Building a Building Legacy

Elzie Higginbottom ran his way to the UW, and then he ran his way into the university’s record books. And after he completed his degree, he kept right on running — straight up the corporate ladder to a position as one of Illinois’s leading real estate executives.

Higginbottom grew up in Chicago Heights, just a few miles south of the heart of Chicago. He was athletic, which helped him land a track scholarship at the UW, where he ran the 440-yard dash and anchored the Badgers’ mile relay team. The academic and athletic opportunities appealed to him, but not so much as Madison itself.

“I visited the University of Wisconsin and, in addition to the beautiful campus, I found that the people of Madison were very welcoming,” he says. “I felt very, very comfortable with them, and I felt it was really a good fit for me.”

On the track team, Higginbottom was a four-year star: he won the Big Ten championship in the indoor mile race in 1963 and was an All-American in the 440. In 1963, he set the UW school record in that race, with a time of 46 seconds — a record that held until 1983.

But in the classroom, he was attracted to real estate. Inspired by his grandparents’ farm, he studied agricultural economics, and in the summer, he worked for Baird and Warner, a Chicago real estate firm. The summer job led to a full-time position after graduation. He developed an expertise in finance and helped lead Baird and Warner’s effort to create a division that focused on government-assisted housing.

“At that time, it was a growing area,” he says, “but keep in mind that this was 1965, and I was the first African American hired at Baird and Warner. The opportunity at that time for Blacks was not exactly the same as it is today. The fact that I was doing government-assisted housing removed some of the barriers that I would have faced had I been trying to focus on conventionally financed housing.”

Higginbottom’s work helped Black families get homes in neighborhoods that had previously been all white. The work wasn’t always easy, and he frequently ran up against prejudice. But he credits his Badger network with helping him overcome obstacles.

“The support that you would get from the alums and the people you interacted with at the university was very strong,” he says. “I think that it is one of the things that helped me succeed in my career.”

After 18 years with Baird and Warner, Higginbottom decided to launch his own firm, East Lake Management, which has since grown to be one of Illinois’s largest real estate development companies.

He continues to maintain close ties with his alma mater. All three of his sons went to UW–Madison, and he’s frequently supported scholarships, including the Chancellor’s Scholars Program, which aid students from underrepresented backgrounds.

“I think that basically one of the things that I liked at the University of Wisconsin was its support for the minority students, or the underrepresented minorities, in particular African Americans,” he says. “I had such a good experience in the university, I felt that it would be important if more Black students had an opportunity to experience Wisconsin. I always found the faculty as well as the students at Wisconsin very inviting.”