Accidental Professor

December 20, 2018

The University of Wisconsin–Madison has meant different things to Marvin Fruth during different periods of his life.

At first, it was little more than a giant playground for Fruth and his pals when they were growing up in Madison. Later, it was a place to study, learn, and grow as a student. Finally, it’s where Fruth spent nearly three decades as a highly regarded faculty member with the School of Education.

Recently, Professor Emeritus Marvin Fruth and his wife of 64 years, Beatrice, committed a planned gift to bolster scholarship support for undergraduate students.

When asked why he made such a commitment, Fruth paused. “Well, I guess I feel like I owe it to this great place, and my wife agreed,” he says. “We’ve had a pretty good life. Not bad for an accidental professor.”

While growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, Fruth recalls how campus was a great place to hang out.

“My friends and I would go to the top floor of Science Hall and slide down the old fire escape chute until the janitor would chase us away,” he says with a laugh. “We’d climb into the top of Bascom Hall, between the ceiling and ventilation system, and we’d catch pigeons. In the fall, we’d sneak into football games at Camp Randall Stadium.”

After graduating from Madison’s Central High School in 1949, Fruth didn’t have the funds to go to college, so he spent a year-and-a-half starting and running a tree-trimming business. He then enlisted in the Marine Corps and served in Korea, earning a Purple Heart.

Fruth then used GI Bill funding to spend one semester at Wisconsin State College–Whitewater in 1953 before enrolling at the UW, where he met and married Beatrice Ann DeHaven in 1954. He went on to earn an undergraduate degree in history and English in 1956.

Over the next decade, he taught at Elkhorn High School, earned a master’s in counseling and guidance from the University of Missouri, and became a guidance counselor and school psychometrist at Elkhorn. He eventually earned his PhD in educational administration from the UW in 1966.

While wrapping up his doctorate, he landed a project assistantship working on the proposed new Educational Sciences building. The day he was to start this job, the project manager left the university for a different post — leaving Fruth in charge, despite a lack of experience.

In 1966, the School of Education got a new dean in Donald McCarty, who hired Fruth onto the faculty. “Dean McCarty wanted to keep me on because I knew a lot about the building project, so in a way it was an accidental professorship,” says Fruth.

Fruth went on to have a successful career. After Educational Sciences opened in 1972, he worked on the Wisconsin Information Systems for Education, which developed automated scheduling and grade reporting for state high schools; the Urban Administrator Training Program, which involved districts in Denver, Saint Louis, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis; and an initiative designed to better teach black history in schools in Washington, DC, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Racine, and Beloit among other districts. But Fruth says his real joy came in working with students and training future principals and superintendents from around the state.

The Fruths’ gift will bolster a Great People Scholarship first created in their name in 2012. Their son, Charles, initiated this scholarship fund to recognize the significant influence Fruth had on his students, his colleagues, and his field. This scholarship is designed to assist undergraduate students in the School of Education whose personal and family resources aren’t adequate to cover the costs of attending UW–Madison.

“I had a very satisfying career and was able to recruit and mentor a number of bright administrators and teachers,” says Fruth. “Hopefully these scholarships will make a difference in the lives of future educators, too.”

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