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As sweet as any Homecoming victory at Beaver Stadium may be, even sweeter for many students, alumni, and friends is a Penn State Homecoming hike on Mount Nittany.
Penn State Homecoming, in its own words, exists to “celebrate tradition and instill pride in all members of the Penn State family through active engagement of students, alumni, faculty and staff across the community.” Tens of thousands of Penn Staters and friends return to Happy Valley for Homecoming, and hundreds make the special journey into Lemont and up to the Mount Nittany Trailhead, either to the Mike Lynch Overlook or to Mount Nittany’s other overlooks across its miles of trails.
The journey to Happy Valley for Homecoming is a special tradition in itself, as one recalls the highs and lows of days gone by, but the journey from Penn State’s crimson-hued campus to the top of the Mountain stirs in the heart not only the memories of the past but a clarity and recognition of the sweetness of our presently-unfolding lives. Our loyalty to Penn State, and our love for Mount Nittany, bear witness to a deeper reality: as a people who share common loves, we also share a common future.
We hope that Mount Nittany remains forever a treasure for Penn Staters, Central Pennsylvanians, and friends, and that these scenes from Penn State Homecoming 2023 and a hike to the Mike Lynch Overlook remind you of a place you will always be able to call home.
Consider making a one-time or recurring financial gift to the Mount Nittany Conservancy to support our perennial work of conservation. Together, we will ensure Mount Nittany remains accessible and for the public benefit for the future.
Thank you to all who contributed to the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s 2023 Centre Gives campaign! We were grateful to surpass our $15,000 fundraising goal thanks to the support of 78 donors.
We set many records for our Centre Gives participation this year. We achieved 50% growth in gifts over 2022’s total of $10,330, and we set an all-time record with 78 unique contributing donors, shattering our 2021 record of 70 unique donors.
We also achieved record giving participation from our active board members, with 19 of 21 active board members making a gift. Our emeritus board members also participated meaningfully, with 12 of 27 emeritus board members making a gift, including 5 of 7 living past presidents making a gift.
Together, we finished among the Top 20% of Centre Gives participating organizations, at #35 on the leaderboard out of 206 participating causes.
Centre Gives is a unique online giving event in Central Pennsylvania designed to encourage community giving and to support the work of Centre County causes. Mount Nittany Conservancy is one of more than 200 nonprofits that participates in this annual event. Donors to Centre Gives join a community of thousands who support worthy causes across all our communities, all near Mount Nittany’s gentle shadow.
The Mount Nittany Conservancy has partnered with Centre Foundation for many years. Centre Foundation stewards more than $200,000 in Mount Nittany-focused endowments thanks to the love and generosity of so many across so many years. These endowed funds produce annual revenue that contributes toward the all-volunteer Mount Nittany Conservancy’s annual budget. Centre Foundation provides the Mount Nittany Conservancy stability and sustainability for our continuing work to conserve the Mountain for Penn Staters, Central Pennsylvanians, and all friends of nature.
Gifts to Centre Foundation’s Mount Nittany Conservancy Fund, Mount Nittany Blue and White Trails Fund, and Ben Novak Fellowship Fund grows our endowments and are a way to support the Mount Nittany Conservancy in perpetuity.
“Every day, countless people and organizations work to do good in Centre County. Mentors and counselors work with children, giving them a path to success. People and families in need find food, safety, and shelter through many helping hands. Beautiful streams and forests are protected and maintained by people who care about the future of the planet. Those with developmental disabilities find strength and purpose from community members who know they are more than a label. All around the community, artists find venues for performing and platforms for sharing their work and giving back, uplifting everyone.
“All these things and more—accomplished through tremendous work by an impressive network of nonprofits and community organizations—help make Centre County a wonderful place to live for all. One thing is for sure: none of this work could be done without a lot of support.
“For forty years, Centre Foundation has helped to give these organization a solid foundation, by believing that everyone can be a philanthropist. …
“It is easy to see the impact of the Centre Foundation at work. All you have to do is ask the organizations it supports.
“The Mount Nittany Conservancy was established around the same time as the Centre Foundation and has grown right along with it.
“‘As we’ve grown, we’ve looked to Centre Foundation as a stable, trustworthy, and permanent ally for supporting our mission of the conservation of Mount Nittany. We’re proud to have established multiple endowments with Centre Foundation and to encourage Penn Staters and townspeople who care about Mount Nittany to provide for its permanent conservation in part through growing Centre Foundation’s Mount Nittany Conservancy Fund. We look forward to our missions and organizations growing old together through the years, decades, and even centuries to come,’ says conservancy Vice President Tom Shakely.”
