A UW Law School diploma for the ages

Alum buys Deadwood resident's paperwork at auction
A UW Law School diploma for the ages
Photo courtesy of Pete Christianson.
Pete Christianson and Erin McGroarty of Middleton Art and Framing with the 1876 UW Law School diploma.

It will come as no surprise to friends of Pete Christianson that the recently retired Madison attorney gets news alerts about the University of Wisconsin sent to his phone.

There may be a bigger fan of all things Bucky than Christianson, but I haven’t met him. Christianson’s a 1971 UW-Madison graduate and his long tenure on the Wisconsin Alumni Association board included time as chairman.

One of Christianson’s hobbies is collecting the commemorative buttons that celebrate UW-Madison’s Homecoming festivities each fall. The first Homecoming was in 1911, and he has tracked down most of the 100-plus buttons.

The few years he doesn’t have, Christianson says, likely didn’t have buttons made.

Christianson is also a 1977 graduate of the UW Law School, one of five generations of Badger lawyers that includes his great-grandfather, grandfather, uncle and son.

It was the law school connection that got Christianson’s attention one day last summer.

His phone alerted him to an article in the Rapid City Journal announcing a July 29 auction at a ranch outside Deadwood, South Dakota.

“History lovers have an opportunity to own a slice of the Old West,” the Journal story noted.

Deadwood in the 1870s–made famous in a novel by Pete Dexter and by the HBO series created by David Milch–had as residents Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.

It also had an Eau Claire native and UW-Madison Law School graduate named Henry Frawley, who moved to Deadwood on July 4, 1877.

Unlike Hickock (shot dead while playing poker) and Calamity Jane (who moved to Montana), Frawley stayed in Deadwood and became a prominent citizen, an attorney and cattle rancher.

It was memorabilia from Frawley’s estate being auctioned July 29–his son died last April–and as noted in the Journal story, that included Frawley’s 1876 law degree from the University of Wisconsin.

That got the attention of Christianson, back in Madison.

“It just seemed like such a fascinating story,” Christianson says. “The man was apparently a legend in the law in South Dakota.”

Christianson also noted that Frawley got his degree just eight years after the law school first opened in 1868.

“It’s likely the oldest diploma still around,” he says.

The article stated that online bidding would not be allowed at the auction. Christianson called the auction house and learned he could participate by phone. He gave them his cell number and was told he’d be contacted when the UW law school diploma came up for bid.

July 29 was a Saturday, and Christianson was at his cottage in Rice Lake. The auction began at 10 a.m. He heard nothing all day.

“I’m thinking, ‘That fell through,'” he says.

But at 6:45, nearly nine hours after the auction commenced, Christianson’s phone rang. He was having dinner at a neighbor’s.

The bidding for Frawley’s diploma started at $300, Christianson recalled.

“I got it for $500,” he says.

He bought it with the idea that he might make a gift of it to the UW Law School–which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. The handover of the diploma was scheduled to happen Feb. 2 during a meeting of the law school faculty.

Before then, Christianson took the diploma to Middleton Art and Framing, with input from the law school on the desired frame.

“It really looks nice,” Pete says.

He says the law school is “looking for a good, secure location” for the Frawley diploma.

Of his time spent on the project, he adds, “It was a tremendous amount of fun, and I was just so happy after I bought it to find out they actually wanted it.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazin