In Search of Evan Pugh, or, a Challenge for Penn Staters to Honor Their Founder

Three Penn State presidents have been laid to rest here in Centre County.

President Atherton is famously interred right along Pollock Road adjacent to Schwab Auditorium, while Milton Eisenhower finds his final repose in Centre County Memorial Park along the Benner Pike. Evan Pugh, Penn State’s founding president and one of the most consequential personalities in the Valley’s history, whiles away eternity just a short journey from the flowering campus whose humble seeds he planted. He is memorialized as a scholar, scientist, and leader at his gravesite in Bellefonte’s Union Cemetery.

Soon after his arrival here, Pugh began courting, and eventually married, Rebecca Valentine, daughter of one of Bellefonte’s most important families. He is buried alongside her in the family plot. Once a hub of power and influence throughout the commonwealth, attractor of wealth and exporter of governors, modern Bellefonte retains much of its historic character, but only a fraction of its practical significance. So it is with the gravesite of its once-famous socialites. In their time, Pugh and Valentine were the Nittany Valley’s original power couple; now their place of honor lies in silent neglect. The community that inherited their legacy bustles on ahead, its founder largely forgotten.

The first president of Penn State deserves better.

Over its 160 years, Old State has weathered wild turbulence blowing in from the wider world—civil war and world war, social revolution and heart-breaking scandal—more than once it has teetered on the brink of extinction, yet always it has persevered. Pugh deserves to be remembered as the progenitor of that hardy nature, our penchant for defiant survival.

While barely remembered or recognized today, Pugh is the perfect central character for Penn State’s origin story. Erwin Runkle, the University’s first historian, painted him as possessing “a rugged, energetic physique, a straight-forward common sense manner, combined with the heart of a child, and the integrity and moral robustness of mature manhood.” A bull-necked he-man built to tame the wild, but with a keen, inquisitive mind better suited to conquering a more esoteric landscape.

When he assumed the presidency of a fledgling agricultural college situated in what, to most, seemed like the middle of nowhere, but Pugh called “splendid isolation,” the entire notion of bringing the baser study of agriculture and industry to the hallowed enterprise of higher education was itself a risky proposition. Only through Pugh’s dogged leadership and dedication to a revolutionary vision for American education did the Farmers High School find its footing, and though he tragically died young, so impactful was his short time that its influence echoes through the ages.

The man deserves a statue or memorial on campus. As things stand today, we’ve failed even to honor his memory by caring for his burial place. Seemingly abandoned by the family line, the Valentine plot has fallen into disrepair over the decades. The tombstones have become grimy and covered in lichen; the landscaping, such as it is, overgrown and unkempt, and the once-ornate wrought iron fence enclosing it crumbles. Intermittent efforts have been made throughout the years to rectify this neglect, for which former trustee George Henning deserves a great deal of the credit. However, none of these has been long sustained.

A challenge exists for those Penn Staters willing to take it up: systematically repairing the aesthetics of Evan and Rebecca’s resting site. While the simplest tasks—bagging leaves, cutting grass, washing off the grave stones—are accomplished easily enough, the issues of repairing the fencing and routinizing the maintenance will be heavier lifts. The work will be rewarding, and if the Penn State Alumni Association and others work together, the work could come to serve as one the most powerful public witnesses to the depth of respect and honor that Penn Staters have for their founders.

The journey of exploring Pugh’s back story has revealed much that might not be expected: Finding an original handwritten copy of Rebecca Valentine’s will at Bellefonte’s Pennsylvania Room, encountering the Bog Turtle Brewery in Pugh’s hometown of Oxford, PA and their limited run of Evan Pugh Vanilla Porter, discovering a forgotten memorial marker placed by the University on family lands still inhabited by Pugh’s distant descendants.

We can take pride in restoring some luster to the memory of our Penn State family’s “first couple,” and we enjoy the pleasant surprises along the way.

Why all the fuss? If, today, so few people venture out to honor Evan Pugh’s memory that his grave has fallen into disrepair in the first place, why bother with some long-dead historical figure whom it seems most people can’t be bothered to remember?

Because whether you are an individual or a community, knowing your story—and honoring its heroes—builds confidence and strength. There is an intrinsic quality to humbling ourselves by acknowledging our place within a community and its continuum, a process that is best experienced with sacred retreats where this reverence may be felt most keenly.

Roger Williams, former Penn State Alumni Association executive director and author an upcoming Evan Pugh biography, has called him, “Penn State’s George Washington.” That seems someone worth remembering, even if by only a few.

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