Thank you to all who contributed to the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s 2022 Centre Gives campaign! We were grateful to surpass our $10,000 fundraising goal thanks to the support of 55 donors.
Although our total number of 55 donors was down this year compared to 2021’s 70 donors, our total raised this year of $10,330 marked an increase over 2021’s $9,777 raised. In 2020, by comparison, we raised $5,625 from 62 donors.
Centre Gives is a unique online giving event in Central Pennsylvania designed to encourage community giving and to support the great work of Centre County nonprofits. The Mount Nittany Conservancy is one of some 200 nonprofits that participates in this giving event. Our goal this year was to reach $10,000 in gifts from at least 100 donors.
Donors to Centre Gives join a community of thousands who support worthy causes across all our communities that lie near Mount Nittany’s gentle shadow.
Ars Technica reports on a recent study on “rewilding” released by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. What is “rewilding”? The International Union for the Conservation of Nature defines rewilding this way:
Rewilding: the process of rebuilding, following major human disturbance, a natural ecosystem by restoring natural processes and the complete or near complete food-web at all trophic levels as a self-sustaining and resilient ecosystem using biota that would have been present had the disturbance not occurred. This will involve a paradigm shift in the relationship between humans and nature. The ultimate goal of rewilding is the restoration of functioning native ecosystems complete with fully occupied trophic levels that are nature-led across a range of landscape scales. Rewilded ecosystems should – where possible – be self-sustaining requiring no or minimum-intervention management (i.e. natura naturans or “nature doing what nature does”), recognising that ecosystems are dynamic and not static.
Ars Technica describes what rewilding can look like in practice, while noting that the reintroduction of certain predators may not be advisable:
In essence, rewilding involves giving more space and time to nature. Instead of managing ecosystems to preserve particular species, rewilding is intended to reverse environmental decline by letting nature become more self-willed. That means allowing wildlife the freedom to flourish and habitats to regenerate naturally. …
The objective of rewilding is boosting the health of an ecosystem by increasing the number of species and how much they can all interact. A fully restored ecosystem would have top predators, but there are a lot of missing parts—the plants, prey animals, fungi—that should be put back first to ensure that larger species have an appropriate food source and habitat to support them.
It might not be appropriate for lots of other reasons to reintroduce wolves to a particular place at the moment, but in the meantime, bringing back beavers, lizards, and butterflies is brilliant too. …
Rewilding involves reducing harmful human pressures and promoting natural processes in ecosystems. This shouldn’t mean excluding people though. Rewilding should actually help people develop a more positive relationship with the natural world that involves compassion for all species and a spirit of learning from nature rather than seeking to dominate it. …
By enabling species to move through reconnected habitats and traverse entire landscapes, wildlife populations can be rebuilt. This would ensure the healthy functioning of an ecosystem isn’t dependent on a few isolated creatures, and it’s a practical way to help nature adapt to threats like climate change and new diseases, as species will have more freedom to move if pressures in one place escalate.
Mount Nittany is loved precisely because it is a natural symbol of Penn State and the Nittany Valley. Although Penn State’s success and the growth of State College have had the effect of reshaping the ecology, landscapes, and environment of Happy Valley, Mount Nittany remains in its natural state. We intentionally conserve the Mountain in an “unimproved” way—simply maintaining trails and encouraging hikers to abide by the “leave no trace” principle.
Our aspiration is for Mount Nittany to forever remain the natural heart of Happy Valley, where Penn Staters, Central Pennsylvanians, and visitors can experience time outside of time in a place that would be as recognizably Mount Nittany as it was for Evan and Rebecca Pugh or George Atherton as it would be for us, or as it will be for generations yet unborn. In this way, Mount Nittany can be sacred—literally a place set apart.
Mount Nittany, like too many natural places, was clear cut in the early 20th century. The natural ecosystem of the Mountain has come back in a rich way since that tragic event, but it will still be many decades—centuries—before the Mountain regains the age and dignity of a genuinely ancient forest. For these reasons, rewilding of Mount Nittany has been an implicit part of the work of the Mount Nittany Conservancy since its founding in the 1980s and has been a guiding principle for the Mountain’s conservation since at least the 1940s.
