Sunday, October 21, 2018

On Campus

Lambeau leap

Sixty years ago, UW-Stout alum’s skills helped build Packers’ new stadium

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    Lambeau Field held 32,500 people when it opened in 1957. Detailed steel construction drawings for the press box and hand railings were made by Rodger Rymer, who at the time was a UW-Stout student. He spent most of his career as a manufacturing engineering with the company in Dubuque, Iowa.

    Pho­to by Somerville Inc.

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    Rodger and Carole Rymer, of Cuba City, met at UW-Stout in 1957 and were married in 1961.

    Contributed photo

MENOMONIE — Growing up in the late 1940s and early 1950s in Green Bay, Rodger Rymer remembers some flat farmland on the southwest side of town where there was a small airport and good rabbit hunting nearby.

About the time he graduated from Green Bay West High School in 1954 and headed to UW-Stout, a project was in the works that would drastically change his old neighborhood and the city itself: A new football stadium for the Green Bay Packers.

Construction began on City Stadium — later renamed Lambeau Field — in 1956, and it was dedicated the next fall.

Now a retired manufacturing engineer from John Deere Co., Rymer didn’t just witness the stadium go up, he had a hand in its construction 60 years ago while still an industrial technology student at UW-Stout.

“At that time, you’d never think that place, when it started off, would look like it does now,” Rymer said of Lambeau Field.

What began as a 32,500-seat stadium built for $960,000 has become one of the iconic athletic venues in the U.S., seating more than 81,000. It has fielded multiple Super Bowl championship teams and is home of the Lambeau Leap. It also has become the focal point for the Packers’ new Titletown entertainment and business district.

Rymer, with two years of college, landed a drafting job in the summer of 1956 in the office of Green Bay Structural Steel, a subcontractor on the project. His father was a welder with the company. The chief engineer put Rymer’s drafting skills to use detailing steel.

As a steel detailer, Rymer took drawings by stadium architect Somerville Inc. of Green Bay and provided more detailed renderings of the connection joints for the steel support beams. “A steel detailer shows how it’s actually put together,” Rymer said.

In 1956 and 1957, Rymer’s drawings were used by steel workers on the stadium construction site, which was about a half-mile away from Green Bay Structural Steel, he said.

His first job was providing drawings for the stadium’s two-story press box that rose above the bowl-shaped stadium. Then, when his job continued the next summer in 1957 and even during holiday breaks, he worked on other aspects of the stadium such as hand railings.

Rymer doesn’t remember going to the stadium when it was under construction but working out of Green Bay Structural Steel’s office, which had five full-time engineers. He was the lone intern, he said.

‘Big time’

Rymer, who grew up a Packers fan and owns a share of Packers stock, knew the stadium was a big deal for Green Bay. At the time, it was the only NFL stadium built strictly for football, allowing for seating close to the field and no obstructed views.

Architect John Somerville, in an interview years later, said that “the fact that the stadium was built for nothing but football made it possible to make a more intimate arrangement of seating.” 

Some people questioned whether the team could fill the 10,000 additional seats. The old City Stadium on Green Bay’s east side held 23,500 people, and the Packers were perennial losers in the 1950s prior to hiring Vince Lombardi in 1959 and then winning multiple NFL titles. 

The stadium has been sold out for Packers games since 1960, and more than 130,000 people are on a waiting list for season tickets.

“When they started building it, people thought, ‘My gosh, what are they going to do with that big hole?’ It was big time for Green Bay,” Rymer said.

The stadium dedication on Sept. 29, 1957, included Vice President Richard Nixon, Wisconsin Gov. Vernon Thomson, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell and Miss America Marilyn VanDerBur.

After graduating from UW-Stout in 1959, Rymer initially taught for three years at what became Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay and, of course, went to many Packers games, including the famous Ice Bowl vs. the Dallas Cowboys.

He also got to know many of the early 1960s Packers stars who hung out at the Elks Club, where Rymer was a member. He wound up in a bowling league with Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, Carroll Dale and others.

Rymer remembers Nitschke throwing his bowling ball so hard it would damage the pin-setting equipment when the pins flew. “Talk about a strong individual. I don’t think the ball ever hit the alley before it hit the pins,” Rymer said.

Building a career

Rymer, like many teenagers in Green Bay at the time, figured he would get a job in a local paper mill after high school and be set for life. 

“My senior year, the machine shop teacher went to my dad and said, ‘You’re making a mistake if you don’t send him on to school,’ “ Rymer recalls.

The teacher recommended what was then Stout State College, but it was 220 miles away and tuition of $75 seemed like a lot. 

“It was a big thing because nobody in our family ever went beyond high school. We didn’t know there was a school that offered that type of training,” Rymer said.

His first summer home from college, 1955, he worked in a paper mill and saved enough money to buy a 1949 Studebaker, his transportation to and from UW-Stout. He carpooled and met home economics education student Carole Waterstreet, of Kewaunee, in 1957. They married in 1961.

Engineer work

Rymer was one of the first graduates in the industrial technology program at UW-Stout. It was an offshoot of the school’s industrial education program but was geared more toward working for industry, which is exactly how Rymer ended up using it. UW-Stout now offers comparable bachelor’s degree programs in manufacturing engineering, mechanical engineering, engineering technology and construction.

After teaching for three years, Rymer landed a job at the John Deere factory in Dubuque, Iowa, where he worked as an engineer until retiring. He had various supervisory positions, including overseeing engine production. “We produced 200 engines a day,” he said. “My major was really in drafting, machine drawing and architectural. That really helped getting that degree.”

The Rymers live in Cuba City. Carole is retired from teaching home economics at Cuba City High School. They had three children, and one of them, Carrie, also graduated from UW-Stout in home economics education in 1986. Rymer still gets to Lambeau Field on occasion too, and he fondly remembers the days when his skills as a young man helped usher in a new era in Packers history.

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