About Oscar

Oscar Rennebohm with wife Mary and daughter Carol Ann, seated in front of fireplace

Oscar (center), Mary (right) and Carol Ann Rennebohm

“One thing I have learned is that you don’t go out of this life with the books exactly balanced. I used to think you could. You can’t. You either give. Or you take.” 

– Oscar Rennebohm, taken from a 1968 Wisconsin State Journal editorial

Oscar Rennebohm was a shrewd, successful businessman and insightful philanthropist who served as Wisconsin Governor and as President of the UW-Madison Board of Regents. A caring and compassionate man, he was visionary in his understanding of equity, and championed human rights and civil rights. He recognized the importance of education for a stable, informed community; the benefits of research for a healthy society; the potential for cultural and recreational opportunities to bring people together; and the responsibility to support those in need, as well as those whose skills are needed.

Oscar was a businessman who, from virtually nothing, built a profitable chain of drugstores that dominated the Madison, Wisconsin market for decades.

He was a revered and effective statesman, reforming the public education system, revitalizing programs for people with disabilities, and emphasizing treatment of mental illness rather than custodial care. 

Oscar's Early Life

Oscar was born May 25, 1889, in the town of Leeds (Columbia County), Wisconsin, one of five boys and four girls in a German immigrant farming family. He demonstrated his desire to improve himself early in life when he literally pounded his way into the schoolhouse, hammering on the door until the teacher let him in and gave the determined but underage scholar a seat in the classroom. The Rennebohms moved to Morrisonville, Wisconsin until Oscar was 10, then to Milwaukee, where he attended East Division High School, played on the city championship basketball team and worked several part-time jobs before graduating in 1908. 

Oscar Rennebohm

Pharmacy Creed for Rennebohm Drug Stores
Rennebohm Drug Stores

After high school, Oscar began working in his brother-in-law’s drugstore, his first exposure to the industry that would become his livelihood. He moved to Madison to enroll in the University of Wisconsin’s two-year pharmacy course, earning his degree in 1911. The young pharmacist took a job at a local drugstore but he wanted his own business. In 1912, with money borrowed from his father, he purchased a bankrupt store on the UW campus at the edge of the plot that would become the site of Wisconsin General Hospital, later named University Hospital. Working long hours and mostly alone, he built the Badger Pharmacy into a profitable business and repaid his father the first year. He catered to faculty and students, many of whom he got to know personally. Crediting them, in part, for his success, Oscar developed a lifelong affection for UW.

When the United States entered World War I, Rennebohm volunteered as an able seaman and was commissioned an ensign, but never saw action.

Discharged at the war’s end, he married UW alumna Mary Fowler. They soon had a daughter, Doris, who died of a brain tumor at age 8. Shortly after her death, Oscar and Mary adopted a baby girl, Carol Ann.

During the 1920s, Oscar added six more stores to his enterprise, earning the respect of its competitors and the loyalty of its customers. By 1952, Rennebohm Drug Stores, Inc. had 15 locations, and by 1955, it served one-fourth of Madison’s residents, including 10,000 people at its soda fountains every day. At the height of the company’s success, there were 30 locations in the chain, all in the Madison area, from Sun Prairie to Middleton. As many as 950 employees served up to 40,000 customers daily. “Rennie’s” was Madison institution for nearly 70 years until the company was sold to Walgreen Co. in 1980.

From Governor to Regent
In 1944, Oscar decided to enter politics when he ran for lieutenant governor in partnership with Governor Samuel Goodland. Goodland’s advanced age made the office of lieutenant governor important and strongly contested. Oscar was a well-liked and respected politician. Upon Goodland’s death, Oscar became Governor in 1947 and won the office outright in 1948. He furthered his impact on education during his time as a University of Wisconsin–Madison Regent from 1952–60. Perhaps Oscar’s most enduring and profitable contribution as Regent was his management of the sale of the University farms on University Avenue. With land allocated for parks, a state office building and eventually Hilldale Shopping Center, residential lots sold for more than $5 million, and placed more than $40 million on city and county tax rolls. Hilldale remains a near west side retail and dining anchor today.

Governor Rennebohm signing a bill, 1949

R for Rennebohm marker outside Rennebohm Hall, UW–Madison campus

Oscar's Legacy
The demands of Oscar’s business and political careers exhausted his body without ever weakening his mind or diminishing his concern for others, but his failing health forced him to withdraw from politics and direct management of his numerous interests. He succumbed to heart disease on October 15, 1968 at age 79 with Mary at his side.  The Madison cityscape would look much different without the iconic institutions that were financed in part through the insightful philanthropy of Oscar and his foundation. The many investments to local colleges and universities, social service and child care agencies, retirement communities, hospitals, health care organizations and other nonprofits have transformed the Madison metropolitan area, and improved the quality of life for residents from 1949 to today.