Although we have no plans to reintroduce the Pennsylvania mountain lion to Mount Nittany—if only it could safely be so, especially for the people of Lemont!—the rewilding of the Mountain is the work of generations.
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.
“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,
We founded the Mount Nittany Conservancy with the conviction that Mount Nittany should be preserved from deforestation, development, and defacement forever. We believe that Mount Nittany should always be a proud symbol of Penn State and the Nittany Valley for every generation.
It’s why we work to conserve the Mountain in its natural state. We know that no manmade “improvements” to Mount Nittany can improve on its natural beauty.
Since 1981, thanks to the support of friends like you, we’ve permanently conserved more than 800 acres of Mount Nittany and we have blazed and maintained 8+ miles of natural trails for all to discover.
We envision conserving even more of Mount Nittany! But we cannot do this without your support. We’re asking for your gift today (before 9pm!) through our Centre Gives page. We’re aiming to raise at least $10,000 before our deadline tonight! We are grateful for every dollar you chip in.
Centre Gives is a unique online giving event in Central Pennsylvania designed to encourage community giving and to support the great work of Centre County nonprofits. We’re one of nearly 200 nonprofits participating in this giving event. By giving today, you’ll be joining thousands who are supporting worthy causes across every home and community the lies near Mount Nittany’s gentle shadow.
Make your secure gift to Mount Nittany now. Questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Centre Gives 2021 Campaign Results
We were able to raise $9,777 from the gifts of 70 generous donors! We came very close to our $10,000 goal and are honored by your support.
Thanks to these many generous gifts, we smashed our record Centre Gives giving totals from last year, of $5,625 from 62 unique donors.
Penn Stater Magazine memorialized the late Tom Smyth in its July/August 2020 issue with this profile. Mount Nittany’s Tom Smyth Overlook is named in his honor.
Even into his late 70s, Thomas Smyth would hike up Mount Nittany, chainsaw on his back, and clear the trails up and down Happy Valley’s landmark peak. “It was unreal what that man could do,” says Bill Jaffe ’60 Com, former president of the Mount Nittany Conservancy. “We called him Mr. Mountain Man.”
Smyth joined the Penn State faculty in 1955 as a professor of etymology and bio physics. He also served as a longtime adviser to the Penn State Outing Club, leading students on hikes and other trips. “When he retired, he started volunteering for the Mount Nittany Conservancy in the early 2000s and later joined the board. A world-class mountaineer who scaled the Himalayas and Mount Kilimanjaro, he maintained trails on Mount Nittany and raised awareness of issues such as drain age and a gypsy moth infestation. Smyth received the conservancy’s Friend of the Mountain Award in 1991, and an outlook atop Mount Nittany is named in his honor. The Lion’s Paw Alumni Association honored him with its Lion’s Paw Medal in 2012.
His framed photos from outdoor adventures covered the walls and were stacked up on the floor. “He had so many he had run out of places to hang them,” says Mike Day ’73 Lib, past president of the Lion’s Paw Alumni Association. “He was quite a character.” Smyth died on Dec. 5, 2019, at age 92. He is survived by two sisters.
John Muir, as quoted in The Mountain Trail and Its Message in 1911:
“Hiking—I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains—not hike! Do you know the origin of that word, ‘saunter’? It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre,” ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”
I’ve been spending some time recently on scanning a few boxes worth of early Mount Nittany Conservancy archives that Ben Novak provided to me. As the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s founder and first president, Ben was instrumental not only in the organization’s major land preservation and fundraising efforts throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, but also in creating and promoting the distinctive “Square Inch” Life Estate Deeds, which provide a true, legal square inch of Mount Nittany for the life of the donor—recorded with the Centre County Recorder of Deeds—in exchange for a beautiful, framed deed certificate.
Over the course of these scanning and archival efforts, a number of prominent Penn Staters and State College names appear, including Dr. Joab Thomas and his wife. Dr. Thomas was Penn State’s president from 1990-1995, and he and his wife ordered their Square Inch in the early 1990s:
Evan Pugh was Penn State’s first president.
It’s great if you happen to know of Evan Pugh. In fact, it’s likely that knowing about him already puts you in the minority among students and alumni. But just knowing this bit of raw information isn’t worth much in and of itself. It’s available to anyone curious enough to wonder and with access to Wikipedia. Why care?
