A tiny treasure lost
In December 1941, when the Japanese army began its swift conquest of the Philippines, Santiago Artiaga, then 63 years old, was one of his nation’s leading civil engineers and public servants. He had been Manila’s city engineer. He designed the city’s pure-water system. He wrote codes for safe buildings. As a professor at the University of Santo Tomas, he trained many of the Philippines’ civil engineers. He also was mayor of two major cities and governor of a province.
By the time the Japanese were gone in 1945, Artiaga had lost his home, his health, and all the personal papers he had accumulated since his graduation from the University of Michigan in 1904.
In 1947, he wrote to tell an American friend he would make the 4,000-mile trip to Ann Arbor for Homecoming. “I emerged from the war depressed, a fire victim, broken in health, exaggeratedly aged because of near starvation, and losing the bulk of [my] earthly belongings, the result of my life work,” he wrote. “But loyalty and love for the Alma Mater seem to admit of no alibi … I must visit Michigan for spiritual reinvigoration.”
He told friends he was heartbroken over the loss of his Michigan diploma and especially of a bit of sculpted enamel he had treasured for 40 years — his Michigan Union button.
Evolution of a tradition
Over many years, thousands of Michigan alumni kept these baubles in dresser drawers and affixed them to their lapels. The button first appeared in the 1890s when U-M’s Athletic Association, forerunner of the Athletic Department, asked a jeweler to create a batch of them.
The association began to sell the buttons to raise money. Athletes often received them for free. The design evolved year by year. The earliest examples collected by Greg Dooley of MVictors.com, a leading chronicler of U-M athletic history, carry the initials “U of M” or “U M” or just “M” against a field of sky-blue and light yellow. Soon the shapes began to vary — a football in 1898-99; a tennis ball in 1899; a baseball mitt in 1907-08; the cleated shoe of a sprinter in 1910-11.
Santiago Artiaga’s button was probably in the football shape chosen for graduates of 1904.
That was the year the Michigan Union was founded as a unifying social club for all Michigan men — students, faculty, and alumni alike — amid tensions between undergraduate fraternity members and “independents.” To counter those tensions, the Union’s leaders and many others of the day boosted the idea of “school spirit” — an allegiance to one’s university as a vessel of high ideals. The little maize-and-blue button became a symbol of that devotion.
The Union takes over
Well aware of the popularity of the Athletic Association’s buttons, leaders of the Union in 1912 negotiated to take over the button operation. To enhance recruitment, the Union would give new members one button to wear as students. Then another would be awarded to four-year members upon their graduation — or sold to slackers who had signed up late. A version in gold was provided to those who paid to be “life members” of the Union.
“The Union button will be a great aid to us in enlarging our membership among the students,” Homer Heath, manager of the Union, told the Michigan Daily. “It adds another tangible asset that we can offer for membership.”
Now the athletic symbols were replaced by a simple block M plus the digits of a student’s year of graduation, though the shape of the button morphed over time — circles, squares, rectangles, shields, diamonds, octagons. According to 1993 LSA grad Dooley, they were made by a succession of jewelers — Wright Kay & Co. of Detroit; William Arnold of Ann Arbor; Bastion Brothers of Rochester, NY; Whitehead and Hoag of Newark, NJ; and Burr, Patterson & Auld of Detroit.
In 1933, the design was standardized to a blue block M with the letters “U-N-I-O-N” in a vertical stack down the center against a maize circle. In 1943, the annual digits were left off. The tradition continued for 10 more years, then was dropped.
But that did not deter Santiago Artiaga.
A treasure restored
Born in 1878, Artiaga had come to Michigan among a cadre of students called the Pensionados.
The U.S. had won its war with Spain in 1898 and taken over Spain’s colonies, including the Philippines, then quashed Filipino revolutionaries in a brutal struggle. Now Americans sought to recruit and train young Filipinos from elite families to become the Americanized leaders of the Philippines under U.S. colonial rule. These were the Pensionados, some 500 in all, who earned degrees at Michigan, Harvard, Princeton, Indiana, and a score of other U.S. universities.
Some historians now see the Pensionados only as pawns of the American colonial project. However that may be, Artiaga declared his American education to have been the foundation of his service to his country. His devotion to Michigan was not “rah-rah” nostalgia for lost youth. It was intertwined with a life of far-reaching achievements.
“In humble and in top positions as well,” he wrote, “Michigan was ever-present in my mind. I always set whatever honor or apparent success I attained to the credit of my Michigan education. I survived the war because of the traditional Michigan spirit … never to give up.”
When he arrived in Ann Arbor for the 1947 reunion, Artiaga’s friends told him they had arranged a special ceremony. He would receive a duplicate of his 1904 diploma. And he would receive a Michigan Union button to replace the one lost to fire during the war.
Artiaga died in Manila in 1962.
