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Gruenhagen: the Man

Writen by: Sarah Smith, UW Oshkosh Intern

Richard Elmer Gruenhagen (Green-hay-gen) once said that art is the creation of excellence, “of something beautiful, something useful, something inspirational.” Today, Gruenhagen’s artistic talents as a woodworker and teacher continue to inspire the campus community. As a namesake, he reminds all who enter Gruenhagen Conference Center that educational enterprises make a difference to individuals and communities.

He was born in the tiny community Orihula, northwest of Oshkosh, on September 22, 1880, to Frank and Pauline Gruenhagen. His father, a fine craftsman and mechanic, built the family’s boats, a tradition that Gruenhagen would continue as an adult. In 1895, his parents sold their general store in Orihula and moved to Oshkosh.  Gruenhagen graduated from Oshkosh High School, and took industrial education courses at the University of Wisconsin. He received his bachelor’s degree in education from Oshkosh State Teachers College in 1930.

In 1906, Richard Gruenhagen married Carice Hamilton who was a member of his graduating class at Oshkosh High School. Carice, like her husband, enjoyed fishing, hunting, and sailing. With the birth of their son Hamilton (Richard Hamilton Gruenhagen) in 1915, the Gruenhagens were able to hand down many well-loved pastimes.

Gruenhagen’s position as an Industrial Arts instructor at Oshkosh Normal, later Oshkosh State Teachers College, allowed him to nurture Midwestern talents. Before coming to the Normal School in 1909, he served as a Manual Training Instructor in the Stevens Point city schools. He joined the Normal School faculty at a crucial time. His colleague, Livingston Summers, began a manual training program that prepared teachers for careers in the growing field of industrial education. During his tenure in the department, Gruenhagen taught classes in advanced furniture construction & design, elementary & advanced cabinet making, general woodworking, and maintenance of shop equipment, to name a few.

The Great Depression, a decreasing demand for industrial arts teachers, and increasing enrollments at the Stout Institute, Wisconsin’s leading manual training facility, all contributed to the department’s closure in 1937. After degrees in industrial arts were no longer offered, Gruenhagen taught woodworking classes for students in the teacher training program until his retirement in 1947. For twenty years after that, Gruenhagen maintained the University’s shop equipment so that future generations could learn about industrial arts techniques.

Gruenhagen died on March 5, 1967, just one week after the dedication of the building that bears his name. 

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