As Penn Staters, we’ll be celebrating Founder’s Day on February 22. It’s a special time on the calendar set aside to honor and remember the men and women who built Dear Old State. Today, we often act as if Penn State’s prestige flows from its numbers—the number of students enrolled globally, the number of living alumni, the number of academic colleges and majors, etc. Evan Pugh’s Penn State wasn’t defined by staggering numbers, but rather by people, as Erwin Runkle’s first official history of the University records:
“Despite the [Civil] war, the school grew in numbers; 142 were enrolled in 1863, and 146 in 1864. Thirty-eight to forty counties of the State were represented. Two graduate students appeared in 1862, and in the following year, the number reached eleven.”
Our founder wasn’t the overseer of a vast corporate institute, but of a startup—so to speak—focused on a few dozen individuals. As president, Evan Pugh’s job was to know the particularities of student life—their family situation, their political loyalties during a time of conflict, their educational pursuits, their ambitions and skills. How many administrators, even in Penn State’s Office of Student Affairs, have similarly intimate human knowledge about our current students?
Today, what feels like a small army of faculty and staff are required to manage the modern Penn State. At its beginning, however, the school required an individual of extraordinary vision and singular purpose to chart its destiny.
And Evan Pugh himself was a remarkable man. Born on February 28, 1828 in Chester County, Pennsylvania, his father was a farmer-blacksmith. But his father died when he was only 12 years old, and he was raised by his grandfather. In time, young Evan hungered for knowledge and wisdom rather than money, which led him to eschew the inheritance of his father’s farm. Instead, he went off to study at some of the finest universities in England, France, and Germany. His research earned him membership in the Royal Society of Science and the American Philosophical Society. His achievements burnished his reputation as a man of character that led to his invitation to the founding presidency of a young, experimental “Farmer’s High School” that in time would become the Penn State of history.
Indeed, Evan Pugh’s vision and devotion to the early Penn State was remarkable in its own time, but perhaps is even more remarkable in our own. Perhaps best exemplified by the carousel of football coaches since 2011, we seem to be exiting an era when one arrived in the Nittany Valley to make Penn State their life, not simply their job. Pugh, a man whose ability and professional qualifications meant he could choose his own career path, gave himself fully over to the fledgling cause of Penn State, internalizing the dream of higher education for the commoner in the “splendid isolation” of this place. He writes to Professor Wilson, Penn State’s Vice President, on September 18, 1863:
“I am resolved to stay with our College, while God gives me strength to perform my duties there, whatever may be the pecuniary inducements or prospects of honor elsewhere. It is my duty and my destiny to do so, and I shall seek honors in the path of duty and of destiny…”
But Evan Pugh didn’t build Penn State’s early foundations alone. He was joined by Rebecca Valentine, the Bellefonte native who captured his imagination from the time he first arrived to live in Mount Nittany’s shadow. Runkle doesn’t record nearly enough about the woman who is easily the most fascinating among our founders:
Evan Pugh met Rebecca Valentine on a trip to Bellefonte in 1861, while on a visit to an iron master to compare methods of smelting iron. Their love grew over the course of a three-year engagement that began almost immediately after they met, and they were married on February 4, 1864. As a native of Central Pennsylvania, Rebecca was distinct in speaking for the Nittany Valley’s soul and character to a man who grew up outside of Philadelphia and earned his doctorate in Germany. But as significant as Evan’s devotion to Penn State was in its first, formative years, and as much love as Evan and Rebecca shared during their courtship, their marriage was short-lived. Evan took ill and passed away at 36, only months after they wed. Runkle records:
“Mrs. Pugh, a woman of culture, refinement, and of rare sweetness and purity of soul, kept faithful tryst of the poignant romance so ruthlessly shattered until her own death on July 7, 1921—fifty-seven years of widowed, worshipful, romantic devotion.” At the time of founder Evan Pugh’s death, J.B. Lakes of Rothamstead Station, England, wrote to Rebecca: “I felt certain that if he lived he would be the founder of a great college.”
Though they could not have known it at the time, Evan Pugh was, in fact, the founder of a great college, among the greatest and most resilient ever known. However briefly the bold, bright beacon of his influence flashed across the firmament of our Valley, such was its potency that traces linger even today. This Founder’s Day, every Penn Stater who comes to know the story of Evan and Rebecca Pugh should celebrate this man and woman in a special way.
In 2015, Penn State published this short video on the enduring love shared by Evan and Rebecca:
In the slower summer months in Happy Valley, Arts Fest looms large on the calendar. The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts has been a special time of year for many decades, since its earliest days as a student-initiated celebration on up through the singular tradition it has become today.
