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A never-ending story

Two teachers who dedicated their lives to teaching now commit their resources to students.

The rat’s influence on society may seem an unsavory subject, but hearing about it attracted Marquette students in droves. If you were in the audience at the wildly entertaining history lectures by “Dr. Ron,” you’ve not likely forgotten them or him.  

Flamboyant. Energetic. Consummate showman. Intellectual heavyweight. That’s how Professor Ron Zupko’s colleagues describe him. That’s also, they say, what made him a favorite of students. “He is a great storyteller,” says Dr. John Krugler, who worked with Zupko since 1969 in Marquette’s History Department. “He is filled with excitement for his topic and teaching, and the students picked up on that.”  

“He has a cult following, for sure,” affirms former student Peter Sandroni, who remembers the gusto with which his favorite professor re-enacted scenes from the Crusades. “He would get so animated, it was crazy,” he laughs. “I was hooked on him after my first class.” But, says Sandroni, it was fun with a purpose: “He really motivated us to work hard.”

Zupko spent 40 years inspiring Marquette students. His wife, Kay, is perhaps the only person whose energy and dedication match his. A teacher with Milwaukee Public Schools since 1971, she worked hard to ensure a strong educational foundation for her students, primarily first-graders, and to foster their zest for learning.

She had a following, too. “Kay was one of those teachers parents would request,” says Helen Harris, a former principal of Lloyd Street School where Kay taught for 32 years. “She took each student individually to heart,” admires Ron. And she was persistent. “She was a teacher who didn’t give up on them,” says Harris. “She was willing to work with every student.”

“For 35 years it was all school,” says Kay, a bit wistfully of life before retirement. They may not be in the classroom anymore, but the Zupkos’ dedication and traditions of excellence will live on. Their generous $1 million pledge toward a namesake perpetual endowment will fund, starting by 2015, four-year full-tuition scholarships for high-performing MPS students with demonstrated financial need. Once at Marquette these Zupko Scholars will be expected to continue to achieve academically.

Though their student bodies were vastly different, the Zupkos shared a conviction about teaching them. “If they were having fun, I was doing my job,” says Kay. “If you laugh and have a good time, you’ll learn,” Ron says.

Both approached teaching as a dynamic, interactive process between teacher and student, and that fueled their enthusiasm for the profession. “Every day was different because of what the children may have brought in that day. It’s a give and take,” says Kay. “I had to be inspired. Devotion, inquisitiveness, drive I can’t teach well if I have boring students,” Ron says. “The classes and information have to be made worthwhile,” he adds. “I viewed each lecture as a whole, as a gem. I wanted them to remember it that way.”

Kay spent summers taking classes and wondering what new things she could offer students. Ron tended to research, in addition to lecturing. “He was a stalwart of the department in both the art of teaching and his scholarship,” says Krugler. Ron’s efforts were recognized with a Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence in 1977 and an invitation to the prestigious Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton for a year of theoretical inquiry among some of the best minds in the world.

A medieval historian, Ron specializes in the science and technology and economic history of the Middle Ages. He is an authority on metrology, the study of weights and measures. “He is a world-recognized scholar,” Krugler says. “He has an international reputation.” Marquette’s library archives will house Ron’s extensive research collection.

Ron says he’s not sure what he and Kay will do with their staggering museum-quality clock collection. Over the years they amassed 3,000 clocks. They’ve downsized a bit, to 200 large and 800 small clocks, and will give a Joan of Arc statue clock from Rheims Cathedral the oldest in their collection to Marquette with hopes it will grace St. Joan of Arc Chapel.

The Zupkos also will continue to give the Golden Eagles support. Avid men’s basketball fans, they have had season tickets for years. It’s no surprise where their seats are located: right where the energy is near the student section.

The scholarship fund is a way to keep their connection to students alive. “It just combined both our careers and that we both know the value of a good education,” says Kay. “Bright kids who otherwise would not graduate from college the point of the gift is to give them that opportunity,” says Ron.

There is also personal significance: “Fulfillment. A legacy. Something to remember. So the name Zupko won’t die. I’ll still be having an influence on the lives of these students,” he adds. KB

Ron and Kay urge their former students, alumni, faculty and staff who would like to add gifts of any denomination to the Ronald E. and Kathleen M. Zupko Endowed Scholarship Fund to contact Corinthia Van Orsdol (414) 288-7270 or

Remember the “Rat Lecture?” Share your in the comments section below.


Comment by Kevin Kelsay Class of 1981 at Jul 20 2009 10:32 am
"Ratus ratus" ... I will always remember his comment that we as modern students "wouldn't last thirty days" in a medieval village. He was absolutely right! His love for his subject matter embued our spirits with a desire to learn more. Unforgettable, indeed.
Comment by Charles Alexander at Jul 20 2009 11:12 am
I remember Dr. Z very well. I took a Historial Methods course from him to fullfil a requirement for my Ph.D. in Education. I must say that it was one of the most exciting courses I have ever taken. Dr. Z was stimulating, animated, intelligent, and interested in the students learning. I will never forget the impression that he left upon me and I thank him for the opportunity to learn from an outstanding Professor.
Comment by Andrew Bonvicini at Jul 20 2009 11:46 am
We invited Dr. Zupko to one of the residence halls several times so that students who did not have the opportunity to take a class with him would have the opportunity to hear the famous, funny rat lecture. In my own teaching, I have riffed on (i.e., stolen from) the rat lecture here and there. I always give credit to the Man, and though students cringe (e.g., a blind subterranean rat covered in slick black filth), it's not nearly as funny!
Comment by Teri A. Schmidgall - Class of 1995 at Jul 20 2009 12:49 pm
To this day I talk about The Crusades class I had with Dr. Zupko. I can still see in my mind the notebook jam packed with the top five battles of the second crusade or the reasons Frederick Barbarrosa was awesome,etc. A great class with a great professor! Congratulations and thank you to you both for all you have done!
Comment by Tom Berndt at Jul 20 2009 02:42 pm
It wasn't the "Rattus rattus" that was scary. Thiose were the common rats that joined the humans at their eating tables in the large dining halls. Black, white and other colored, they were treated like we treat dogs and cats today.

