Chris Buchignani

  • Penn State’s ‘State of State’ Conference

    I spoke to Penn Staters at this year’s “State of State” conference about the “spirit of place” that pervades the Nittany Valley and what Penn Staters (and every friend and visitor) can do to conserve that spirit and pass it along to new generations.

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

    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.

  • Penn State Football Remixes Its Past

    Suffering through a prolonged period of frustration and despair, the Penn State football team faces a do-or-die moment in an early Big Ten contest: Trailing in the fourth quarter and needing an unlikely game-extending play to keep hope alive, the Lions thread the needle, capping off a precarious come-from-behind win with an explosive score from their star playmaker. This escape turns a potentially season-unraveling disaster into the catalyst for the program’s return to glory.

    Two weeks later, following a blowout home victory, the Lions score a destiny-altering upset win over a highly-ranked Ohio State team under the lights, sealed with an unforgettable play sure to grace highlight reels for years to come. The team then blossoms into the sort of powerhouse that recalls Penn State’s tradition of gridiron dominance, quickly obscuring memory of a decidedly lackluster recent past. The denizens of Nittany Nation are treated to one of those unforgettable Autumns for the ages—everything from merchandise sales and hotel reservations to alumni donations and season ticket renewals pick back up—as Penn State cruises to an improbable conference crown, one made all the sweeter for just how completely unlooked-for it was before the season began.

    While that passage perfectly describes this year’s exhilarating football season, it applies equally to another unexpected comeback campaign from a decade ago, when the 2005 Nittany Lions rescued the program from its early-decade doldrums. Back then, it was Derrick Williams scoring on Northwestern instead of Saquon Barkley against Minnesota. This year, Marcus Allen and Grant Haley combined for the Ohio State game’s signature play rather than Tamba Hali and Scott Paxson.

    Just like in 2005, it is probably true that the crowd inside the Lasch Building—Penn State’s players and coaches—had an inkling of the squad’s potential. It is equally fair to say that they were probably the only ones. So the ’05 comparisons may be the most obvious—especially for me, perhaps, as I wrap up work on a book about that season—but in this year’s climb back into college football’s highest echelons, the Nittany Lions offered other echoes of the program’s rich past. Let’s try this one…

    After back-to-back uninspiring seasons with identical winning, but underwhelming records, grumbling and skepticism about the head coach is bubbling to the surface with increasing frequency and volume. Into the fold steps a dynamic, but previously unheralded dual-threat quarterback who’d shown the first hints of his potential in the team’s last bowl game. He replaces a multi-year starter, a prototypical pocket passer (wearing number 14) who arrived on campus as an elite recruit, but went on to frustrate and confuse observers with on-field struggles. Despite lacking his predecessor’s recruiting star power, the young man proves to be a heady winner, running and passing his way into the school record books and fans’ hearts as he commands a potent offense that leads Penn State to the Big Ten title, but the bittersweet finish of a Rose Bowl loss to USC.

    Did I just describe Daryll Clark succeeding Anthony Morelli for the 2008 Nittany Lions or Trace McSorley’s ascension following the rocky tenure of Christian Hackenberg? Appropriately for this age of the remix, the mashup, and ‘The Force Awakens,’ parallels and callbacks to the past abounded for Penn State this year, as a new generation of Lions inspired nostalgia for the program’s winning ways.

    Although 2016 was an up-and-down year for Old State’s defense, in its brightest moments, the unit seemed to channel the very best of their predecessors, such as the stalwart 1986 national champions (right down to linebacker Jason Cabinda’s neck roll). Not since that ’86 season, when the late John Bruno was arguably the Fiesta Bowl MVP, has a punter meant as much to a Penn State team as Blake Gillikin. An invaluable weapon all year in the crucial battle for field position, the true freshman’s heady dash to track down an errant snap and prevent an Ohio State touchdown meant just as much to his team and its season as any time Bruno pinned the Hurricanes deep that night in Tempe.

    Penn State’s last outright Big Ten championship came in 1994 (Ohio State earned a share of the 2005 and 2008 titles despite losses to PSU), a year when the Lions unleashed a potent, score-from-anywhere offense. With Trace McSorley playing a more mobile Kerry Collins and Mike Gesicki a rangier Kyle Brady, Joe Moorhead’s group made a fair impersonation of that legendary crew from ’94. But then, as now, the running game powered the juggernaut, and sophomore sensation Saquon Barkley is the team’s most superb tailback since the electrifying Ki-jana Carter. And not since ’94 (and maybe even then), when Carter was joined by Mike Archie and Stephen Pitts, has State enjoyed an assemblage of backfield talent like the current crop of Barkley, Andre Robinson, Miles Sanders, and Mark Allen.

    An early season clash with Temple this year marked the 50th anniversary of Penn State’s 1966 opener against Maryland, which commenced Joe Paterno’s head coaching career and brought his first of 409 career wins. But one win this season managed to reach even deeper into the memory bank, back to the days of Rip Engle.

    The 2016 campaign went to another level when an unranked Penn State upset the number two team in the nation, duplicating a feat the Lions had accomplished only once before, also against the Buckeyes in 1964, except that time in Columbus. It should be noted that the connection did not go entirely unnoticed in the lead up to the game (and if damage from the post-game celebration this year was disappointing, at least nobody dumped a car into the duck pond at Hintz!). Echoes of the past, but with a twist. Appropriate for a season that opened the door to reclaiming the program’s cherished history while simultaneously launching it into a new epoch.

    But for the whims of a fickle playoff selection committee, the Big Ten champs could have joined their counterparts from 1978, 1982, 1985, and 1986: Penn State teams that finished the season with an opportunity to capture the national title by winning it on the field. Instead, group them in with the ’68, ’69, ’73, and ’94 squads that staked a legitimate claim on championship contention, but for various reasons, lacked the chance for a decisive game (the wisdom of 1994 New York Times computer analysis notwithstanding). What’s exciting now is the chance that they’ll be back – and soon.

    Unlike the memorable squads of 2005 and 2008, this year’s team does not represent a “last, best shot,” an all-or-nothing opportunity for a senior-laden roster to leave its mark with an unforgettable final act. In one other important way, this season reminds us of those past: In the talent that returns or is soon to arrive via recruiting, the current state of Penn State football recalls the halcyon days when Joe’s teams would reload, not rebuild. Even as it rekindled memories of a rich legacy, 2016 also brought with it promise for the future.

    Coach Franklin said it best. “This is just the beginning.

  • Yule Ales Add to Advent Spirit

    Yule Ales Add to Advent Spirit

    Today, it is not unusual to enter a bar and find a laundry list of exotic beers on tap or to hear news of a local brew pub or microbrewery opening up. Such was not the case in 1984 (only five years after the legalization of homebrewing) when the editor of the Centre Daily Times approached local lawyer Ben Novak about writing a bi-weekly beer column for the paper. The following excerpt appears in The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution published by Nittany Valley Press, which collects those columns, the very first of their kind in the United States, and makes them available for the first time since their original publication. They harken back to a time when only a small American subculture had discovered the endless, delicious possibilities of good beer.


    ‘Tis Advent, that holy time of the year when we begin to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Infant. In ancient days this time of year was exciting in a much different way than excitement is generally experienced today.

    Nowadays, it seems, excitement is experienced as something that is thrilling because it is new, unknown, risky, sexy and dangerous. Today’s young people seem to look for excitement at the edge of life.

