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A degree of fame for each

Schwarzenegger got a small campus pumped up in 1979, leaving in '80 with a diploma.

August 22, 2003|Jeff Leeds and James Bates | Times Staff Writers

SUPERIOR, Wis. — Arnold Schwarzenegger was unlike any other big man on campus when he roamed the University of Wisconsin-Superior halls here on the western tip of the Great Lakes 24 years ago.

An ambitious, six-time Mr. Olympia bodybuilder with grapefruit-sized biceps, Schwarzenegger arrived at age 31 determined to win the one title that had eluded him for nearly a decade: college graduate.

"The career he was aiming for needed some kind of credibility," said Rhea S. Das, a Wisconsin-Superior psychology professor who was largely responsible for recruiting Schwarzenegger. "He realized the lack of a degree would be a hole in the fabric."

Today, as Schwarzenegger campaigns to become California's governor, that bachelor's in international business and international economics, obtained mostly through correspondence classes, has provided more heft to a resume weighted heavily toward big-bang action movies. No matter that the college is largely unknown outside the forested region and is smaller than Santa Monica High, the sheepskin has given Schwarzenegger's supporters the ability to say he has brawn and brains.

At the same time, it has brought a touch of celebrity to the campus itself, where college administrators stretched some entrance rules and used their famous muscle man to entice students and raise the campus' profile.

"If you are talking about English 101, Sociology 101 or Chemistry 101, who is going to care?" said Das, now retired and living in Florida. "We thought Arnold would be an attraction."

The school first came to Schwarzenegger's attention when Das, at the urging of her children, invited him to campus as a guest lecturer. They were fans of Schwarzenegger's since seeing him in the 1977 documentary "Pumping Iron" and after reading his autobiography, "Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder."

But Schwarzenegger also wanted a degree. He was within striking distance because of a hodgepodge of college credits accumulated in the early 1970s, mostly at Santa Monica College and in UCLA's extension program.

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Long-distance lessons

After Schwarzenegger accepted a position as "cooperating faculty member," administrators could then waive residency requirements so he could participate in the university's fledgling "extended degree" program while specializing in fitness marketing and business administration. He paid in-state tuition fees, even though he was largely completing classwork from Los Angeles, Das said.

Schwarzenegger received some credits for his "life experience" as a fitness expert. He failed, however, to convince the school's communications arts department to give him credits in acting for his pre-blockbuster film career, which included the B-movie "Hercules in New York," in which his accented voice was dubbed. But it did grant him credits for film production.

Schwarzenegger would periodically fly in from Los Angeles to meet with professors and take exams. One time, he created havoc when he plunged shirtless into the university pool for a swimming test.

"All the kids wanted to get in the pool and watch him," recalled Lydia Thering, retired head of the school's physical education department. "We had to lock the door. The kids were banging on the door."

Schwarzenegger's workshops, conducted as part of his faculty job, also drew crowds. At least one -- a motivational lecture -- was held in a de-iced rink with some 500 people packing the stands.

When Schwarzenegger was around campus, word spread fast.

Debbie Erickson, a computer programmer living in Whittier and an undergraduate then, said "Find Arnold" became an on-campus game.

"You'd hear Arnold was on campus that day, but it was like Bigfoot," Erickson said. "Nobody I know actually saw him. A couple of us girls who drooled over him would go to the last place Arnold was spotted."

Schwarzenegger was such a celebrity that students were invited to a special luncheon with him in October 1979. James Hannula, now a U.S. Agriculture Department official in Osseo, Wis., recalled listening in awe to Schwarzenegger describe his physique.

"The jacket he wore was a size 60," Hannula said. "I was lucky to get into a 40."

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Warming up to Wisconsin

Still, it took Schwarzenegger time to warm to the snowy campus. At 2,800 students, University of Wisconsin-Superior is less than 10% the size of the University of Wisconsin's main campus in Madison. Across the street from the college's entrance is a store selling archery supplies and fishing bait.

With black and gold school colors, the university whose teams are known as the Yellowjackets boasts an anthem that urges students to "come on and fight, fight, fight for Superior." Later this month, its women's volleyball team hosts the "Stinger Classic" tournament.

In 1979, the campus was "a hotbed of apathy," according to the Promethean student newspaper. Among the more popular events then were "Sno-Week" and the annual smelt fry.

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