In the 1950s, an outstanding collection of Michigan buttons could be seen at O’Grady’s Barber Shop, 1110 S. University (“five chairs – no waiting”). Where those pins are now, no one is sure. The Union has a collection, as does the Bentley Historical Library. MVictors.com’s Dooley believes he owns the largest private collection. He invites anyone who owns a Union button to write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources included [Greg Dooley], “The Michigan Union Button: A Lost Tradition,” 2/4/2022; MVictors.com; the papers of Santiago Artiaga at the Bentley Historical Library; the Michigan Daily; and “The Pensionados at the University of Michigan”, which is part of a documentary project by Michigan undergraduates titled “The Philippines and the University of Michigan, 1870-1935.”
David Wise - JD 1967
Great story this could make a great fund raiser for the University. Did the Women have something similar at the Union League?
James Tobin - 1978, 1986
David — I believe the League had a pin, too. Ask Greg Dooley: email@example.com
Greg Dooley - 1993
David/Jim, yes, my understanding is that the league issued a pin (there’s a nice one on eBay right now) but they didn’t take it to the level of the athletic association or Union with the varying designs and the school years.
Betty Joe Pea - 2010
What an amazing story. I would really like one of those extraordinary pins.
Gordon Bremenkampf - 1963, 1967
I received two M pins, both with UNION written vertically through the block M, but neither with numerals. The first, received my first semester as a UM student, has a blue background with a gold M and gold rim, and has graced a blue blazer of mine continuously since the early sixties. The second, received after my graduation in 1963, has the colors reversed; it has a gold background with a blue M and blue rim, and has been safely tucked away, along with my Michigan Union membership card and a key fob upon which the following is etched:
UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN UNION
Gordon L. Bremenkampf, ’63, ’67
Robert Merchant - 1968
My pin received sometime 63-68 just has the M. Are there ones with the grad date?
Robin Stevens Lowery - 1977
I also had a pin, received my first semester in grad school from a male friend. My home burned to the ground in 1980 and the pin along with much of my high school and college memorabilia was lost in the fire. I sure would like to replace.
Chris Campbell - 1972 Rackham, 1975 Law
After my Dad’s death, I found his Union pins (late ’30s) in his dresser drawer, just as Mr. Tobin described. By the time I was studying at U-M (1971-1975), the Union wasn’t a center of much activity, and as a grad school and then law student, I did not have much time for much social stuff anyway. I may have entered the Union building once in 4-1/2 years. But now I’ve got Dad’s pins with the block M, and they are installed on the lapels of coats I wear to court or for similar occasions as a badge of my affection for the University.
The article describes Mr. Artiaga’s affection. I understand the phenomenon completely. My 4-1/2 years in Ann Arbor were a great gift from my state to me, the opportunity to learn from very bright and accomplished people at a cost that was affordable. It was a difficult period in my life but produces rewards to this day. Those little pins commemorate that experience.
Christopher Bell - 1973; MSW 1994
As soon as I saw the image of the Michigan Union button in the Michigan Today e-mail, I had to click on the link to the article–I was not surprised to see yet another great article from Professor Tobin!!
I also had to retrieve my father’s jewelry box of which I have been the caretaker since his passing. He also had a blue button with the year in which he started at U-M (’37-’38), as well as the gold button, presumably when he was about to graduate, both with the vertical “UNION” letters. The latter button did not have any years included because he did not graduate until after the war in 1947.
Just a note about the mention of “sky-blue”–the original/official colors of U-M are NOT the navy blue created by the football team but the light blue used back then (apparent in the pins of Greg Dooley going as far back as 1892).
Thanks for giving me the background on these pins, Jim!
Doris Rubenstein - 1971
I was given a gold pendant in the shape of a football with the blue block M and a year on it that a friend had found at a garage sale in Minnesota. Clearly, it was meant for a woman. I kept it for many years and wore it occasionally, then gave it to the daughter of a dear friend who graduated M a couple years ago (that’s why I can’t remember which year was on it). It was unclear whether it was from the League or just a bauble from a local A2 jewelry store.
Greg Dooley - 1993
Doris, do you have a photo of that pendant?
R. Gregory Stutz - 1972
So, why wasn’t I offered a pin? Or was the Union just blowing off people who were drafted into the Army?
Andy Hitchcock - BA, 2000
I found a life membership tab at a garage sale near Youngstown a few years ago. With the help of Greg Dooley and the folks at the Bentley Historical Library, I got the following. Pretty cool history and narrative, to be sure.
“These tags were first issued in 1921 (see “Union Gives Tags to Life Members.”) This practice continued for quite some time, but given the number on your tag (24,665) and given the number of tags printed for that first year (20,000) it could not have been one of those initial tags, and was therefore likely generated in the next batch of tags to be created.
Due to this information, it seems most likely that this tag was created 1922 or after. (The practice of creating metal tags for lifetime members extended at least through 1950 (see “Union Lifers Reap Many Prerogatives,”) and likely later, but I would suspect this tag was created sometime around 1922-1930 given the number.)”