Wylie Aitken was only 20 years old when he entered Marquette Law School in the early 1960s.
He arrived there a year earlier than most of his peers — his GPA allowed him early entry to the school after just three years of undergraduate studies at Santa Ana College and Cal State Fullerton. Aitken received the St. Thomas More scholarship, which took care of his tuition and some book costs.
“I just needed to find a place to live and enough money to buy a hamburger,” Aitken said. “If they had not made financing available I wouldn’t have been able to attend a school of such fine quality as Marquette.”
Now Aitken is giving back — with a $2 million donation to the Law School for construction costs of Eckstein Hall, the $85 million, 200,000 square foot structure rising on Tory Hill.
Aitken’s wife Bette followed him to Milwaukee and took a job at New York Life Insurance in downtown Milwaukee. They raised their son Darren at an apartment complex on Silver Spring Drive.
Today, father and son work at the law firm Aitken established in Santa Ana, Calif., three years after graduation from Law School.
He said he drifted away from Marquette until he was contacted by Howard Eisenberg, who was dean of the Law School from 1995 until his death in 2002. They set up a dinner meeting in California, where Eisenberg laid out his vision for the school as “a national law school, and not just a Wisconsin law school,” according to Aitken.
Aitken, who serves on the Law School’s board of advisers, donated a scholarship in honor of Eisenberg. He said he’s also had regular contact with current dean Joseph Kearney, who contacted him when construction for the new building began. Aitken said he had been aware of limitations of the current building, Sensenbrenner Hall.
“There was a lot of discussion about my involvement,” Aitken said. “It reached a point where my wife and I felt we’ve been very fortunate in our lives, the law has been good to me and I hope I’m good to it. And it seemed like the right time to do it.”
Eckstein Hall’s two-story reading room will be named for the Aitkens, Kearney said in a statement last week. He said the gift is the largest contribution to date from a practicing attorney.
The Aitkens’ gift follows other contributions to the Law School that have been made since Ray and Katherine Eckstein gave $51 million in May 2007. Joseph Zilber, a local real estate developer, donated $30 million to the school — $5 million for the building’s construction and the remainder for student scholarships. The Bradley Foundation and Northwestern Mutual Foundation have each given $1 million.
In total, less than $14 million of the building’s cost remains to be raised, Kearney said.
The Law School hopes to raise that amount by the time the building is dedicated in late summer or early fall, said Mike McChrystal, a Law School professor and chair of strategic planning.
There’s been an “extremely strong response” in donations from Law School alumni who, like Ray Eckstein, Zilber and Aitken, represent the school’s legacy, McChrystal said.
“I think that the building is a tangible expression of a great tradition,” McChrystal said. “(The donations) have reinforced a notion that Marquette Law has a tradition of excellence in legal education.”