Even though he graduated from Northwestern University, Robert P. “Bob” Gleason has always held the University of Wisconsin-Madison, particularly its athletic teams, close to his heart.
That’s why he’s chosen to include in his will a bequest to support the University through the UW Foundation.
An accomplished high-school football and basketball player in his native Port Edwards, Wisconsin, Gleason hoped to be a Badger on the gridiron. His father, Edward P. Gleason, who earned his degree in mechanical engineering at the UW-Madison, was instrumental in creating a different path for his son.
“My father helped build the two paper mills on the Wisconsin River, in Port Edwards and Nekoosa,” Gleason says. “I was going to go to Wisconsin, and then my father had a lot of contacts in Chicago through the paper companies. He got me a deal at Northwestern, where they had just started a new technological institute.”
Bob Gleason attended Northwestern from 1940 to 1944, played end on Wildcat football teams quarterbacked by the legendary Otto Graham, and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. He describes a novel living arrangement for part of his time on campus in Evanston, Illinois.
“At Northwestern, they had the Naval ROTC,” Gleason says, noting that he, Graham and fellow teammate Alex Kapter “were about the only ones who weren’t in the NROTC. The war came along, and the NROTC took over all the fraternity houses where we had been living. They rushed the three of us down to Chicago and got us into the V5 Naval air program. They guaranteed us that we could graduate. The three of us had to live out of Dyche Stadium our senior year.”
After graduation, the trio went into the Navy Air Corps. “They split us up, and we played football for the preflight schools. Otto played at North Carolina, I played at Georgia and Alex played at Iowa,” Gleason says. “So we were pretty late getting into the Navy. When the war came to an end, they wanted us to go into the Reserve, but we all got out.”
Gleason was anticipating heading back to Port Edwards for a career in the paper industry when fate intervened.
“Ahead of us at Northwestern was Justin Dart,” he says. Dart had established himself in the world of pharmacy and owned a chain of stores that he renamed Rexall Drug in California.
“He corresponded with us during the time we were in the service. He offered quite a few of us who played football the chance to come out to Los Angeles and go through training at Rexall,” he says. “About 12 of us wound up in Los Angeles. That’s how I came to California.”
When Gleason met his future wife Ellen, he left Rexall and went to Hawaii. She was the granddaughter of William Cargill, who founded what is now Cargill Inc. “A friend of hers was chairman of the McKesson & Robbins drug company. They had five stores in Hawaii, and I oversaw those five stores.”
Soon after, they settled on Ellen’s ranch in Solvang, California, a Danish tourist town about 30 miles north of Santa Barbara. “She and her previous husband had planted these walnut trees on the ranch,” he says. “So I took over and raised walnuts for about 25 years. She passed away suddenly. A few years later I sold the ranch and bought a new house here in Solvang.”
He transitioned into a new career as a restaurateur with partner Vincent Evans. They owned The Danish Inn in Solvang and eventually bought the Pea Soup Andersen’s group of restaurants out of bankruptcy.
In the seventies, the partners persuaded Kenneth Hansen, founder of the famous Los Angeles gourmet restaurant Scandia, to let them start a Solvang chapter of The Vikings philanthropic organization. Scandia was home to the original Vikings, which has had many celebrity members and supports people with diseases such as multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy. Gleason had been a member of The Vikings at Scandia since 1960.
“We now have 200 members in our Solvang Vikings group,” Gleason says. “It’s all charity. We have no administrative expenses.”
After his wife’s death in the mid-seventies, Gleason and Evans “spent all our time together. He and I were just like brothers.” Evans and his wife died in a crash of the partners’ private jet in 1980—“the first time in those years that he and I didn’t fly together, and that changed my life.”
These days, Gleason spends most of his time in happy retirement in Solvang, but he returns to Port Edwards each year. “I still have the old family house back there, right on the Wisconsin River,” he says. “I was born and raised there, so I still go back every summer from about the middle of July until Labor Day.”
He has a room in his Solvang home filled with Badger memorabilia, and at age 89 he attended the 2012 Rose Bowl game that saw the Badgers lose to Oregon. “Even though I went to Northwestern, I was still a Wisconsinite,” he says. “While I ended up not going there, the UW was always my favorite, so I put both Northwestern and Wisconsin in my will.”
A bequest made sense for him because “All my assets after my wife died were put in trust. They were irrevocable trusts, so the principal cannot be touched. Through my will,” he says, “I can give back to Wisconsin.”