    But the ancient excitement of Christmas was something quite different. Christmas wasn’t something which happened at the edge of life, but something that happened at the heart of life. It wasn’t a search for something new and dangerous. On the contrary, Christmas was as predictable as clockwork, and as familiar as one’s most favorite feeling. Each year Christmas came on exactly the same day, and everyone tried very hard to do the same things in the same way they had done them in the past.

    To today’s young people that might sound boring. And yet … and yet … in those days it had seemed so very exciting. To me, Christmas had always seemed like a challenge without equal. It was an adventure in time. Every year people tried to see if they could rekindle and pass down the same feeling that had been felt on that first Christmas morn.

    They all knew and believed with childlike simplicity that something wonderful had happened on that hallowed night almost 2,000 years ago. They believed that hearts had been opened and changed in a way that had never happened before. They naively believed through all the years since then that the original joy had been rekindled again and again each and every year at Christmas, just as it had been experienced on that first blessed eve.

    Oh, the excitement of it all! Each year they wondered: Could it happen again? Would it? Could the magic still work? The anticipation grew to the highest levels of expectation and awe: If they did all the same things, heard the same stories, ate the same foods, drank the same drinks, rejoined in the same ways, would they again feel the excitement of their own first Christmas when they were children? Did they still have it in them to unlock all that joy one more time?

    The wonder of it! Could their joy be great enough to renew again for one more year the tremendous joy of that first blessed eve in the year One, when the time of our time began? And so, on the 4th day after the winter solstice, when they were absolutely sure that the sun had begun to rise again in the heavens, they celebrated Christmas.

    In ancient days everyone had worked so hard to make it happen again each year. They bought presents which they believed would bring out each person’s most childlike joy. They baked Christmas cakes and cookies, worked for weeks to prepare festive decorations for every room and window, searched out old recipes for Christmas goose or turkey stuffing, hung mistletoe in their hallways, hauled in the Yule logs, and brushed up on the ancient Christmas stories and carols to tell over again to their children and themselves. Old fights were ended, debts forgiven and friendships renewed in this season.

    One of the smallest and least significant contributions to the annual challenge to rekindle the ancient joy was made by the brewers of Europe and early America. In those days everyone felt the obligation to contribute whatever they could to the annual renewal of the community’s joy. Each year the brewers made their small contribution by brewing special Christmas ales and holiday beers for the season.

    The ancient tradition is undergoing a rebirth in America. Since the early 1970s, when there were only one or two remaining Christmas ales available in America, both small and large brewers are taking up the challenge to deepen the joy of the Christmas season by bringing out special seasonal brews.

    Christmas ales and holiday beers are normally brewed deeper and darker than beers for other seasons. At Christmas time, one was expected to sip slowly to enjoy the deep contentment of the season and the memories of childlike joy.

    As I write this column in advance of the season, most Christmas ales and holiday beers have not yet come on the market. But here are some names you might look for to taste the challenge of Christmas past:

    – Aass Jule 01 (pronounced “Arse Yule Ale”) from Norway. This is a special, rich, malty, dark lager developed specially for the winter holiday season.

    – Noche Buena Cervesa Especial from the Montezuma Brewery in Mexico. This is a Marzen-style brew in the old tradition of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This is a dark brown, medium-bodied beer with a delicate malt taste.

    – Anchor Christmas Ale. This is a special ale brewed to a different recipe each year. It is always a real ale, brewed especially dark, heavy and hoppy for the season.

    – Newman’s Winter Ale. This is brewed in Ithaca, New York, as a “winter warmer,” and is a real ale, truly dark and different.

    – Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. This is brewed in Chico, California, by two of the most traditional-minded, dedicated micro-brewers in America.

    – Boulder Christmas Ale, made by the “second largest brewery in the Rockies,” but nonetheless a very small micro-brewer. It is modeled after 17th and 18th century English mulled ales.

    – F.X. Matt’s Traditional Season’s Best from Utica, New York. This is an amber, Vienna-style holiday special made by true craftsmen. It is trucked right through Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., Virginia and Colorado, but is not marketed here in the Keystone State. Perhaps we must be more sincere this year in extending holiday greetings to our neighbors in the empire state.

    Some other Christmas ales and holiday beers one might encounter in one’s travels are: Hudepohol’s Christmas Beer from Cincinnati; August Schell’s Xmas Beer from New Ulm, Minn.; Fred Koch Holiday Beer from Dunkirk, N.Y. (The Koch Brewery was recently purchased by Genessee); and Grant’s Christmas Ale from Yakima, Wash.

    It is hoped that the Spirit of Christmases past will inspire many more brewers to introduce new Christmas ales and holiday beers in 1985 to reawaken the ancient joy of the season. And it is hoped that we all should imbibe them in the spirit in which they are brewed.

    Ein Prosit der Gemutlichkeit!

  • A Salute to Veterans and the Veterans’ Education and Advancement Fund

    The great stories of any age are often best understood by tracing the tiny threads of personal experience. In following these winding strands, seeing where and how they intersect, we come to understand how the collective weight of countless individual acts underpins the forces that shape our world.

    On the afternoon of April 11, 1945, General George S. Patton’s 6th Armored Division, including a young soldier from western Pennsylvania named Albert Edward Matyasovsky, rolled in to liberate Buchenwald, one of the largest of the Nazi concentration camps. Among the 21,000 prisoners set free that day was a teenage boy named Elie Wiesel.

    In a bustle of thousands of anonymous faces that day, the two never met. For a brief and meaningful moment though, the threads of their life stories intersected.

    Wiesel, who passed away earlier this year, counted among the lucky few to survive the horrors of the Holocaust; he grew up to author over 50 books and win the Nobel Prize. Elie Wiesel was able to share his gifts with the world because of the sacrifice and bravery of American and other Allied soldiers. One of them, Matyasovsky, returned from war with a lifetime’s worth of experiences spanning Normandy to the Ardennes and beyond, fortunate enough to have come back home at all. He did not gain great wealth or notoriety in his post-war life, but as a father, he created a legacy and influence that will positively impact the lives of future Penn State students.

    Al Matyasovsky, Jr., who recently retired from Penn State after decades overseeing the University’s waste management and recycling programs, has established the Veterans’ Education and Advancement Fund (VEAF), a scholarship endowment with the Penn State World Campus. He and his wife, Sharon, cite their parents, particularly Al’s father and mother, as their inspiration in launching this effort, which will provide financial assistance to veterans, active duty military, and their family members who are enrolled in the University’s online programs.

    “We lived in a coal mining town for six years, very meager surroundings. My father used to have to carry water from a community pump up to our house that we drank, bathed in, and cooked with, and I never heard him complain,” the son recalls. Al absorbed the lessons of his father’s work ethic, but also the man’s oft-repeated core values: “Treat people with respect. Be fair. Be honest. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat.”

    The “American Century” that blossomed in the wake of Allied victory in WWII brought widespread educational and economic opportunity to a generation of Americans. Despite an impoverished upbringing, Al’s commitment to following his father’s example brought on the academic achievement necessary to open those doors. As a senior, a meeting with his high school guidance counselor put Matyasovsky on the path to a college education.

    “She said, ‘We send guys like you to college,’ and she got me all the money that I would go to college on… that changed my life. It demonstrated to me how people outside the family who have faith in you can affect your life in a tremendous way.”

