By Candice Wagener | Photographed by Hillary Schave and Carla Minsky

It used to be that unwinding at the Union Terrace meant visiting a surface lot with minimal parking. But that’s all undergoing a metamorphosis with the development of the new Alumni Park. The once spare area is transforming into a spectacular green space highlighting the beauty of Lake Mendota, the Memorial Union and the Red Gym and recognizing the broad contributions from UW Madison’s storied history: Its alumni.

While the idea of a park-like promenade in this spot dates back to the 1908 Campus Master Plan, Alumni Park, scheduled to unveil Oct. 6, was the brainchild of Paula Bonner, recently retired president of the Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA) and chief alumni officer for the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association.

It “started out with a little $2 million project,” included as part of the association’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2011, Bonner says. The plans, which included a bit of greenery and a sculpture sitting on the edge of Library Mall, were not well received by alumni.

“What they remembered was the lake,” says Bonner, enthusiastically. “We started over and got brave and got some early believers. This was nothing but me and a couple of our great volunteer co-chairs, and fundraising with a few sketches and a lot of arms waving and a lot of excitement. My gosh, people gave some money—all private donations! It spoke to the love of the place… many people said [the experience at UW] just transformed their life.”

Construction of the Alumni Park and pier totaled $8 million and One Alumni Place came in at $3 million, Bonner says. Both projects were entirely privately funded with contributions from over 4,000 alumni and friends of UW Madison.

And so, Alumni Park became a vision turned reality, integrating into the eight-block pedestrian mall stretching from the Kohl Center north to the Lake Mendota shore, complete with Goodspeed Family Pier, and a stunning view of the Picnic Point precipice. Visitors can easily connect to the Union Terrace and One Alumni Place, the visitor center for returning graduates and anyone who wants to learn more about UW alumni.

Dotted within the greenspace are elliptical-shaped granite walls, sourced from Kohl Springs, Minnesota, creating ripples, circles and arcs. The walls are design elements on which the entire park is intentionally based in order to complement the lake, but also to emulate the path of a student at the university: coming on their own to study, meeting others and creating a new community as a student, and then moving on as a graduate to create more ripples within the greater community.

“Everybody’s…individually and collectively making a ripple effect around the world and making an impact on society and that common greater good is an important part of the DNA for the University of Wisconsin,” says Bonner.

The university crest will glow at night, along with several other elements around the park, including The Lantern, a 7-foot-tall steel cone that will include inspirational words from alumni commencement speakers, and the Numen Lumen, the seal of the university. An 80-foot-long, 6-foot-high Badger Pride Wall of COR-TEN steel features etchings of Madison artist Nate Koehler’s renditions of iconic images like the Statue of Liberty, flamingos and footballs. It’s a blend of inspiring stories along with strong university cultural traditions that will bring alumni home.

“My goal has been that you could go in the park and you felt like you could kind of ‘see yourself,’ [that] there’s a story or person or an achievement that resonates for you… so hopefully it’s a personal experience and a community-building experience,” says Bonner.

Out of some 435,000 alumni, 123 were chosen for this round of recognition. Bonner speaks proudly of the depth of alumni selected, including Harley-Davidson founder William Harley, former Wisconsin governor and Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson and Carol Bartz, former CEO of both Autodesk and Yahoo!. Others include Adam Steltzner, who led the Mars Curiosity Rover project, and Jean Wilkowski, first career female ambassador to an African nation, Zambia.

Natasha Ali, an alumni being honored during opening weekend, earned her master’s degree in journalism at UW and continued on as a successful news producer in New York. She has served on the School of Journalism and Mass Communications Board of Visitors since 2010, and was named one of WAA’s Forward Under Forty in 2013. While in Madison, she worked at local stations WKOW and WISC, as well as filled the role of minority advisor, providing support to students of color on campus. She continues to support students of color on their path to becoming journalists through her program, A Better Chance.

“To be honored in this way is truly humbling,” says Ali. “It is a full circle moment. Without Madison, there’s no 20-year career.”

Bonner wants to continue to recognize alumni who are out there doing great things, which is why the WAA has set up a mobile app and website feature allowing the public to make suggestions for tributes within the park, complete with the ability to post photos and use an interactive world map to symbolize just how many alumni are in every corner of the globe.

Having an impact on each and every corner of the world is really the essence of the 1.3-acre space, in the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea. As visitors walk through the greenspace, learning the stories of so many incredible alumni and how they’ve made positive change in society, they’ll land at the shore of Lake Mendota, look down and read the inspiring words inscribed on the railing, words which will leave visitors inspired: “Make Your Mark on the World.”


She’s been the driving force behind Alumni Park and has been a presence at the university for 41 years. But Paula Bonner remains humble. Whether she admits it or not, her friendly, dedicated, hardworking attitude will be missed when she “officially” retires in October.

“Her love for the university is boundless,” says Martha Vukelich-Austin, a member of the Wisconsin Alumni Association board for the past decade. “She has worked with so many people that are alums now and her concern is to make sure that this institution is a world-class institution on so many different levels…knowing that you can build support for the university if you touch people in a lot of different ways.”

Bonner came to UW in 1976 as a graduate student and immediately started working in the Athletic Office. She was offered the position of associate athletic director a year later and continued in that role until 1989, when she joined the alumni association.

Bonner’s pride in the university, Madison and Wisconsin is evident and she gets audibly excited touring Alumni Park. The stroll from the Langdon Street entrance down Alumni Way to the opening up at Progress Point on the lakeshore takes her breath away every time, she says.

She has no major plans post-retirement, except to write to advocate for the value of education, voicing her support to a system that she feels is “kind of beating up on education.”

For now, she will keep chugging away at the final touches of Alumni Park, which celebrates the lasting value, to so many, of this educational institution, this place.

“She’s left a lasting legacy,” says Vukelich-Austin. “That park will be here so long after any of us are around. Without her, it wouldn’t have happened. She says it takes a village, but she deserves credit for this.”

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