Written by Kristine Zaballos | Images by Craig Schreiner and submitted
Nobody is more surprised about University of Wisconsin-Whitewater alumnus Byron “Chris” Chrisman’s unlikely path to success than Chrisman himself.
“The amazing thing is that this farm kid, whose family was dirt poor — with no running water or electricity — and who barely attended and never graduated from high school, ended up being a successful attorney and business person,” said Chrisman.
Throughout his life, that path would involve equal measures of hard work, determination and the support of mentors.
“And being blessed, over and over, by the Lord,” said Chrisman.
After earning a B.S. in business administration with an emphasis on accounting from UW-Whitewater in 1959 and a J.D. from the University of Colorado in 1966, Chrisman embarked on a career spanning tax law, commercial real estate development and businesses as diverse as hotels, restaurants, and large-scale greenhouses. Savvy investments of OPM — or “other people’s money,” as he explains — eventually left Chrisman in a position to begin to give back to his alma maters.
An initial gift of $1.5 million in 2016 from Chrisman and his wife, Carlene, funded the Mary Poppe Chrisman Success Center on campus, a tutoring center named after Chrisman’s first wife, the late Mary Poppe Chrisman, who earned a B.S. in mathematics in 1957. A subsequent estate gift from the Chrismans in 2019 of $5 million — the largest gift to date in the university’s history — was targeted to four endowment funds: Student Success Fund, Warhawk Emergency Fund, Wheelchair Athletics and Rugby.
An Army education
Chrisman’s path to financial success and philanthropy was never certain. He dropped out of school to work on a farm at 12, reasoning that an education wasn’t needed if he was going to be a farmer, but a six-week stint picking cotton with his family made him reconsider — and enroll in high school at the age of 16. After receiving a failing grade on an algebra test, he approached the teacher.
“What can I do with this if I learn this?” he asked. “Nothing,” said the teacher. “You just have to learn it.”
That didn’t sit well with Chrisman — “I thought, ‘I don’t have to do anything!’” — so when he cut his knee on the farm cutting trees in December 1951 and it dashed his hopes of being on the high school basketball team, he dropped out of school and enlisted in the U.S. Army.
“Cutting my knee is one of the best things that ever happened to me. In the Army I learned that education is important. I taught myself to type and started working in the personnel office, where I noticed that the officers had a more attractive lifestyle than the rest of us. I also had access to the 201 files of all those officers, so I knew that I scored just as well on the aptitude tests as they had, despite their education.”
“Since I only had two-and-a-half months of high school, I took and passed the GED so I would be eligible to go to college.”
But he didn’t know anything about how to get to college. Luckily for Chrisman, one of his best friends in Augsburg, Germany, where he was stationed, came from Brodhead, and recommended he apply to Wisconsin State College-Whitewater, as UW-Whitewater was called at the time.
A college education
"UW-Whitewater blessed me by admitting me, on probation, because I did not have a high school education, and provided me with the college education that made it possible to go on to law school and achieve success. UW-Whitewater sort of ‘kick-started' the engine, so to speak, and made it possible for me to go above and beyond."
After a bus from Chicago dropped Chrisman off in Whitewater in January 1955, he moved into his $5/week rented room and went for a walk, stopping at the public library on Main Street. There he met Mary Poppe, a math major from Sheboygan. Chance encounters on campus and the fact that they worked together downtown at Stevenson’s College Grill — now known as Jessica’s — he as a short-order cook and she as a waitress, allowed them to spend more time together.
Chrisman, admitted on academic probation, struggled in college in a way Mary didn’t. He and Mary were married the same day she graduated in 1957, and she worked as a high school math teacher in Janesville until he graduated in 1959. Mary Chrisman then applied for a National Science Foundation scholarship to obtain her master’s degree and was accepted at the University of Colorado. Chris Chrisman applied to the university’s law school in the fall of 1959, and cites an improperly administered LSAT as the reason he was denied admission.
An assist to a law degree
“I was working on my master’s degree at CU, and I heard in my Advanced Income Tax Course that the IRS was hiring agents. I applied for and was hired by the IRS as a field auditor. The income tax return of Edward C. King, the dean of the law school, was assigned to me. After I had audited the return, the dean offered me a cup of coffee and asked me about myself. After I told him of my background, he said that if l still wanted to go to law school, he could admit me as a special student. I graduated from CU law school in May 1966.”
After earning her master’s degree, Mary went on to teach math at the high school level before joining the National Bureau of Standards and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a computer programmer. As Chrisman found success in tax law and later business, the two donated $500,000 to the University of Colorado Law School so that the Dean’s Suite could be named after Edward C. King.
A new partner in philanthropy
After Mary passed away, in 2008, Chrisman met Carlene Petersen, a longtime widow who had raised four children. Petersen, a math teacher who was a graduate of William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, was also a tennis player and coach who started the University of Denver’s women’s tennis program and turned it into a regional and national power. The two married in 2009, and Carlene Petersen Chrisman was inducted into the University of Denver Hall of Fame in 2010.
Chrisman’s experience on campus with his first wife, Mary, inspired the first gift the Chrismans made to UW-Whitewater, which funded the Mary Poppe Chrisman Success Center.
“My primary motivation for wanting the building named after Mary was that she loved teaching," Chris said. "And she very much appreciated her experience at Wisconsin State College-Whitewater. I'm pleased to see her name on a building that supports and expands the learning experiences of so many students as they strive to attain a quality college education."
To honor Chris and Carlene Chrisman’s ongoing commitment to fostering student success on campus, the university is awarding them the 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award for Service to UW-Whitewater.
Carlene and Chris Chrisman would go on to together give UW-Whitewater its largest bequest ever, hoping the gift will inspire other alumni and friends of the university to contribute now and in the future.
Both Chrismans are so committed to fostering success at his alma mater, they hope to be able to contribute even more.
"My estate is still growing, and it is my hope that I will be able to give more because I know that more is needed," said Chris Chrisman.
For a self-made man who benefitted from many forms of education along the way — and one who feels that higher education isn’t for everyone — Chrisman remains passionate about helping students who choose the path to stay in school and graduate.
“Education doesn’t make you more intelligent,” he said with a smile. “It makes you less ignorant.”
For more information about the Student Success Fund or the Warhawk Emergency Fund at UW-Whitewater or to contribute, visit the UW-Whitewater Foundation website.