    Matyasovsky graduated from Lock Haven University, and after a few job and location changes, he obtained a position with Penn State that turned into a long career. Over more than 30 years of service, Al was in charge of many of the University’s solid waste management and recycling efforts. He managed gameday operations at Beaver Stadium for a quarter century, including post-9/11 security measures, and he also implemented some of the school’s most innovative and recognizable sustainability efforts.

    These include the now-ubiquitous blue recycling bags that dot the tailgating fields during football season and, probably most notably, the annual Trash to Treasure sale at Beaver Stadium, where departing students donate items they would otherwise discard that are then sold to benefit the county United Way. Matyasovsky proudly notes that, since its inception, the event has raised over $750,000 for the charity while repurposing “stuff that was going to the landfill.”

    After retiring, Al sought to finally make good on a long-held ambition to philanthropically support veterans, thinking of the inspiring role his father had played throughout his life. While considering the creation of a new foundation, he also spoke with staff at the University about his idea. Those discussions led to the creation of the Veterans’ Education and Advancement Fund scholarship within the Penn State World Campus. “The logic is that a veteran and their family don’t have to uproot themselves to come to University Park. They can receive a Penn State degree from anywhere in the world.”

    An especially unique facet that distinguishes the VEAF, according to Matyasovsky, is the flexibility to also support family members of service members and vets.

    “The love and admiration that we have for our parents is still very strong today. We feel that the family also deserves credit for supporting the veterans who defend our freedoms and support our way of life. Our fathers were in the military, and our mothers taught us the way of keeping family together and being part of the neighborhood and so on.”

    The VEAF will hold its first fundraising event, a dinner at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center, in April 2017. The fund is now a permanent part of the veterans’ support programming offered by the World Campus, which has been consistently ranked as the top online education program for veterans and active-duty military in the nation. As the lead donors, Al and Sharon are dedicated to growing the fund continually to amplify its impact.

    “I’m not a hero for it. My father was the hero. I just did what my father and mother advised me to do. My mother used to say, ‘Being poor has nothing to do with who you are as a person.’ Both my parents told me, ‘Study hard. Get good grades, and good things will happen to you.’”

    Follow the thread.

    Through courage and fortitude, a generation of Americans like Al Matyasovsky, Sr. won battlefield victories that changed lives for millions, including a young Elie Wiesel. He returned home to support and inspire a son who went on to make a lasting impact on life here in the Nittany Valley, first as a long-time Penn State employee and now again with the VEAF.

    Motivated by the memory of veterans who so strongly influenced their lives, Al and Sharon Matyasovsky’s efforts will enable the dreams of education and opportunity for future generations of America’s service men and women and their families. Until all is said and done, who can know how many more lives they will touch, how many more threads will cross their own and end up better for it?

  • The Penn State-Wisconsin Rivalry That Never Was

    Recently, I found myself caught in Park Ave traffic behind a car adorned with an obnoxiously large Ohio State Buckeyes magnet. With merely a glimpse of it, my pulse quickened and my palms tightly gripped the steering wheel. As an ardent Nittany Lions fan, I recoiled at the unwelcome reminder of our rival.

    And there it was, that loaded term.

    A lot of ink, real and virtual, has been spilled debating what defines a genuine “rivalry” in college football. Because we have imbued the term with a certain sacred quality, participation in a recognized rivalry is its own form of cultural currency. Fans even seek to insult one another by denying that they consider an opposing school their “rival.” So what makes a rivalry?

    When your new coach gives his introductory press conference, a rival is the team against whom he goes out of his way to promise wins (the lack of such most likely contributed to the recent job opening). When Jim Tressel arrived at Ohio State, he guaranteed wins against Michigan. Urban Meyer did the same. A couple years later, Jim Harbaugh returned the favor. In the ESPN documentary Trojan War, about the powerhouse USC teams of the early 2000’s, a newly-arrived Pete Carroll is shown listing his top priority for rebuilding the program: Beat UCLA.

    Rivals face off on a regular basis; they play meaningful games at key points in the year. Rivals ruin each other’s seasons. Rivalries develop over time, organically; they thrive on geographic proximity (familiarity breeds contempt). They get nicknames, like the Civil War, the Apple Cup, the Red River Shootout, and the Iron Bowl. Speaking of which, sometimes great rivalries get a little out of hand.

    And so I got to thinking, “Would a Penn State magnet in Buckeye country elicit a comparably visceral reaction?” When we classify Ohio State as a rival, do their fans reciprocate? Probably not. They’re still settling scores from the War for Toledo.

    Ditto, Michigan. The M Club measures success in victories against the hated Buckeyes. What about traditional end-of-season foe Michigan State? Nope. Despite the best efforts of George Perles, Spartans fans will always care more about defeating the in-state Wolverines. Minnesota and Iowa have certainly played the role of antagonist at certain points in program history, but few, if any, of Penn State’s many wins over the Gophers and Hawkeyes carried similar significance. So do the Nittany Lions actually own a piece of that national conversation? Does Penn State have an undisputed, reciprocal “rival?”

    Once upon a time, such a question would never be asked. Between 1896 and 1993, Penn State played 96 times, their Thanksgiving weekend clash resonating with media and fans nationwide. We got a glimpse of that again when the two teams staged their epic prize fight last month, the first of four meetings scheduled out until 2019. Pitt-Penn State was once a rivalry, and perhaps it can be again (here’s hoping). But at best, this latest renewal looks like no more than a fleeting echo of the past. The series is set to expire with no sign of further renewal on the horizon. The changing landscape of the sport conspires against it. True gridiron animus needs to flow through regularly-scheduled antagonism. The Lions still lack that one special somebody to clash with year-in and year-out in games of consequence. In the modern era, such consistency can only be found within your school’s athletic conference.

    So what about Wisconsin? The Badgers, really? Stay with me here. It could have happened, and here’s how it almost did.

    In 1993, Penn State completed its historic transition from football independence and began competing in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions arrived bearing one of the sport’s great brand names, an asset that carried surprisingly little cache in a discriminating club with a century’s worth of tradition whose members had embraced the change with obvious reluctance. Most Big Ten teams had been facing off since the Depression, and Penn State was the new kid in the old neighborhood. The fit was (some would say “is”) awkward at times.

    Three years earlier, in 1990, Wisconsin had hired head coach Barry Alvarez, a man destined to quickly lift the program out of three decades of malaise that its Wikipedia entry charitably terms “Limited successes.” While JoePa and the Lions were earning laurels and playing for titles as independents, the Badgers had been languishing as an afterthought in the conference often known as “The Big Two and Little Eight.” In the 22 years following Alvarez’s arrival, the Badgers would claim the Big Ten crown six times. Almost immediately, these two “square pegs” found, in each other, a reliable measuring stick in their mutual efforts to overthrow the regime of Ohio State and Michigan:

    1995 – In their first conference meeting, Alvarez and the Badgers humbled the sixth-ranked defending conference champions with a 17-9 win at Beaver Stadium.

    1996-97 – Two of the nation’s best runners, Curtis Enis of Penn State and Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne, faced off in two slugfests won by the Nittany Lions.

    1998 – With Enis gone to the NFL, Dayne got his revenge, leading the Badgers to a 24-3 win.

    2001 – A somber pall hung over the proceedings in the first week of games after 9/11, and an 18-6 victory for the Badgers denied Joe Paterno a chance to tie Bear Bryant’s all-time wins record in front of the home crowd.

