The Camp Randall 100 honors a prestigious group of 100 people who shaped the first century of Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin Athletics will reveal a new honoree every day from May 24 until the Badgers’ 2017 opening game on Sept. 1 against Utah State.
“He was a generous, good-hearted man, who’d give you his right arm.”
— Ken Kruska, former president of
J.H. Findorff & Son, on Butch Strickler
BY MIKE LUCAS | UWBadgers.com Senior Writer
As a multi-sport high school athlete in New Glarus, Wisconsin, class of 1940, Palmer “Butch” Strickler could easily palm a basketball. It might best explain his vice-like grip, the bane of anyone who was unprepared for Strickler’s trademark handshake that left friends and strangers alike wincing and counting fingers.
“That’s the first thing I think about — shaking hands with Butch,” said one of his longtime pals, Ken Kruska, the retired president of J.H. Findorff & Son construction. “He was a big, strong man. But I challenged him every inch of the way (when they shook hands) and I would still say, ‘Ouch.’”
Strickler was a football walk-on and tendered non-roster freshman on the 1941 UW basketball team that won the school’s only NCAA title. He later transferred to Ripon College before entering the Army. During World War II, he took part in the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge.
After the war, he got married to Ruth, his soulmate, and returned to UW where he lettered in basketball. He then got involved in the family sausage business, Strickler’s Meats, which was started by his father, Eugene, who left Switzerland in the late 1800s and settled in New Glarus.
“Anytime anybody played for the university, people recognized you,” Butch Strickler told the Capital Times in 2000. “I didn’t broadcast that I was an athlete, but everyone knew that. Even before we opened a store in Madison, a lot of sports fans came to New Glarus to buy our meats.”
The business expanded to 13 meat markets in Wisconsin.
But the biggest boon to the Strickler brand was Butch’s Bologna Bash, a legendary fundraiser.
With a twinkle in his eyes, he said, “It was a celebration for everybody who loved the Badgers.”
It started out as a thank you to the fans. And it ended with a thank you to Butch.
“He was a generous, good-hearted man,” Kruska said, “who’d give you his right arm.”
“When you’re talking about Butch, it’s rare that you will find someone who has given so much of their life for the good of an athletic department. Butch was just impossible to say no to.”
— Terry Murawski, former executive director
of the National W Club, on Butch Strickler
Located in downtown Madison, 613 W. Main Street, Rhode’s Steak House was a treasured local landmark, a classic Wisconsin supper club and a time-honored meeting place for Badger coaches, boosters, fans and sports media for fifty years (1932-1982).
Butch’s Bologna Bash had its roots at Rhode’s.
It started as a small backroom gathering that included UW football coach John Jardine, who had just completed his first season in 1970. Butch Strickler brought some venison sausage to share with the boys and everybody washed it down with a beverage or two.
After a night of merriment, Jardine suggested to Strickler that he should pass a hat to see what they could raise. There’s still some debate on how much was collected. But it was somewhere between $40 and $50. “And I think John Jardine threw in $30,” Ken Kruska said.
For context, the UW athletic department was about $225,000 in debt back then.
“So, obviously, Elroy (“Crazylegs” Hirsch, the athletic director) was looking for supporters and any way to make money,” Strickler said. “But ’Legs got the right group — about four or five of us — and we really went to work for that guy. They didn’t go to work for me.”
Within a few years, the Bologna Bash had grown in popularity. Strickler began sending out invitations via penny postcards and a decision was made to move it to the National W Club at Camp Randall Stadium. A boys-only smoker opened its doors to women when the event moved into the UW Field House.
The next step was a raffle that turned the Bologna Bash into a major fundraiser for the athletic department, and it just kept growing and growing to where it attracted over 10,000 fans following the 1994 spring game, which came on the heels of Wisconsin’s first trip to the Rose Bowl in 31 years.
What does it take to feed 10,000 Badger fans? It started with about 4,000 pounds of sausage, bologna, brats and cold cuts. Now throw in 1,500 pounds of potato salad, 1,200 pounds of cheese and 450 loaves of bread. That doesn’t account for the baked beans. Plus, this group knew how to hydrate.
Butch’s Bologna Bash was a rite of spring. And it raised more than $3 million for the UW athletic department over three-plus decades. The final Bologna Bash was held in 2002 and the revenue went toward endowing an athletic scholarship in the name of Butch and Ruth Strickler.
Wisconsin folks are genetically programmed for events such as Butch’s, wrote Michael Bie, the author of “Classic Wisconsin Weekends” and a contributor to the Wisconsin State Journal. Our immigrant ancestors loved the populism of a good festival, and they were artists when it came to creating heavy food and drink, though it may be gastronomically incorrect today.
Combined with a winter season that generally runs about 10 months, what better way to greet the springtime than an orgy of sausage, suds and polka music?
The Bologna Bash had its share of detractors, mainly on Bascom Hill during the early ’80s when chancellor Irv Shain was constantly at odds with Hirsch, which spawned this memorable line from Strickler: “Did you ever see 80,000 people stand in line for a math quiz?”
In 1987, Hirsch was getting ready to retire and Strickler felt like maybe he should move aside, too, and bring down the curtain on the Bologna Bash. But the athletic department was confronting another financial crisis. And Strickler was not the type to turn his back on anybody.
“When you’re talking about Butch, it’s rare that you will find someone who has given so much of their life for the good of an athletic department,” said Terry Murawski, the former executive director of the National W Club. “Butch was just impossible to say no to.”
“We believed in the same things about giving an honest day’s work and everything will turn out. Here was a guy who worked just as hard as everybody else did and he expected everybody to work as hard as him. I’ll never forget what he told me the first time we met. He said, ‘Tim, don’t forget to say thanks — no matter what the circumstances are — always remember to say thank you.'”
— Tim Krumrie on Butch Strickler
Truth is, Crazylegs and Butch were more about friendraising than fundraising.
“There’s nothing elitist about the Badger spirit,” Murawski said prior to the final Bologna Bash. “And that’s Elroy. He has never been aloof. He loves being with the people. And Butch represents the people. Badger fans loved them both because they represent who and what they are.”
Strickler, in turn, was forever grateful to the volunteers, who came from all walks of life.
“Couldn’t have done it without them,” he said.
Strickler teared up at the mere thought of their contributions to the Bologna Bash.
“Anytime you brought up anything about the past or anything sentimental,” Kruska pointed out, “Butch and Elroy would get emotional and have tears running down their face.”
In 2008, Strickler was inducted into the UW Athletics Hall of Fame. Tom Wiesner, another prominent booster and former football player, was in the class along with Otto Breitenbach, Troy Vincent, Rick Olson, Craig Norwich, Sidney Williams, Megan Scott and Milo Lubratovich.
Strickler crunched many fingers with his handshake.
And he touched many lives through the force of his personality and generosity.
“He was like a stepfather to me — someone who understood me and my world,” said former UW nose guard Tim Krumrie, who recently was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. “We believed in the same things about giving an honest day’s work and everything will turn out.
“Here was a guy who worked just as hard as everybody else did and he expected everybody to work as hard as him. I’ll never forget what he told me the first time we met. He said, ‘Tim, don’t forget to say thanks — no matter what the circumstances are — always remember to say thank you.’”