There is only one amphitheatre in Wisconsin’s universities and, indeed, few in the nation. The Melvin Wall Amphitheatre grew out of the idea of Prof. Melvin Wall who, as head of the Campus Planning Committee, had a vision for improving the southern part of the campus. It included a swamp and the South Fork or “Pete’s Creek.”
Dr. Wall was chairman of the plant and earth science department in the College of Agriculture. He joined the River Falls faculty in 1940. An agronomist, he was featured in a series on leaders in his field in the Crops and Soils Magazine. Born in Holton, Kan., he and his family moved to a farm near Hawkins where he attended the public schools. After graduation from the River Falls State Teachers College in 1936 he taught agriculture at Roberts High School for two years. He earned the master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin in 1939 and the Ph.D. degree from that institution in 1957.
In planning for the improvement, he saw the need for an outdoor theatre. He and his wife had been on a tour of Northern Italy and there he had seen an amphitheatre built in the Greco-Roman style. After exploring it he told her, “I’m going to build one down on the creek.” She asked, “You and who else?” and he said, “The Prez and I.” When he returned he found Dr. Kleinpell enthusiastic about the idea and supportive all during the construction period. A great deal of labor went into the project, much of it during the summer by students who lugged slabs of limestone for the seating circles. Hundreds of students aided by faculty and friends of the university waded in mud to level the area, lay sod and haul dirt.
The UW-River Falls Foundation was a new and active force for idealism in the early 1960s and the improvement of the south campus became a major goal. The drive had considerable assistance with the Axel Foundation contributing $2,000 and former student, W. H. Hunt, offering $20,000 as a challenge gift to match student, faculty and alumni contributions. The amphitheatre has been used for Commencement and other programs such as a music series during the summer. At the dedication ceremony in 1972 the Minnesota Orchestra gave an outdoor performance. Also a memorial to Dr. Wall is the fountain, donated by his widow, Margaret, and located in the mall between South Hall and Hagestad Hall.
Dr. Wall was appointed to an eight-man survey team to study Vietnam’s system of higher education. The first such study ever made, it was a joint effort of the government of Vietnam and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The team left on Jan. 2, 1967, and had completed the first phase of the study — a survey of existing conditions — and had made a preliminary report on the second phase — long range needs and implementation. All members of the group, along with the pilot, were killed March 25 when their plane crashed into a mountain north of DaNang during turbulent, rainy weather. He was granted the Distinguished Alumnus Award, posthumously, at the 1967 Commencement.
In paying tribute to Wall, President E. H. Kleinpell said: “In addition to the sense of personal loss his colleagues at the University feel in the death of Melvin Wall, there is also a great loss to the institution. Wall devoted 27 years of his life to the University from which he was graduated and had great influence on its students and alumni. His interest in the University went beyond the classroom and included all aspects of its welfare. As chairman of the campus planning committee, he did much to preserve and enhance the natural beauty of the River Falls Campus ... Wall was untiring in giving of himself and our only solace is that his death resulted from an important task in which he believed.”