    2002 – Penn State scored a hard-fought 34-31 victory at Camp Randall Stadium, highlighted by four field goals from Robbie Gould.

    2004 – Quarterbacks Zack Mills and Michael Robinson were knocked out of the game with injuries while Wisconsin fullback Matt Bernstein, fasting for Yom Kippur and running only on IV liquids, gutted the Lions’ defense for 123 rushing yards in a 16-3 win.

    2005 – The last meeting between Barry Alvarez and Joe Paterno, a contest for sole possession of first place in the Big Ten, became a Senior Day to remember for the likes of Michael Robinson and Tamba Hali, who helped advance Penn State’s incredible comeback season with a 35-14 victory.

    2006 – Wisconsin won 13-3, and new coach Bret Bielema earned the enmity of Penn State coaches, players, and fans by abusing a short-lived kick off rule to run out the first-half clock. Both events were obscured by a sideline collision that sent Joe Paterno to the hospital with a broken leg.

    2007 – Unranked Penn State again reclaimed bragging rights in the series by pasting the #19 Badgers 38-7 in Happy Valley.

    2008 – Derrick Williams took a punt to the house; Aaron Maybin burst onto the scene, and Daryll Clark created an iconic image. Badgers fans probably just wanted it to end, as Penn State grabbed the national spotlight with a 48-7 road win in prime time.

    In 2010, the Big Ten welcomed Nebraska in a move that shook college football to its foundations and once again disrupted the equilibrium of the staid conference. For the first time, “the B1G” would divide its teams into divisions whose winners would play in a championship game. With Michigan State sorted into the other division, newly-minted division rival Wisconsin filled the void at the end of Penn State’s conference slate. By that time, these two programs – both outsiders in the kingdom of Woody and Bo, the newcomer and the nouveau riche – had staked their own claims to a share of that vaunted Big Ten tradition. From the very beginning, their new arrangement yielded excitement:

    2011 – Battered and reeling from the Sandusky scandal firestorm, Penn State traveled to Madison playing for a berth in the inaugural Big Ten championship game. Russel Wilson and Co. claimed that spot decisively, winning 45-7.

    2012 – Badgers tailback Montee Ball set the FBS career touchdown record, but the Nittany Lions won the day. Emotions ran high as one of Old State’s greatest teams honored injured leader Michael Mauti by wearing his number 42 on their helmets and leaving their hearts on the field. When a Wisconsin field goal attempt fell short in overtime, embattled sophomore Sam Ficken’s successful try from the previous series became the winning points in one of the most memorable victories in program history.

    2013 – O’Brien’s Lions walked into Madison as 24-point underdogs; they left with a 31-24 win that derailed Wisconsin’s hopes for a BCS bowl. The stunning upset, which brought the all-time series to 8-9 in favor of Wisconsin, also saw Penn State equal the series’ longest winning streak – two games (if you don’t count the Badgers’ three-game “streak” carried over from the early 1950’s to their ’95 win).

    The pattern was established. Penn State and Wisconsin, Big Ten party crashers both, would close out against one another, with bowl berths, and potentially division titles, on the line; already in the short series history, each had handed humbling losses to the other.

    That scheduling move to end each year’s campaign with the Penn State-Wisconsin game was the key to shifting the matchup from proto-rivalry to genuine article. Virtually all of my key ingredients for a bona fide, both-fanbases-agree, referenced-as-such-on-GameDay college football RIVALRY were there: regular meetings, consequential outcomes that cut both ways, bad blood that develops over time. Yes, proximity worked against it, but in the coming age of the “super conference,” rivals will increasingly be found as close as the nearest airport. The Nittany Lions and Badgers were just on the cusp of playing an often meaningful, usually unpredictable, and gloriously contentious annual capper to their regular seasons. Both were perhaps only a few more meetings away from finally finding a year-in, year-out rival they could both love to hate. It was that close.

    For a few fleeting moments, all of this was possible, and then, like so many things in life, it was ruined by Rutgers and Maryland.

  • Why Learn the Penn State Story?

    The creation of a Penn State undergraduate course on the university’s history is a source of great excitement and pride for many who dwell in body and in spirit in Mount Nittany’s gentle shadow.

    In early 2013, Sean Clark and Zach Zimbler suggested that Penn State ought to offer a class on the history of the University itself. This prompted discussions with faculty in Penn State’s History department that eventually sparked development of a full course curriculum. Although final approvals will take some time, the near future will see the availability of a three-credit course on Penn State history, History 148 (appropriate, as it corresponds to the number of Centre County’s Civil War regiment, which was led by future Penn State President James Beaver). We were happy to have helped catalyze what we believed to be a worthy endeavor, but we wanted to do more.

    Steve Garguilo stepped up to make an extraordinary financial commitment to establish the Stephen D. Garguilo Nittany Valley Society University History Endowment in Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts. This endowment will provide sustaining financial support year-in and year-out for the course—funds are intended to defray expenses associated with the academic examination and teaching of the institution’s history, including, but not limited to, enrichment and support for the course.

    This will be the first such class ever offered at Penn State and only the second of its kind to be found in the Big Ten. I expect the course, while suitably rigorous, will also be a lot of fun and instantly rank among the most popular options come scheduling time. Penn State has never suffered from a shortage of school spirit, so the subject matter should certainly help keep students engaged. The key is what happens after you have their attention. A studied examination of Penn State’s past has a lot of practical utility here in the present.

    In a 2015 talk, Penn State Lunar Lion mission director Michael Paul spoke about how striving to reach the Moon is opening up incredible opportunities for the institution and its students. Hands-on learning and connections with the global aerospace community are invaluable byproducts of what is, in itself, ground-breaking work. By identifying new innovations and cost efficiencies in lunar exploration, Penn State could make significant, tangible impact on how humanity reaches for the final frontier in the 21st century.

    After Michael’s talk, I commented that, in their quest to land a lunar module, his team represents a modern extension of founding president Evan Pugh’s vision for a college where practical pursuits would be afforded the same serious study as the humanities were in classical universities. Perhaps more than any other single undertaking at Penn State, the Lunar Lion captures the pioneering spirit upon which the school was founded.

    It is easy to forget now, when the STEM fields are in such high demand and, as a result, the darlings of politicians and academics, that conventional thinkers once scoffed at the notion of teaching agriculture and engineering in the same hallowed halls as art, literature, and philosophy. The sentiment animating the land-grant movement of the late 1800s, which recalled self-made Renaissance man Pugh from Oxford to his native Pennsylvania, once seemed hopelessly provincial. “Farmers and thinkers belong in different rooms, and never the twain shall meet.” So went the conventional wisdom.

    Pugh’s vision for teaching the advanced study of agriculture and the mechanic arts in the “splendid isolation” of the Nittany Valley was, in its time, a radical experiment in democratizing higher education. Yet history teaches us that the rise of the public research universities laid the groundwork for the American Century, and as they grew, these schools became places that both reflected our society and challenged it to change and grow.

    As we struggled to reconcile our national identity, college campuses often led the charge in breaking boundaries and incubating new ideas. We see this play out in microcosm throughout the University’s life cycle, sometimes with a progressive sensibility and sometimes not. There is a lot to learn, not all of it pretty, but there is plenty in which Penn Staters should take pride. Penn State was the first institution of higher education in the Commonwealth to admit female students; football star Wally Tripplett came to Happy Valley on an academic scholarship at a time when many black Americans were denied entry to universities on any grounds.

