The First History of Penn State

Over its 161 years, Penn State has twice sanctioned books chronicling the University’s history, once in the 1940s and again with an updated version in the 1980s.

While history professor and Penn State historian Wayland Dunaway’s 1946 “History of The Pennsylvania State College” was the first official account of Old State’s history to be published, it was not the first to be written. More than a decade prior to the creation of Dunaway’s text, Erwin W. Runkle, Penn State’s librarian from 1904 to 1924 and Dunaway’s predecessor as the school’s first official historian (you may recognize the name from Runkle Hall), compiled a complete record of the institution from founding to the present day.

Penn State commissioned Runkle to assemble an authoritative account of its first century. Upon its completion, his book, “The Pennsylvania State College 1853-1932: Interpretation and Record,” became the first comprehensive history ever written about the school. Unfortunately for Runkle, the Board of Trustees rejected his effort, and it was never approved for publication. Penn State eventually turned to Dunaway to produce a replacement. In 1985, Michael Bezilla’s “Penn State: An Illustrated History” built upon and updated the efforts from Dunaway’s initial foray.

Penn State retained the copy of Runkle’s full manuscript despite its rejection. In order to protect the original document, a few complete duplicates were created over the years by photocopying the type-written onion paper sheets. One of these was bound and kept on file in the Special Collections Library. For 80 years after its completion, Dr. Runkle’s take on the Penn State story remained unpublished and largely unrecognized.

The exact circumstances underlying the board’s dissatisfaction with Runkle’s work product are somewhat unclear, although one can surmise that the author’s frequent injection of his own, occasionally blunt, observations may have been a contributing factor. For example, on the tumultuous one-year presidency of Joseph Shortlidge:

“Candor compels the reflection, however, that viewed in the large, no more blame attaches to President Shortlidge than to the Board itself… Add to this, the unwise transplanting of a Secondary School atmosphere and scheme of regulations, a rather stern, uncompromising and apparently haughty demeanor in personal relations with the student body, a curious attitude of suspicion toward the major part of the Faculty, you have the factors that led to loss of influence, to lack of co-operation, and finally to open rebellion.”

“Open rebellion.” It stands to reason, I suppose, that University leadership—in any era—would be uncomfortable with such an unvarnished view of affairs expressed through official channels. But it was exactly this personal touch that compelled our attention.

In 2013, we received permission from the University Libraries to create and release an heirloom version of Runkle’s book in print and digital formats, marking the first-ever publication of the original history of Penn State. The project presented challenges.

The photocopies were too blurry for optical character recognition (OCR) software, which necessitated a painstaking process of transcribing hundreds of pages by hand. Total fidelity to the source material—from the formatting of tables and lists right down to decisions about correcting individual typos and errors—was not only of paramount importance to us, but a condition of our publication agreement with the Libraries. Many people assisted with this process, including most of our founding board members, but our editor, Andy Nagypal, earned special thanks and recognition for his exhaustive attention to detail.

As with all Nittany Valley Press books, we sought to produce a final product whose aesthetic reflected the quality of its content. Jonathan Hartland’s cover design beautifully captures the essence of its subject. As a finishing touch, we turned to former Trustee George Henning, proud owner of a renowned collection of Penn State artifacts and memorabilia, to write an original foreword placing the work in context for a contemporary audience.

Certainly, Runkle’s version of the Penn State story is not for everyone. The text is undeniably dense. As an Ivy League-trained historian, his penchant for quoting primary source documents and delving deep into picayune detail frequently bog down the pace, and his early 20th century style can seem remote and inaccessible to modern readers. However dry and impenetrable his academician’s prose at various points, Runkle also imbued his work with a genuine spirit of affection for this place. He goes beyond merely documenting fact to share first-hand recollections and opinions. Today, Runkle’s writing is the closest we can come to hearing a voice speak to us from our past, commenting on facets of life in the Nittany Valley both foreign and familiar. He concludes the book’s introduction by noting:

“There is a Penn State Spirit… Always in the general stream of college life, Penn State has nevertheless had a ‘way of her own’.”

Long before the University required an entire office dedicated to managing an unmistakable “brand” based on tradition and loyalty, folks like Erwin Runkle still felt moved by the special spirit of Penn State. While his lessons about our school’s growth and development are important, perhaps his most vital contribution is this simple reminder of the constant and immutable nature of the Nittany Valley magnetism.

Last month, I wrote about the impulse that motivates efforts to resurface history. Our work to finally publish Runkle’s book after 80 years on the shelf exemplifies it in action.

I initially encountered “The Pennsylvania State College 1853-1932: Interpretation and Record” amidst the emotionally raw days of Fall 2012. I found rare comfort in Runkle’s meticulously constructed account of Penn State’s turbulent first 50 years, which included a true existential crisis over Pennsylvania’s allocation of Land Grant Act funding. Knowing that Penn State had survived and thrived, despite teetering more than once on the brink of total dissolution, gave me confidence that the University could survive what no longer felt, at least not indisputably, like the worst period in its history. Speaking to me from the past, Runkle’s gifts were context and perspective.

For a select group of Penn Staters with certain tastes and interests (namely, a high tolerance for heavy reading), Runkle’s book will provide a similarly edifying experience. Many others will buy it simply to display on their bookshelves, and that’s fine too—I don’t blame them; the cover art is gorgeous. The key point is that now an opportunity exists to engage with this obscure relic of the community’s past. Projects like this are born from a passion to create these new opportunities, a constant pursuit of untapped sources of potential for making the Nittany Valley a better, richer place.

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