Thomas Brittingham, Jr.

Thomas and Mary Brittingham sit for a portrait with their son Thomas Brittingham Jr. and his first wife, Mildred Candy. 1922. #WI.bls0079

Thomas and Mary Brittingham sit for a portrait with their son Thomas Brittingham Jr. and his first wife, Mildred Candy. 1922. #WI.bls0079

Thomas Brittingham, Jr. (1899-1960) was the public face of the Brittingham Fund, and seemed to be more actively involved its management than either of his siblings.

After attending Hotchkiss, a private preparatory school in Connecticut, Tom returned to attend UW-Madison. Active in the Chi Psi fraternity as well as playing first mandolin in the school’s Mandolin Society, Tom graduated in 1921.

After the death of his first wife, Mildred Candy, Tom married another Wisconsin graduate, Margaret (Peg) Cummins, with whom he had two children.

Tom acquired notoriety in certain circles when he was named co-winner of the Barron’s Widow’s Contest, which involved a hypothetical investment situation spanning ten years. He turned this financial acumen to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), which he co-founded with eight other alumni in 1925.

The group, which he also served as a board member and president, was inspired by Dr. Harry Steenbock‘s work on the synthesis of Vitamin D; its purpose was to support scientific research geared toward acquiring patents. Tom’s unconventional investment strategies lead to remarkable growth for WARF; he astonished the public when he announced, in 1957, that he had increased its capital from $900 to $29 million.

Thomas Brittingham, Jr. sits on a piano bench to play the mandolin. While attending The University of Wisconsin--Madison, Tom was first mandolin in Wisconsin’s Mandolin Society. 1914. #WI.bls0057

Thomas Brittingham, Jr. sits on a piano bench to play the mandolin. While attending The University of Wisconsin–Madison, Tom was first mandolin in Wisconsin’s Mandolin Society. 1914. #WI.bls0057

Under the supervision of Tom and Margaret, the Brittingham Fund supported both the arts and the sciences, including the work of Dr. Fred Mohs, John Steuart Curry, Gunnar Johansen, the Pro Arte Quartet, and Professor Alexander Meikeljohn in the Experimental College (though, in a controversial move, funding for Meikeljohn’s work was withdrawn after four years and the Experimental College closed soon thereafter).

Tom was a charter member of the UW Foundation and later became President of its Board of Trustees. He followed in his mother’s footsteps by serving as vice president of the Alumni Association‘s Board of Directors in 1949. The following year he was elected president.

Tom also had a very real impact on the landscape of the university, donating one-third of the money needed to build the new Alumni House in 1951, and purchasing the Eagle Heights tract to donate to the school. He received an honorary LLD degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1952, as well as one from the University of Delaware in 1959.

Tom Brittingham’s vision for his family’s money included the Viking Program, a scholarship program for Scandinavian students, which he began in 1952. The program’s ambition was utterly unique: it aimed to provide the foreign students with an insider’s perspective on American culture, as well as an educational opportunity. Students were chosen as much for their personality and character as for academic achievement, and the program provided funds for social activities in addition to tuition. Recipients were strongly encouraged to join fraternities and sororities and to travel over the school holidays.

Thomas E. Brittingham, Jr., on horseback in Glacier National Park. The square black object in his hands is probably a camera. 1913. #WI.bls0228

Thomas E. Brittingham, Jr., on horseback in Glacier National Park. The square black object in his hands is probably a camera. 1913. #WI.bls0228

Tom and his wife Peg were personally very involved in the program. They flew to the various countries involved to select each student in person, and maintained strong ties to the students during and after their time at Wisconsin.

Of course it is impossible to determine whether the Viking program achieved its lofty goal of improving Scandinavia’s appreciation and understanding of the United States. However, the students who were selected certainly benefited, and they maintained contact with the Brittinghams and each other long after leaving Wisconsin. Over the years Tom received many awards from the participating countries, including the Medal of St. Olaf from Norway.

Tom Brittingham, Jr. died unexpectedly of a heart attack while driving his car in Maryland in 1960. When news reached the former Viking scholars, they commissioned a 250-lb. Swedish rune stone, a traditional way to commemorate a lost leader; the runic inscription is translated as: “To a good friend the way is not long though he be far away”. The stone rests on Muir Knoll of the UW-Madison campus.

After Tom’s death, the spirit of the Viking program was carried on by his son Tom Brittingham III, in the form of the Valiant Scholarship program. The Vikings also collectively demonstrated their appreciation by launching a Reverse Viking Program, in which Wisconsin students were selected to study in Scandinavia.

In 1999, Tom Brittingham, Jr. was elected to Madison Magazine’s list of the most influential Madisonians of the 20th Century.