    In learning these stories, which are grounded in the people and places that surround them during one of life’s most exciting times, students will gain perspective on national history in a way that tethers abstract concepts to something closer to home, something more real. There is more.

    We hope that becoming more familiar with the details of the University’s history will help strengthen students’ sense of themselves as Penn Staters, as inheritors of a distinct narrative that is unique to this community they have chosen to join. It is an incredible saga full of remarkable stories:

    How our “Second Founder” George Atherton revived a failing college by believing in the “university that was to be,” how Milton Eisenhower sought the favor of his brother, the President of the United States, to build it up, or how Joe Paterno used the occasion of a football championship, not to demand a higher salary or better facilities for his team, but to challenge the University’s trustees to raise the money needed to elevate Penn State’s academic standing.

    The endowment’s legacy statement explains that we seek “to provide future generations of Penn Staters with a stronger sense of themselves and our world through studied consideration of their University’s story.” Thanks to the leadership of administrators and faculty in the College of the Liberal Arts, particularly in the History department, this new and exciting learning opportunity will soon become reality.

    As we continue to add new chapters—perhaps even one day making the “Nittany Nation” the fourth nation to land on the Moon—the Stephen D. Garguilo Nittany Valley Society University History Endowment will provide the sustaining financial support that ensures we never forget our story or its valuable lessons.

  • One-Room Schools Bring History Alive

    I have written about efforts to “mine” the rich preserves of knowledge buried in the past to release their power in the present. Previous installments of this series have focused mainly on conceptual conveyances of this potential—books, stories, and documents.

    But what about our need for a more visceral, immersive experience, our tendency to learn by doing? “Show, don’t tell.” It’s a lesson we are taught beginning in grade school and yet it still bears repeating by campaign consultants and corporate marketing gurus. For those seeking to better understand the story of our place, two local one-room school houses offer a more hands-on approach for encountering heritage, a chance to directly show residents a piece of their history.

    The Boogersburg School is a one-room schoolhouse located in Patton Township that went into service in 1877. Today, it serves as a sort of living museum piece, maintained by the Centre County Historical Society (CCHC). Having been restored and furnished in a manner consistent with its original purpose, the quaint little building now offers a connection to a prior age that, while quite alien to us today, finally vanished more recently that you might imagine. Amazingly, the schoolhouse was in use by the school district up until 1952. It doesn’t seem all that long ago, in relative terms, and although the building’s use evolved over time, it’s still remarkable to consider that a structure dating to the Rutherford B. Hayes administration made it to the early nuclear age.

    When the doors were finally closed for good, the schoolhouse stood empty for many years before being used as an artist’s studio for a time. It was then purchased by a couple, Bob Struble and Susan Crary, who undertook the historical restoration work and gifted the property to the CCHC for caretaking. Boogersburg has become a traditional field trip location for area school classes, and the heart of the experience comes through the volunteer “school marms,” who teach about the school to visiting students, even dressing in period clothing. They explain the history of the building, what it was like to attend school there, and even touch on the names and stories of former students.

    Dozens of volunteers each year, many of them retired local teachers, give of their time and talent to create a special experience that helps preserve local memory. Many others pitch in to help maintain the physical plant and grounds. Every August, the schoolhouse also hosts a back-to-school day when children and their families can experience a taste of life in a forgotten era, sitting in authentic wooden desks, using “soapstone, slate, and chalkboards,” and receiving lessons in subjects like spelling and “mental math.”

    Further down the Mount Nittany Expressway, another former one-room school has been reborn in the present thanks to the efforts of community leaders. The Rock Hill School in Linden Hall opened in 1893, the third and final one-room schoolhouse built to educate the children of Harris Township. Rock Hill didn’t survive as long as its Patton Township counterpart, ceasing to operate as a school in 1937. Although it hosted elections and meetings into the 1980s, the school eventually became used for storage until recent interest offered a new possibility. It was resolved that the building should not be forgotten, but rather restored to its original state and made open to the public.

    With the goal of “restor(ing) and preserv(ing) the historic Rock Hill School while revitalizing it to become an active learning center for present and future generations,” a small non-profit corporation was formed to manage the property and accept tax deductible donations to fund the restoration and upkeep. The drive to restore Rock Hill originated from within the community and was funded largely through private contributions; according to its website, the effort has generated more than $207,000 in donations to date. In addition to hosting educational experiences for State College School District and Penn State students, Rock Hill functions as a sort of community center, hosting local meetings, line dancing, an annual Halloween party, and serving as a bike path rest stop. Its supporters remain enthusiastic and active in exploring new uses for the space and raising awareness about it.

    Both buildings have direct connections to the founding era of Penn State. Moses Thompson, who, along with his partner James Irvin, owned the Centre Furnace, was a key figure in selecting the site for the original Farmers High School. Thompson also built the Boogersburg School and donated property for the 1850 schoolhouse that preceded the Rock Hill School. Additionally, Rock Hill counts among its former faculty William G. Waring, one of Penn State’s Founders, Strong and Great. As the College’s first superintendent of the grounds, Waring, who was also a horticulture professor, was crucial in establishing the early campus; he even planted the legendary Old Willow.

    Perhaps the key point to extract from both stories is the integral role played by the people of the Nittany Valley in breathing life into these institutions. Without the imagination and generosity of the Strubles and the generational effort of countless other to support the CCHC, the Boogersburg School would not have had its second act. It takes the energy and passion of the volunteer “teachers” there to produce a memorable experience for visitors. Likewise, the determination and hard work of local enthusiasts intent on keeping the Rock Hill School alive have brought forth a new and valuable community resource.

    Of course, these aren’t the only interesting historical structures found within Centre County. The Historical Society also famously maintains the Centre Furnace Mansion, which is rife with significance to the founding of Penn State and unfolding of the regional story. Boalsburg’s Blacksmith Shop recently completed a successful fundraising campaign to pay for needed repairs (with help from the Boalsburg Village Conservancy, another small, volunteer venture similar to the Rock Hill School group). The Curtin Village in Howard recreates a 19th century workers’ village and preserves the family home of former PA governor Andrew Curtin. There are others still.

    They all offer a chance to connect with tangible, physical reminders of what came before. Specifically, for an area that so prizes education and whose growth has been so caught up in it, the Boogersburg and Rock Hill schools offer a window into a style of learning, and of daily living, that have all but vanished. Thanks to the vision of donors and the ongoing support of dedicated community volunteers, these two facilities continue to maintain a fascinating link to our forebears that provides us with compelling knowledge and vital perspective.

  • A Brief History of Penn State Astronomy

    A Brief History of Penn State Astronomy

    For years, they stood unused and largely unremarked upon: Two single-story brick structures capped with white domes adjacent to the Eisenhower Auditorium.

    In the years before they were torn down during one of the latest campus facelifts, people would occasionally ask about them. These buildings obviously served some function related to observing the night sky, and though they remained shuttered and locked, surely somebody somewhere knew what it was. Not necessarily; at least not until one clear evening a little more than 10 years ago.

    That night, Dr. Chris Palma, a Penn State alumnus who is now a senior lecturer in astronomy, was leading one of his regular stargazing sessions on the roof of Davey Lab when someone in the group inquired as to what, exactly, was in those domes. Palma gave his standard answer: “I don’t know.” But unlike every time before, that wasn’t the end of it.

