “Gone with the Wind,” new in the theaters in 1939. Jeanette said she didn’t have money for a ticket so Sutherland gave her 50 cents and told her to go to the movie instead of class.
One of her proudest moments on graduation day, she says, was introducing Sutherland to her parents.
Music teacher Clara May Ward also changed Jeanette’s world by surprising her with an invitation to sing in the college’s A Cappella Choir.
The choir toured extensively, taking Jeanette many new places, including to Chicago for the first time and to Washington, D.C., where she performed at the White House for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
“Chicago was the biggest city I’d ever been to at the time,” Jeanette says, remembering the fun they had on the long bus rides. “We traveled all the time. I remember singing at the World Fair in New York and going to Niagara Falls for a concert. I started my first year, and always was glad that I did. I met wonderful people and made great friends.”
All of these experiences, in and out of the classroom, prepared her well for all that came after graduation.
Few jobs were available when she graduated in 1940, so it was August before she learned of an opening in Oregon, near Madison. Eager for an interview, she took an overnight train to Madison, and later signed her first teaching contract in the depot.
A few months later, she accepted a new job, this time in Port Washington; eventually, she moved to Minneapolis, where she continued teaching.
In the early years of Jeanette’s career, there were many rules for teachers, including a requirement that teachers be single and childless.
“I’d already decided that my goal was to teach for four years, and I wouldn’t let anything interrupt that goal,” Jeanette says.
She exceeded her goal, teaching for six years before she married and started a family. She later returned to the classroom, and was a substitute teacher for many years.
As a child, Kate (Kling) Campbell loved hearing her grandmother tell stories of growing up on the family farm, as well as how UW-Eau Claire helped her leave the farm behind to follow her own path.
Her grandmother’s stories were so inspiring that when it came time for her own college search, UW-Eau Claire was at the top of her list, Kate says.
“I remember my grandma talking about UWEC and how much it meant to her to attend college and get her degree, something no one else in her family had done,” says Kate, who earned a degree in English literature in 2001. “I definitely looked at UWEC because I knew my grandma had attended, and I instantly fell in love with the campus.”
When Kate was a freshman, her grandmother came to visit, her first time on campus in decades.
Initially, she was disappointed that nothing looked familiar, not realizing that Kate lived on upper campus, an area that wasn’t part of the college when Jeanette was a student.
“Then we took a drive through lower campus, and her face lit up when she saw Schofield Hall,” says Kate. “She got so excited. She told me all of her classes were in that one building and there were no other buildings around.”
Jeanette remembers that visit well.
“I think I screamed,” Jeanette says. “There were so many memories. The campus is so pretty and different, but it still felt easy for me to be there.”
With spring commencement coming soon, what advice would Jeanette give to UW-Eau Claire’s newest alumni?
“Set goals and stick to them,” Jeanette says. “Work hard. Learn to go without.”
Most importantly, she says, appreciate the many opportunities that come with a UW-Eau Claire degree.
“Whatever sacrifices you made to earn your degree, the rewards are worth it,” Jeanette says.
For her, those rewards include having a job she loved, and getting to know her young students and families who have enriched her life, Jeanette says, noting that some of her former students will be among the guests at her upcoming birthday celebration.
The rewards also included having the financial means to support her loved ones in ways that made their lives a little easier, she says.
Years ago, she paid for electricity at the farm, a first for her family, and she was able to help her children and grandchildren pay for their own college education.
“I’ve always tried to pass it on to the next generation,” Jeanette says of her passion for higher education.
Top photo caption: Jeanette (Lacktorin) Parizino — a 1940 graduate from what was then Eau Claire State — is hitting the centennial milestone right along with her alma mater. She will celebrate her 100th birthday on May 28.