Helping create a facility that would be a boon to the University of Wisconsin-Madison hockey programs and swimmers resonated with Charles “Chuck” (’49 PHB L&S) and Mary Ann La Bahn.
“The project has great utility,” said Chuck La Bahn, retired CEO and chairman of CPL Industries Inc., formerly known as the Orion Corporation, in Grafton, Wisconsin. “This is something they need. The hockey people are very desirous of having a practice facility, and the women’s varsity can have games there as well. It provides some relief for the Kohl Center, which is overburdened with events.
“For swimming, it’s a boon because the SERF (Southeast Recreational Facility) building, designed for recreation, actually has a very good practice pool,” he said. “It has moveable bulkheads, is 50 meters, so on. With the showers, lockers, offices and meeting rooms in the new building, and the bridge going over to the SERF, it will be just ideal for swimming.”
Swimming is something Chuck La Bahn knows well. He earned his Badger varsity letter during the years just after World War II.
Having graduated from high school early in 1945, “I was expecting to go into the military, as everybody else was, but the war ended,” he said. “I was 16 years old; I couldn’t have gotten into the military until I was 17 anyway. So I thought, why don’t I go up to Madison and get a year in? Which I did.”
La Bahn joined the Army ROTC – ROTC training was mandatory for young men on campus at the time – and was in gym class when he heard something that piqued his interest.
“They said that if you went out for a varsity sport, you wouldn’t have to be in gym. I said, ‘What the heck, I’ll go out for swimming.’”
He found himself the only civilian on the squad. “All the other swimmers were military people. They were Navy V-12ers who later transferred over to Naval ROTC.” The Navy V-12 Training Program was started in 1943 and sent thousands of young servicemen to colleges and universities. “We only had about 17 people. It was a very small squad.
These practice facilities are badly needed. I think everyone benefits: the coaches, the athletes, the recruiting, the community and the campus.
Chuck La Bahn
“I swam as kind of a filler,” he said. “My normal event was individual medley, but Joe Steinhauer put me in the 440. The best I did was a second place against Iowa. The swimmer against me was the national champion of Iceland.”
Chuck La Bahn graduated as an economics major in the Centennial Class of 1949. He worked for Marshall and Illsley Bank for a year, went on to graduate school at Harvard University and then started a career that would take him to the boardroom.
He has been highly involved with the UW-Madison, Wisconsin Alumni Association and UW Foundation over the years. He has been vice chair of the Foundation’s Board of Directors, president of the WAA’s board and National W Club president, in addition to serving on advisory board and other volunteer positions. He and Mary Ann were among the hosts for the WAA’s signature Red Tie Gala in October 2011, part of that organization’s 150th anniversary celebration and a fundraiser for the Great People Scholarship.
As an “adopted Badger,” Mary Ann La Bahn has come to appreciate the Wisconsin experience. “Chuck has had so many good friends because of the University, all the way back to swimming days,” she said. “It’s been great to meet all those people and go to tailgating parties and the various gatherings over the years. You just know how strong and deep those friendships are, and how meaningful.”
In their philanthropy, the La Bahns “have certain primary interests,” such as the United Performing Arts Foundation in Milwaukee, the United Way and “organizations that improve the quality of life in the city,” like museums, she said.
The La Bahns currently fund three swimming scholarships at UW-Madison, and they had made an earlier athletic infrastructure gift to install an irrigation system for a key portion of the cross-country course. “Coach Ed Nuttycombe said, ‘Let’s do the start and finish,’” Chuck La Bahn said. “It gives the runners a little more traction when they’re in important stages of the race. It’s a championship course, a very nice layout.”
That ability to see the possibilities of infrastructure investment led to the proposal for the La Bahn Arena, under construction now. “Barry Alvarez floated the idea about naming the building, and we embraced that,” Chuck La Bahn said. “We’re delighted to be involved, and we’re delighted the whole idea can happen. These practice facilities are badly needed. I think everyone benefits: the coaches, the athletes, the recruiting, the community and the campus.”