    Another attendee believed his wife’s grandfather, a former faculty member, had been involved in their construction. He didn’t know details, but he had one vital piece of information. “My wife’s maiden name is Yeagley,” he told them.

    That name became the crucial clue that launched a search for long-forgotten details about the origins of Penn State’s astronomy department. Motivated by a curiosity about what had come before and furnished with a way to begin his investigation, Palma turned to the digital archives of The Daily Collegian. He was joined by his colleague Dr. Richard Wade, a now-emeritus professor of astronomy with a penchant for historical research, particularly genealogy (through which he discovered a family connection to Penn State president Joseph Shortlidge).

    In searching the Collegian’s archives, they discovered Dr. Henry L. Yeagley, an associate professor of physics from 1928 to 1958 who can fairly described as the father of astronomy at Penn State. Although astronomy did not separate from physics to become its own department until the 1970s (another revelation resulting from Wade’s archival research), Yeagley brought his love for the field to campus decades earlier, teaching telescope making and holding public stargazing sessions.

    Yeagley, Palma says, was “pretty much working by himself on some of these things in the 1930s and 1940s… maybe it was only one person, but it really traces back 40 more years than people think of.”

    It was through that happenstance encounter on the roof of Davey Lab (during public stargazing, appropriately enough) that Yeagley’s name reentered the departmental discourse, but insight into his legacy and the department’s roots didn’t stop there.

    A 1950 Daily Collegian article about a fire in the Osmond Building reported on damage to Yeagley’s and “the adjoining planetarium.” To that point, the common belief was that Penn State’s first planetarium was constructed in the 1980s.

    “We were trying to look up information on these domes, and we were like, ‘woah,’” Palma remembers. A bit more digging and a Google search for 1940s-era Spitz-brand planetariums yielded an even more monumental realization by Palma – “I’ve seen that thing in a closet.” Thanks to their research, the projector – a novel relic from an earlier era – was rescued from storage and restored.

    Richard Wade expanded their search to the University archives, and in four boxes of materials filed under Yeagley’s name, he discovered ambitious, but largely unfulfilled plans to expand the study of astronomy and engage the local community.

    “What we uncovered was… there was a planetarium here in the 1940s,” says Palma. “The Class Gift of 1936 was a telescope, and the gift of the Class of 1938 was those observatory domes to house those telescopes in. We discovered this history of Penn State doing outreach in astronomy and planetarium shows and inviting people in to stargaze through telescopes dates back 40 more years than anyone working here now really remembered. It was all about making the University and the department open to the public.”

    So why all this effort? Why did two professors in the hard sciences spend so much time digging deep into the past? Part of it boils down to the glory of Old State.

    “I’m an alum. I love this place,” Palma says. “On some level, it’s just that I’m interested in Penn State history.”

    But there’s more.

    “I don’t want the class gifts to be forgotten. They’re on a list, but the physical things are gone. Students donated money to the University for this, and because of ‘progress,’ they got torn down. My biggest regret in this whole thing is that those class gifts couldn’t have been preserved in some way.”

    With this historical perspective comes practical modern application. Palma serves on the committee that will plan fundraising efforts for a public planetarium at the H.O. Smith Arboretum. The effort will benefit from his relatively-newfound knowledge of nearly a century spent exploring the idea of public outreach with far more talk than action.

    “I found notes that an exactly identical committee went through this exact same exercise in the Eighties and essentially made the same recommendations to Penn State that we made a few years ago, and then when we dug even deeper, we found out that here was this guy trying to make the exact same arguments and trying to sort of build capacity for the exact same kinds programs 40 years before that. There’s been at least three documented generations of Penn Staters trying to make the same thing happen for the community and the University.”

    As Penn State looks to expand the Arboretum with the addition of a planetarium, we can now orient this latest development within the context of a long history of reaching out to the community and exposing the people of State College and the students of Penn State to the wonders of the cosmos. That’s really what all this is about – creating context, dispelling mystery. Just as our probing the depths of outer space offers perspective on our place in the universe as a species, a deeper understanding of where we have been and what is around us in our community grants a greater sense of place and purpose as a people.

    “The hope is that we’re going to build a planetarium at the Arboretum some time in the next five years,” explains Palma. “I think we need to have the history of planetariums at Penn State. That projector has got to go in a case somewhere.”

    For the late Henry L. Yeagley and others, the planned state-of-the-art public planetarium represents a dream long deferred, but one day, visitors will pass by his old projector and feel the connection between past and present manifest. It’s all thanks to the detective work of a two Penn State faculty members who realized that uncovering the lessons of the past could enrich appreciation of their work as it exists here, in the Nittany Valley, distinct from similar scholarship occurring anywhere else.

  • 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.

  • Looking Back to Move Forward

    Looking Back to Move Forward

    Why should we care about the past?

    The potential answers to this question are many and varied, but certainly, in looking back to understand what came before, we can see something of ourselves reflected back at us, extracting value from the experience. It is not without peril. Genuine self-examination risks exposure to the truth about our flaws. Likewise, we must resist the allure of romance; if infatuation with a fictional ideal commands our full attention, we miss the view of all that is around us and ahead.

    And yet a part of us cannot help but yearn to know. As human beings, we are natural storytellers, creatures of narrative. We seek knowledge of our past to better orient ourselves within our own stories—personal and communal. These journeys of exploration can yield many benefits, but ultimately, we undertake them because to do so is fundamental to our nature.

    Tom Shakely has written about “why place matters” and the importance of Mount Nittany and conserving both “human and environmental ecologies.” As challenging as it is fulfilling, this sort of work evolves.

    In college towns like ours, the relationship between past and present is closer to the surface in everyday life than most other places.

    Today, the clarion of Old Main’s bell tower, an immediately recognizable sound seared into the memory of generations, no longer requires an actual bell. Powerful speakers, however, do blast a digital recreation of the real bell, long since permanently silenced, whose tolling across campus once marked each day’s passage. Here, the technology of the present resurrects the sounds of the past. The stately central administration building itself, among the most recognizable and “collegiate” of our symbols, sits just a couple blocks from the Millennium Science Complex, which looks more like the stuff of modern sci-fi than an image from the bucolic campus ideal.

    Similarly, the Hotel State College, home of the Corner Room, retains all the charm of the simpler age in which it was built. As a symbol, it exemplifies the town as surely as Old Main does the college. The local skyline behind it, unchanged for decades, is now dominated by the construction of two new high-rise complexes, especially significant in their breaking a long-held resistance against the encroachment of “tall buildings.” This distinctive landmark will soon be literally overshadowed by towering monuments to emerging trends and changing attitudes.

    But many established communities mingle old architecture with new. What distinguishes the Nittany Valley—and most similar college towns, I imagine—is its unique population, an ever-churning mixture of locals and alumni, with their long-held affection for the area, and students, who are only just falling in love with it. In a place whose very existence derives from thousands of young people undergoing one of our society’s most cherished rites of passage, there is a natural fascination with how those who preceded us experienced those same rituals in these same locations. The past lingers here, fraught with potential.

