Paul Clifford on Penn State nostalgia, Mount Nittany, and Old Willow

Paul Clifford, chief executive officer of the Penn State Alumni Association and associate vice president for alumni relations for Penn State, recently wrote in his Penn State Alumni Association “Insights” column on Penn State nostalgia, Mount Nittany, and Old Willow:

Nostalgia is defined as a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.  It seems to fill the air this time of year on college campuses.  Soon-to-be graduates scampering around to have their final photos taken in their favorite places on campus.  This year, I’ve felt this sense of nostalgia more for some reason; perhaps the wind-felled Old Willow awoke some of these feelings or the series of nostalgic pieces that I’ve come across in just the past month. Three pieces to be exact—reminds me of how my wife always says good and bad things come in threes—that have stirred my wistful sentimentality for Dear Old State.  I thought you too might find them interesting. 

Some of my predecessors at the Penn State Alumni Association have been some of our University’s best writers over the years.  Roger Williams is well-known for his writings that have kept the legacy and memories of Evan Pugh and George Atherton alive in Happy Valley. John Black and Ridge Riley’s accounts throughout our storied history on the gridiron.  Both of their writings extended far beyond sports on the staff at the Daily Collegian and the respective versions of the alumni magazine that they both edited. Ridge had a way with words. Following a 14–7 loss at Nebraska, he wrote “on Saturday in Lincoln, Nebraska, the rains on the plains fell mainly on Penn State,” a most certain nod to the Broadway play “My Fair Lady.”But the piece that I came across was from Ross Lehman ’42. Ross served as the executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association from 1970–83. During his lifetime, he was a conservationist and was integral in the purchase of hundreds of acres on Mount Nittany to preserve her forever.

He was a recipient of both the Lion’s Paw Medal for lifetime service to the University and the designation of Distinguished Alumnus.  To know Ross was to know how important Penn State was to him.  Here is the excerpt from his Open House column which appeared weekly in the Centre Daily Times and recently caught my attention.

Ross wrote: 

“I was a naive, unsophisticated, partly uncultured lad when I came to Penn State. As I entered the Nittany Valley, the first sight to greet me was the beautiful tower of Old Main. When I entered the classroom, I encountered such unusual professors as Hum Fishburn, Nelson McGeary, Lou Bell, Bob Galbraith, and many others who exposed me to the awe of new worlds unfolding. They opened a door to challenging ideas, and another door beckoned, and another … endless, and I felt that knowledge was forever moving and lasting in my life. If I had felt lonely and isolated in these hills it was not for long. I became part of the heart throb of Penn State, and it was a new, exciting world. I fell in love with this unique place.

The campus was, and is, something rather special. It houses the “Penn State spirit,” which is a difficult thing to define because it is composed of so many things.

Perhaps it can be called a feeling, a feeling that runs through Penn Staters when they’re away from this place and someone mentions “Penn State.” The farther we are away, in time and distance, the stronger the feeling grows.

It is a good feeling, a wanting-to-share feeling. It is full of a vision of Mount Nittany, which displays a personality of its own in all its seasonal colors, from green to gold to brown to white. It is the sound of chimes from Old Main’s clock, so surrounded by leaves that it’s hard to see; it is getting to class not by looking at the clock but by listening to it.

It is the smell of the turf at New Beaver Field after a game, and the memories of Len Krouse, Leon Gajecki, Rosey Grier, Lenny Moore, Mike Reid, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Todd Blackledge and Curt Warner helping to swell our fame … and the top of Mount Nittany as seen from the grandstands in autumn.

It is the quiet of Pattee Library, facing two rows of silent elms; sunlight falling gently through those elms on a misty morning; a casual chat under a white moon on the mall.

It is talk, too: a great deal of talk, here, there, all around … in fraternity and sorority bull sessions or over a hasty coffee in The Corner Room or at Ye Olde College Diner, talk un-recalled except for the feeling of remembrance and the heart-tugging wanting some of youth.

It is the smell of a laboratory, the wondering about a tiny cell and its pattern—in its own tiny universe like that of a Milky Way galaxy—and the professor’s scintillating comment that prompts a lone wrestling with a sudden intriguing but frightening thought about our awesome cosmos.

It is a dance in Rec Hall; a beer in the Rathskeller; a kiss in a secluded campus niche; the romance that bloomed into marriage; the smell of a theater; the laugh of a crowd; the blossoming of spring shrubs and the blend of maple, oak, birch, and aspen colors in the fall; the ache of a night without sleep; and the sharing of a thousand other little things and incidents that honed our “Penn State spirit.”

It is the flash of many faces and of the single one that touched our lives forever.

It is here that Penn State molds a person’s life from the raw and unsophisticated into the conscious and cultured. We learned that a person must first be responsible to [themselves] before [they] can be responsible to [their] university, [their] society, [their] world.

It is on this beautiful campus that we learn, as my wife Katey wrote,” A [person’s] soul and [their] life are [their] own, and even if [they] give [themselves] away in hundreds of careful and loving pieces, [they’re] still [their] own [self] with [their] own life span, and no one [else] has a claim on it, …”

And here, in this lovely, intriguing spot called Penn State, each of us staked our own special, precious and eventful life.

Penn State is a benediction to all of us who have graced these beautiful halls and malls.”

If you change a reference here or there, insert the names of the football players from your era, could this describe your feelings for Penn State? 

The second piece was an essay titled “Play it Again” by Sam Vaughan ’51 that appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 edition of the Penn Stater magazine and recently produced as a video for the Alumni Association. You can watch the video on our YouTube page.

Finally, a recent conversation on the Penn State Parents Facebook site caught my attention.  An alumnus and current parent asked, “Do the students still sing ‘We don’t know the <blank> words’ during the alma mater like we did in the 80’s when I was a student?”  This post was met with a barrage of responses proclaiming that the students of today actually know the words and are proud to sing it loud.  In fact, it is now one of our most cherished traditions and sung at many events including each time our Nittany Lions compete.  

The alma mater always stirs emotions in me, but it is this version that we have used several times during the pandemic that wakes up the echoes of the past and provides hope and optimism for the future, I hope it does the same for you.  

You can watch this special rendition of our alma mater here.

The great thing about feelings of nostalgia and your memories of Penn State is that they go with you, this experience is portable and lives forever in your heart and in your mind.  I think that President Eric Walker said it best when he said, “Wherever you go, Penn State will go with you. You are now a part of her. Her image will be cast in your image. Your reputation will become her reputation.” 

I hope your memories of Dear Old State have been a comfort to you during this time that we have all been apart.  And as we are now able to see the light at the end of this long tunnel, I hope your longing for Penn State brings you back this fall to make even more memories.  WE ARE looking forward to that day!  Until then, WE ARE grateful for your continued support of the Alumni Association.  We Are Penn State!  Thank you for all you continue to do to “swell thy fame.” 

For the Glory,