EMINENT ALUMNI: Famous Faces Who Went to School Around Here

notable names from UWEC, UW-Stout

Tom Giffey

Think all the talented, successful people in the world get educated at Harvard or Yale? Think again! The Valley’s two state universities have produced some pretty top-notch alumni – and Kato Kaelin, too*.


Photo: Facebook
Photo: Branden Nall

retailer and billionaire

No, for the last time, the super-enthusiastic white-haired guy in the old Menards TV spots wasn’t John Menard (it was an actor named Ray Szmanda). The real John Menard keeps a much lower profile, even though his name is on about 300 giant home improvement stores across the Midwest where you can, as the jingle says, save big money. Menard was still a student at UWEC back in 1958 when he started putting up pole buildings to pay for college. Over the years, that building business led to a cash-and-carry lumber company, manufacturing plants, the namesake hardware chain, and a NASCAR racing team (son Paul is a driver). Along the way, Menard amassed a fortune estimated at $14.2 billion, making him America’s 47th richest person. Now that’s a successful alumnus!

Photo: Andrea Paulseth
Photo: NASA

T. KEITH GLENNAN • NASA administrator

Glennan was the man who helped NASA earn its wings. As the space agency’s very first administrator (1958-61), Glennan oversaw the consolidation of various space and rocketry projects under the NASA umbrella. A native of North Dakota, Glennan attended UW-Eau Claire (OK, so he’s not technically an alum) and graduated with an engineering degree from Yale. Before NASA, he did everything from work as studio manager for Paramount Pictures to directing the Navy’s Underwater Sound Lab during World War II. His stint as NASA chief ended just a few months before Alan Shepard became the first American in space.


Photo: UW-Eau Claire
Photo: UW-Eau Claire

ANN DEVROY • journalist

Devroy was respected – and feared – by politicians and fellow journalists alike during her career tenaciously covering the White House for USA Today and The Washington Post in the 1980s and ’90s. A 1970 UWEC graduate, Devroy was lauded in 1997 as “the most dogged, determined, complete reporter any of us ever saw” by legendary Post columnist David Broder after her untimely death from cancer. An annual scholarship and forum were created in her memory at UWEC.

KATO KAELIN • B-list celebrity

Before he was launched to fame as a witness in O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, Kaelin was just a guy from suburban Milwaukee with a funny nickname (he’s really Brian Kaelin) who passed through UW-Eau Claire in 1977. As People magazine put it, the young Kato harbored “dreams of becoming another Johnny Carson” and hosted shows on the in-dorm cable channel, TV10, before leaving for Hollywood. There, he waited tables, appeared in a few grade-Z films, and ended up living in a guesthouse on Simpson’s estate. His surfer-dude persona made him an instant, quirky celebrity during the “Trial of the Century,” a status he’s parlayed into decades of reality TV shows and pop-culture cameos.



Photo: Facebook
Photo: UW-Stout Athletics

JOHN PETERSON • Olympic gold medalist

When UW-Stout created its Athletic Hall of Fame in 1978, Barron County native John Peterson was one of the first people inducted into it. And for good reason: The 1971 graduate is a two-time Olympic medalist as a middleweight freestyle wrestler. He won a silver in 1972 in Munich and brought home the gold in 1976 from Montreal. His mat exploits weren’t limited to the Olympics, either: He was a two-time World Cup gold medalist and a three-time AAU champ as well. (Fun fact: His younger brother, Ben, who attended Iowa State, also won Olympic gold and silver as a wrestler.) Peterson went on to become a wrestling coach and an active member of Athletes in Action, a Christian sports ministry.

Photo: Andrea Paulseth
Photo: Public Domain

VERA C. BUSHFIELD • U.S. senator

Born Vera Cahalan in South Dakota in 1889, she graduated with a degree in domestic science from what was then known as the Stout State Institute in 1912. That same year she married Harlan Bushfield, who went on to become governor of South Dakota and was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 1942. When the senator died in office in 1948, his wife – who had also been his most trusted political adviser – was appointed to finish the rest of his term. Although she served just a few months, Vera Bushfield was nonetheless only the sixth woman ever to be a U.S. senator.

CINDY PAWLCYN • chef, restaurateur

This Minneapolis native earned a degree from UW-Stout’s highly regarded hospitality and tourism program in 1977. While in school, she worked part-time at the Silver Dollar Saloon in Menomonie. After graduation, she relocated to California, where she became a famed chef and restauranteur in San Francisco and the Napa Valley. She currently owns two wine-country establishments, Mustards Grill and Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen. Pawlcyn is the author of several cookbooks, and in 2002 won a James Beard Award – basically a culinary Oscar – for one of them. An early proponent of the farm-to-table movement, she grows some of her own organic produce.

Photo: Joe Turner
Photo: Minnesota Twins

JOE VAVRA • baseball coach/player

Vavra, a Chippewa Falls native and 1985 UW-Stout alumnus, was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1982 and played five seasons of minor league ball as an infielder. His true calling, however, was as a coach and manager, and in the 1980s and ’90s he led various teams in the Dodgers minor league system. After a brief stint as UW-Stout baseball coach, he was hired by the Minnesota Twins organization where he spent 16 seasons, including serving as hitting coach, third-base coach, and bench coach. He rounded out his career with three seasons with the Detroit Tigers, including the COVID-complicated 2020 campaign.