    In his book “Is Penn State A Real University?”—the first publication released under the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s Nittany Valley Press publishing imprint—Dr. Ben Novak, a former Penn State trustee, muses:

    The past, because it was lived, cannot really be destroyed. It can only be covered over, like a lush jungle that gets condensed into a pool of oil or a vein of coal, just waiting to be drilled or mined to have its energy released. But you have to dig for it, and you have to know how to use it. When we don’t know what is in the past, we cannot use it, and we cannot release its power.

    Recently, when Kevin Horne addressed the Board of Trustees about shared governance at Penn State, he noted, “Memory of our past can improve the present and change the future.”

    So there is power buried in the past, a positive energy that, once unleashed, can be harnessed to animate and inspire our best thinkers and doers. It can teach lessons, but also engender a sense of shared identity and foster stronger, more cohesive community relationships. Those who seek to preserve memory for future generations do so with the goal of improving lives; no small task.

    The challenge is twofold. To start off, the work of historical preservation and reclamation is difficult and requires hours of effort, attention to detail, and not a small degree of luck to be successful. And yet, despite the obstacles, this first stage in the process is still the less daunting. Because once all of the information has been collected, the knowledge harvested, then the real work, the most valuable aspect of what we do, comes in bringing it to people in a way that affects their lives in a meaningful way. This is the challenge of making what no longer exists, and is therefore unknown and often unfamiliar, accessible and relevant.

    We all long for a sense of our own story, and we draw strength from understanding the ways in which others share a common background. We care about the past because of its power to enrich our spirit.

    The magic of the Nittany Valley, that is, the spirit of this culture we aim to conserve, is potent and inspires important work by many groups that often share compatible motivation and goals—the Centre County Historical Society, Lion Ambassadors, and the Mount Nittany Conservancy, just to name a few.

    We constantly need to work together to retell the stories of our past so that the knowledge and experiences of those who came before us can make a tangible impact on the present.

  • Elliot Abrams: The More Things Change…

    To even the most casual radio listeners here in the Valley (and in many other markets throughout the country), Accuweather meteorologist Elliot Abrams is the familiar voice of the morning weather forecast. Abrams has been with Accuweather since its early days; even as he has become a fixture of an expanding international corporation, for residents of Patton Township, he has also been a constant presence in their local government.

    Today, Elliot Abrams has the distinction of being the longest-tenured elected official in the Nittany Valley, having served on Patton’s Board of Supervisors for 32 out of the 34 years since being elected to his first six-year term in 1981 (with a brief interruption from 2000 to 2002). He has enjoyed a unique insider’s perspective on decades of slow, yet inexorable change, as the University and region around it have been transformed.

    “There’s been a great amount of growth of all kinds, and at each stage, there were people who wanted the government to stop allowing it, and you had forces who wanted it to grow even faster,” he said.

    A native Philadelphian who arrived here as a Penn State undergrad, Abrams was first drawn into the realm of local government through an early, but critical driver in the area’s shifting complexion – the push to bring regional airport service from the Philipsburg area to State College.

    “Back in the Seventies, as Accuweather was getting started, I thought that we should be represented in the community, and so I joined the chamber of commerce, and became active on its transportation committees and government affairs committees,” recalled Abrams. “It struck me that everybody was complaining and not getting anything done.”

    That revelation led to deeper scrutiny of the opportunities and challenges facing the region, and soon after, his concerns about snow plowing for local school bus routes found him in front of the township supervisors. In a classic case of the “squeaky wheel” effect, Abrams ended up being recruited to get more involved, first through the township’s sign review board, then an appointment to the planning commission.

    “You become very knowledgeable about the community on the planning commission. I felt I was more aware of what was going on on the planning commission than at the supervisor level. All developers come in with their plans, and they’re vetted very carefully.”

    After a stint on the planning commission, handling nuts and bolts issues like ensuring that planned parking for a new building matched the number of actual spaces, Abrams was encouraged to run for a supervisor position and elected in 1981.

    “I found that things change very slowly. But I liked the idea of people being able to come in and actually tell us about problems that were occurring,” he said. “It’s not a glamourous thing, but the roads have to be maintained; you have to have a police department, and if people have problems, they have to know some place they can go where someone is actually going to listen to them and hopefully fix them. That’s all the job really is.”

    In his years serving as a supervisor, pay for that job has risen from $600 in ’81 to $4,000 today. “The state has slowly raised it over the years. It still comes out to double-digit cents per hour. You’re not doing it to get rich.”

    It is a fact of American life that we tend to pay the least amount of attention to the public offices whose authority most directly affects our daily lives. Township supervisor labor in relative obscurity, tackling important, if mundane, issues like zoning, sidewalk installation, and management of the regional growth boundary. Abrams finds fulfillment in the chance to solve problems. He appreciates opportunities to serve as an advocate for Penn State students on local issues and points to recent passage of a referendum authorizing a tax increase to fund more public open space as an example of democracy at work. Plus, “it’s something different to do. I’m (at Accuweather) all morning fussing over the weather, so it’s a change of pace.”

    For a career spanning such a long period of time, including so many changes to the area, there have been relatively few speed bumps along the way. Abrams says that the rare moments of contention have typically involved disagreements over growth and development, including a controversy over development of the Gray’s Woods community that culminated in an unsuccessful ballot initiative to split the township. Naturally, there has been some griping about money too.

    “There was one time when we were doing a budget hearing, and several people came who were upset that we were spending too much money. I’d learned that, actually, if you put the people that are most upset on your committees, you get them involved, they may still be upset about what’s going on, but if you’re doing something that’s legitimate, that’s good for the community basically, they will actually come along and get a greater appreciation that maybe what is happening should be done this way. So we had several meetings where we deliberately invited people who had come to complain to us to come a meeting and air this stuff out.”

    During that meeting, the supervisors reviewed each expenditure with the concerned citizens, things like police services, road paving, and snow removal. “The township does very basic things, and they came away agreeing that probably what we were spending was reasonable. Now the next morning in the paper, the headline is ‘Residents rail against township budget.’”

    Abrams has been at this unglamorous job for over three decades, nearing the end of that journey and looking back, and may be ready to finally call it quits when his current term expires in 2019. Time may move more slowly here in the Nittany Valley, but it never stops. “Since I’ll be 72 then, this might be the last one. I think it has been worthwhile.”

    Elliot Abrams left Philadelphia to attend Penn State, and ended up enmeshed in the growth of an international company and globally-recognized brand, all the while remaining intimately involved in the growth and life of this community for over 30 years. He has led a life rooted in shaping the direction and character of the Nittany Valley in lasting, meaningful ways.

    “You don’t live all those things in an individual day. You take things as they come. I’ve seen everything unfold in a gradual way, and it hasn’t been anything that different. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s always been a place where you’re sort of isolated from the rest of the world, in a way. That’s why it’s been Happy Valley.”

  • Why Learn the Penn State Story?

    As the keynote speaker for this year’s Willow Gathering, Penn State Lunar Lion mission director Michael Paul talked about how, for Penn State, being the only university among a field of private competitors striving to reach the Moon is opening up incredible opportunities for the institution and her students. Hands-on learning and connections with the global aerospace community are invaluable byproducts of what is, in itself, ground-breaking work. By identifying new innovations and cost efficiencies in lunar exploration, Penn State could make significant, tangible impact on how humanity reaches for the final frontier in the 21st century. I commented that, in their quest to land a lunar module, his team represents a modern extension of Evan Pugh’s vision for a college where practical pursuits could be afforded the same serious study as the humanities in classical universities. Perhaps more than any other single undertaking at Penn State, the Lunar Lion captures the pioneering spirit with which the school was founded.

