Trailblazing: The many legacies of Wisconsin Engineer’s first woman editor

Written by Mike A. Shapiro

Our magazine’s first woman editor was also one of the first women to graduate UW–Madison with an engineering degree.

When June Hartnell began editing Wisconsin Engineer in August 1944, she had a co-editor, a boyfriend with a red and white single-seat airplane, and the top GPA in the electrical engineering program. The co-editor was conscripted the next month and the boyfriend enlisted in the Navy the year after, but Hartnell’s GPA stayed so high that she graduated in less than three years.

Hartnell in 1944 (left) and 1945
(Credit: UW Madison Libraries)

As editor-in-chief for 12 issues, Hartnell wrote 12,000 words for the magazine covering early television, the growth of amateur radio, and veterans moving into Camp Randall with their families.

The 1944 article that introduced Hartnell as the magazine’s new editor hints at both her personality and the sexist milieu she fought against:

When asked why she chose engineering as her profession she exclaimed “Please don’t ask me that” and stalked out of the room. Maybe the reason for her choice lies in the fact that when other girls were playing with dolls, she played football or baseball with the “gang.” Or when Mary and Sally were taking Home Economics and typing in high school, June added to these subjects physics and trig. In any event June is an engineer and her grade point makes known the fact that she is a good one.

In the memoir she wrote for her grandchildren, Hartnell recalled that the challenge of being one of the only women in the College of Engineering had less to do with her classmates than with her instructors, as exemplified by one psychology professor.

Hartnell recalled, “He seemed to resent my being in class—I guess because he felt he couldn’t tell his jokes that he had always told to the guys. One day I wasn’t in class and someone told me later he said, ‘Well, I see that Miss Hartnell is not in class today. Is there anything you really want to know?’”

One exception was Elizabeth Sokolnikof, a pathbreaking math professor at UW–Madison. Sokolnikof showed what it looked like for a woman to succeed in a field dominated by men, and actively encouraged Hartnell toward advanced study in math, planting a seed that came to flower thirty years later.

The magazine’s society columnists wrote often about Hartnell’s relationship with the pilot of the red and white Ford Flivver. They recorded when he gave her his Theta Chi pin (August 31, 1944) and her subsequent trips to the Great Lakes naval station to visit him in basic training. We feel the pang when, the following year, she announces her engagement to a different man she met while working as a research engineer.

Wisconsin Engineer staff in 1945. Hartnell is in the front row, looking down.

After marrying in 1947, Hartnell moved back to Wisconsin, raised four children, earned an MS in math from Marquette University, and embarked on a three-decade career as a math, science, and engineering high school teacher.

Her children and her students benefited from her determination. Hartnell saw what each was capable of and accepted only their best.

Nancy Lazzaroni, who taught alongside Hartnell in Lake Geneva, remembers that she connected most deeply with “students in her lower-level classes, the students who didn’t want to be there.” Hartnell would share stories of her time in engineering to ensure the girls in her classes saw the broad picture of what was possible.

“She was a stern yet compassionate person,” writes Becki Regester ՚99, Hartnell’s student in Lake Geneva and a UW–Madison graduate in poultry science. “It’s because of women like her that my generation of women excelled, and found other paths in our education.”

Just before Hartnell retired she won a prestigious Herb Kohl teacher fellowship, making her an automatic candidate for Wisconsin Teacher of the Year.

After her retirement, Hartnell spent her summers mapping the trailways of the Rawah Wilderness in northern Colorado. “One day we got a call from the ranch,” her son says, “and they said ‘Your mother is going up into the mountains backpacking for 3 days’ and we said ‘So?’ and they said ‘Well, she’s going alone’ and we said ‘So?’”

“If you told her she couldn’t do something, she was going to do it,”

Every fall and spring, Hartnell rallied volunteers and donors to build the Ice Age trails around Lake Geneva. If you’ve hiked the trails around Kettle Moraine State Forest, you are indebted in part to Hartnell’s talent at attracting volunteers. Lazzaroni, now a volunteer leader with the Ice Age Trail Alliance, recalls “She wouldn’t tell you ‘you should do this’ but ‘you should come see this’ or ‘I think you would like this.’ How are you going to say no to that?”

Hartnell with her family at the dedication of her bench on the Ice Age Trail.

When Hartnell died in 2014, she forewent a funeral and directed donations to the Ice Age Trail Alliance, raising thousands of dollars and inaugurating a hike and picnic in her honor.

Although it wasn’t until two decades after her graduation that another woman would lead the magazine, Hartnell’s fingerprint remains on everything she touched: the College of Engineering, where she was among the first 20 women to graduate; her students, her trails, and her editorship of this magazine. She was a trailblazer on every path she took.

**Hartnell’s last piece for Wisconsin Engineer shares the stories and photos of veterans housed in Camp Randall. Click here to read it.

2 replies on “Trailblazing: The many legacies of Wisconsin Engineer’s first woman editor”

Wow, what a cool lady! I love to hear how she supported other young women to also pursue their dreams. Women inspiring women, and also building trails? What isn’t to love? There’s work still to be done here for inclusivity, but onward and upward.

It sounds as though she put her heart into everything she did! She excelled despite hostility towards her identity and sparked change for the Wisconsin Engineer Magazine. Thank you, June Hartnell, for your fierce leadership and determination!

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