But the Norwegian brown rat, "Rattus rattus <i>rattus</i>, that was the scary one! One hour with Dr. Zupko discussing rats - well, it was very revealing!

I hope Dr. Zupko has it recorded somewhere for others to hear.
Comment by Charles A Donahue, Attorney at Law at Jul 20 2009 09:05 pm
I took his class in 1979, and remember rats the size of sheep that never saw the light of day ( thank God). An excellent class; an excellent professor-- one of the best!
Comment by Matt Ortloff at Jul 22 2009 01:28 am
I took four classes with Dr.Zupko and he helped me to become a teacher. I will never forget the personal attention that he gave me and all of his students. I always thought that I was just another student that would soon be forgotten at the end of each semester. That all changed when I turned in a paper in my second class with him, Dr. Zupko called me in personally and told me that I had written a pretty good paper that might get an A, but he was giving me a B because he knew my work and that I could do better. WOW! I will never forget that push that he gave more or the fact that he even remembered who I was almost a year later. He embodies everything that is Marquette.
Comment by Anne Kirkhope at Jul 22 2009 02:37 pm
I had two classes with Dr. Zupko: Honors Program History and the seminar Death and Dying in the Middle Ages. I heard about those rats in both classes! Twenty-one years after graduation, I remember few professors by name, and one is definitely Dr. Z! Thank you for myself, and thank you in advance to you and your wife for your amazing contribution to future students!
Comment by Anne Smith at Jul 22 2009 09:55 pm
I had Dr. Zupko for Honors Program History and it was one of the my favorite Marquette classes, which I've told my husband about many times over the years. As a graduate from that other big WI school 70 miles west, he can't quite imagine being taught by such a renowned professor in a class of 20 students!
Comment by Maureen Charles at Jul 22 2009 11:16 pm
In the Fall of 1978 I was lucky to be in Dr. Zupko's Honors History class with a handful of fellow select students while hundreds of our fellow freshmen sweated out their first semester of history together in the Varsity Theater. My preferred study method in that class was to open my notebook and recreate the lectures for my dorm mates while matching the enthusiasm and flamboyancy of the original as closely as possible. The information stuck. Over thirty years later, I love to regale friends with tidbits snatched from Dr. Zupko's oh-so-colorful lectures. As for the rats, I still get the creeps recalling the details of modern day rat research conducted in the sewers beneath Chicago. Images of that giant blind rat haunt my dreams even now. Thanks, Dr. Z!
Comment by Rob Blazewick at Jul 23 2009 05:55 pm
I had alread filled my History requirements when a friend and classmate talked me into taking Death and Dying the Middle Ages. 25 years later, my notes from the Rat lecture are the only remaining notes I have from my years at Marquette. As others have noted, not only did I enjoy my semester with him, but he challenged me to do better and better. Thank you Dr. Z!
Comment by Dawn Fell at Jul 31 2009 01:44 pm
What a thrill it was to have Dr. Zupko as my mentor and Director of my Masters in Medieval History. I am now a History Professor and teaching the "rat" lecture is one of my favorites! I remember every detail of his lecture, and always think of him when I teach that very same topic. I used my notes from his class to help bring the rats to life. I remember his opening line that particular day. He said, "This lecture is not for the faint of heart, if you just ate lunch you might want to skip this one". He is a great teacher, and a true Historian who fostered generations of future history lovers, and teachers. Thanks Dr. Zupko for being a major inspiration and mentor.
Comment by Susan Reed at Aug 08 2009 05:38 pm
My favorite moments were when he would pose a question to the class and upon receiving an incorrect response, instead of making some kind of patronizing pedagogically correct response, he would just shout, "No!"
Comment by Justin Kolodziej at Aug 13 2009 01:11 pm
I went to Marquette for engineering, but thanks to AP classes I took exactly one history class. It was Dr. Zupko's, don't remember the exact title other than it was medieval history. I remember Ratus ratus ratus, but I also remember interesting tidbits, like how streets in the red-light districts of the day had very vulgar names, and perhaps most importantly, if it weren't for the toleration of interest (known as usury in those days) in Italy, the Middle East might still rule international trade to this day. And, of course, there were significant technical innovations in those "Dark" Ages Thank you, Dr. Z!
Comment by Erik Heinrichs at Aug 14 2009 10:30 am
Dr. Zupko defined my Marquette experience as well as my graduate training at Harvard University, first by converting a young engineering student to the study of the human past, and second by introducing me to the primary sources that became the backbone of my dissertation in early modern German history. Dr. Zupko himself bought this microfilm collection of late medieval and early modern plague literature and donated it to the Marquette library. A truly excellent professor and human being! I'll send you a copy of the dissertation soon, Dr. Z! And my favorite line from Western Civ I: "In the Middle Ages there was always someone lurking in the bushes."
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