    It is easy to forget now, when the STEM fields are in such high demand and, as a result, the darlings of politicians and academics, that conventional thinkers once scoffed at the notion of teaching agriculture and engineering in the same hallowed halls as art, literature, and philosophy. The sentiment animating the land-grant movement of the late 1800’s, which recalled self-made renaissance man Evan Pugh from Oxford to his native Pennsylvania, once seemed hopelessly provincial. Farmers and thinkers belong in different rooms, and never the twain shall meet. Pugh’s vision for teaching the advanced study of agriculture and the mechanic arts in the “splendid isolation” of the Nittany Valley was, in its time, a radical experiment in democratizing higher education. Yet history teaches us that the rise of the public research universities laid the groundwork for the American Century, and as they grew, these schools became places that both reflected our society and challenged it to change and grow.

    Penn State was the first institution of higher education in the Commonwealth to admit female students; football star Wally Tripplett came to Happy Valley on an academic scholarship at a time when many black Americans were denied entry to universities on any grounds. There is a lot to learn, not all of it is pretty, although there is plenty in which Penn Staters should take pride

    How our “Second Founder” George Atherton revived a failing college by believing in the “university that was to be,” how Milton Eisenhower sought the favor of his brother, the President of the United States, to build it up, or how Joe Paterno used the occasion of a football national championship, not to demand a higher salary or better facilities for his team, but challenge the University’s trustees to raise the money needed to elevate Penn State academics.

    As we continue to add new chapters—perhaps one day making the “Nittany Nation” the fourth nation to land on the Moon—Penn State’s new undergraduate “History of Penn State” course will help ensure we don’t forget our story or its valuable lessons.

  • Three Coaches, Three Speeches at Penn State’s IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon

    This weekend marks the continuation of one of the Nittany Valley’s most remarkable stories. What we know today as THON began humbly some 42 years ago and grew into a phenomenon. “The world’s largest student-run philanthropy” raises millions annually for pediatric cancer patients while uniting the Penn State community like little else. The appearance of various PSU personalities, including the head football coach, to address the crowd has become a highlight of the annual 46-hour celebration (insert #footballculture joke here). I decided to share three THON speeches by three different coaches to reflect on the tenor of the event throughout our recent past and consider what they can reveal about our shared story.

    “I wish the whole world could see and feel what’s in this room right now. Love and commitment… in 58 years at Penn State, I’ve never been more proud than right now.” —Joe Paterno

    In 2009, one of his final seasons on the sidelines, Joe Paterno famously spoke to an enthusiastic audience at the BJC, as seen in the video above. It has been only three years since his death, but already the name, image, and memory of Paterno seem increasingly remote, more and more like icons or totems. Layers of meaning and political subtext – positive and negative – are projected onto them, further separating us from the simpler reality of the flesh-and-blood creature.

    I love this clip in particular for the ways in which it distills and captures Joe the person, earnest and disarmed. It recalls a happier time and reminds us of the actual human being who undeniably gave copiously of himself to better the institution and his community, who inspired such affection and stirred such controversy. I do hope that, one day, Penn State and the Nittany Valley will properly honor the Paternos and, when that time comes, we will find the wisdom to do so in a way that is fundamentally grounded in their humanity.

    “Just having arrived at Penn State, you don’t know anything about THON until you’re in the arena. It’s awesome… I have all the respect in the world for everything that you guys do.” —Bill O’Brien

    THON 2012 was probably one of the most emotional weekends of a uniquely tumultuous year. Facing a barrage of baseless and vitriolic attacks pouring in from the outside, internally wracked with anguish, confusion, and uncertainty, the community rallied around THON and its irrefutable statement about who and what “We Are” and clung tightly to it, comforted by the reminder that no amount of venom could dilute all that good done each year in Penn State’s name. It was with this backdrop that new head football coach Bill O’Brien took the stage. Only two weeks into his tenure, O’Brien was tasked with establishing credibility with a hopeful, but unsteady and unsure (in some quarters, quite skeptical) NIttany Nation, beginning the process of injecting enthusiasm and drumming up support for his football program, comforting a reeling and grieving community, and paying proper respect to the event and its purpose. His success here was a sign of things to come.

    O’Brien stayed for only a short time, but probably two of the most critical years in the history of the town and school. He is seen here passing one of his first (of many) tests, standing in the same spot as his legendary predecessor and praising the special qualities of Penn State in that direct and honest way that endeared him to so many of us so quickly.

    “What makes us special is the people, the people that understand we are part of something greater than just ourselves. We can make a difference in people’s lives. We can make a difference in the community.” —James Franklin

    If Bill O’Brien’s tenure represented the time of painful transition, the energy and optimism of James Franklin capture our hopes for a gradual return to normalcy, the true arrival of a new era. Looking back on O’Brien’s tumultuous two years, the memories all possess a hazy, dream-like quality. As I note the disconnected tone in many of his remarks since leaving, I wonder whether there’s not some of that for the coach himself. As if we all passed through a fiery disaster together and, having survived it, then went our separate ways and on with our lives. The community now faces the necessity, the challenge, and the excitement of accepting that the identity of Penn State football will become the purview of new arrivals. Franklin and his staff must make this program their own, but with the luxury of keeping the focus on the field. They will pick up and carry forward the banner for Old State, ingraining themselves and their personal styles indelibly into its history—as will Eric Barron, Sandy Barbour, David Gray, Nick Jones, whomever replaces Roger Williams at the PSAA, and an entirely new generation of Penn State leadership.

    We close with Franklin’s 2014 THON debut, the third speech from a third coach in five years, each representing the spirit of a moment. I hope it is the first of many for Franklin. I know it is just the latest in a long line that will march us ever further away from the living memory of Joe Paterno and that night in February 2009. The story goes on, and I hope you, like me, look forward to seeing what comes next.

  • A Penn State Love Story: Evan and Rebecca Valentine Pugh

    In The Legends of the Nittany Valley, a unique and fun mythology emerges for the places in and around Penn State, but our community also has its own real-life fairy tale: The story of the tragically short-lived love between Rebecca Valentine and Evan Pugh, the University’s founding president.

    Pugh is a truly remarkable figure. If it’s true that the strength and character of any institution are rooted in its founding, then an understanding of Evan Pugh can explain Penn State’s astonishing resilience over the last three years. His audacious vision for the school that would become the Pennsylvania State University, and the vigor with which he pursued it, are great stories of themselves. Equally captivating is the account of his courtship of Bellefonte’s Rebecca Valentine, a lasting love that not even death could conquer. Pugh died young, not long after marrying Rebecca, but she never took another husband, remaining forever faithful to the love of her life.

    I was excited to see the University release this video yesterday, summarizing the story of Evan and Rebecca in a format that can bring it to the Penn State family. It was especially satisfying to hear several quotes from Erwin Runkle, the first Penn State historian. In 2013, Nittany Valley Press released The Pennsylvania State College 1853-1932: Interpretation and Record, a never-published history of the school written by Runkle in the 1930s. As a contemporary of many key figures in Penn State’s early years, Runkle offers invaluable perspective on the people and events that shaped Old State in a formative era. His affection and story-teller’s instincts for the Penn State story come through in his quotes here.

    Watch the the short video, and learn about the tragic, but touching love story at the heart of Penn State’s origins.