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Gayle Langer, 1937–2021

In memory of Gayle Langer

Niki Denison
September 14, 2021

A Self-Made Woman

Gayle Williams Langer ’83, former executive director of the Wisconsin Alumni Association, passed away in September.

While spending her early years on farms in Waushara County, Wisconsin, Langer dreamed of attending the UW. She boarded a Greyhound bus at age 17 and headed for Madison with no funds, no job lined up, and no place to live. She scored a free room at the YWCA and eventually learned about a scholarship that allowed her to earn a degree in marketing from the UW’s School of Business. 

Fulfilling another dream, Langer married in 1958 and eventually had two children. She solidified her bond with the university when she began working for the Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA) in 1959. In 1979, she started the Wisconsin Alumni Student Board, an organization that helps students prepare to become alumni leaders; WASB is still going strong today. In 1989, she succeeded Arlie Mucks ’47 as WAA executive director, serving in that role until 2000.

According to Paula Bonner MS’78, whom Langer hired as associate executive director in 1989, one of Langer’s key contributions was re-establishing relationships and partnerships with the university, so that the association served not only alumni and students but also the campus. She also raised funds for and presided over a renovation of the Alumni Center, enhanced WAA’s alumni communications, and strengthened its ties with international and diverse alumni. She especially enjoyed mentoring students, colleagues, and alumni, as well as helping to plan alumni bowl trips, including four Rose Bowl tours, on which she led many renditions of “On, Wisconsin” and “Varsity.” 

Langer served on the board of the UW Foundation and was a recognized leader in higher education, as well as a champion for women in the advancement industry. She was a trustee and officer of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). As the first woman to chair CASE’s Midwest district, she was the recipient of the organization’s Distinguished Service Award. She served as chair of the Big Ten Alumni Directors and as director of the Council of Alumni Association Executives, a consortium of 90 alumni associations from throughout the country.

According to Donna Shalala, former UW chancellor and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, “Gayle taught me a lot about the university and the Wisconsin community. … I loved sitting in her office, following her around at tailgates, and absorbing her enthusiasm and love for the Badgers.”

In retirement, Langer was as active as ever. She helped start a Madison chapter of Gilda’s Club, which supports those affected by cancer. She also served as a grant writer for nonprofits and was active in her church, her neighborhood association, the Rotary Club, and the Madison chapter of TEMPO, earning its Distinguished Service Award in 2007. She was named a YWCA Woman of Distinction in 1987.

Sarah Schutt, WAA’s chief alumni officer and executive director, says that “Gayle’s passion for the UW and deep commitment to alumni is a legacy that lives on through the work of WAA today.” 

Bonner , who succeeded Langer as WAA executive director, adds, “Gayle was a leader who made a positive difference for WAA, the university, and in the lives of many. Looking back, her commitment was never more on display to me than the day that I stopped by her house to pick her up and drive her to an alumni event. She asked me to grab her coat and, in doing so, I discovered the biggest wardrobe of red clothes I’d ever seen! There’s just no doubt that somewhere in the universe, Gayle Langer is wearing Badger red.”

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