It’s no stretch to point out that Arts Fest is closer to a cultural tradition of the Nittany Valley than it is merely the sum of its parts as a nonprofit initiative, or an artistic festival, or an occasion for nostalgic homecomings. And it’s particularly as a cultural tradition that Arts Fest is most worth celebrating. So what are we celebrating?
Togetherness, first and foremost. Arts Fest, more than any other point on the calendar, is a commitment to being together in the Nittany Valley. And it’s in that togetherness that we rediscover each summer the resilient and radiant nature of the spirit of our community.
In an earlier age, our American Indian predecessors remarked upon this area’s strange magnetism with the legend of King Wi-Daagh, whose power to compel visitors to return and pay tribute lingered even beyond the grave. Call it “something in the water,” the Spirit of the Valley, or simply the stubborn curse of a long-dead chieftain, a bewitching quality draws people back.
Penn State football brings townspeople, students, and alumni together throughout the fall. Penn State student philanthropy brings many together each February. And the Blue-White scrimmage each April echoes the games of autumn. Yet Arts Fest stands apart, because those who stay or return do so most often simply to be together during one of the most beautiful months of the year. It’s often an external calling that brings us together in the Nittany Valley, but for those who celebrate Arts Fest, it’s more often than not a personal whispering of the heart that calls them back.
Arts Fest also is a celebration of physical place. Strangely, this is something most of us tend to lack. Of course, we all live someplace in particular. But in the midst of our suburbanized society, we often do lack a sense of place. If we’re not cloistered away in cul-de-sacs and commuting in atomized, climate-controlled transport, we’re more likely than not insulated within the thick walls of some apartment residence.
In coming together in the Nittany Valley, we’re coming to a specific place. One where we live or once studied. One where we played or drink. One whose paths and landmarks and trees and boundaries feel far more concrete and timeless than most of the places we experience in our everyday lives. This beautiful, physical place is the context for togetherness for a few special days, and a time surely for appreciating beautiful people and their creations as much as for admiring the specialness of place that helps keep Happy Valley so happy.
Yet Arts Fest is a celebration of something even more beautiful. Nostalgia, to paraphrase an insightful writer, is powerful because it tells us about what’s not presently in our life by reminding us what once was a part of our life. In other words, nostalgia is an invitation to remember some of the things we love and an urging to find a way to re-encounter that love.
We celebrate Arts Fest because it’s a form of living nostalgia. In the midst of our togetherness in one of America’s happiest places, and in getting away from the sort daily life that so often isolates rather than unites us, we encounter bits of our past that we love. Arts Fest is like an invitation to consciously recognize the things we miss, and bring them back into our daily lives.
On your trip back for Arts Fest this (or any) year, make time to encounter or reacquaint yourself with these things. Visit and learn the story of Old Willow as you cross Old Main lawn. Carve out a few hours for an early morning hike up Mount Nittany. Buy the button. Sleep in a dorm. A slower pace offers the chance to fondly remember all that’s changed and cherish how much yet remains.
In this light, Arts Fest is “itself a work of art” as former Penn State Trustee Ben Novak writes in “The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution:”
“In order to enjoy the festival itself as art,” Novak reflects, “one needs but a quiet time of recollection and a good tankard of ale. Then one can summon up again the best of the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and feelings of the festival week. One can savor each one, turning it over carefully in one’s mind, converting what might have been only a momentary thrill into a lasting impression. After all, isn’t that what art is—the converting of something momentary, like a fleeting smile on a woman’s face, into something lasting, like the Mona Lisa?”
This year during Arts Fest, no matter how fleeting or lasting your time, try to consciously recognize the sort of people, places, and experiences that make you happiest, and bring them with you when you leave. You might find a new spirit, itself like a work of art, animating your daily life.
“To Thy Happy Children / Of The Future
Those Of The Past / Send Greetings”
This is the inscription that the University of Illinois’s Alma Mater statue bears for the curious passerby. It’s a perfect encapsulation of everything a place of learning exists to achieve—bringing the reality and wisdom of the past alive in the present, so it can do the same for the future. I wrote about this earlier this year, and shared a few pictures including the iconic personification of Alma Mater at the University of Havana:
At the time I mentioned a concept for Penn State that I want to convey in the hope that it can be brought to life sooner rather than later.
The concept: a “Penn State Encountering Heritage” initiative, the purpose being to honor monumental men and women in our history by personifying them across campus through monumental statuary that would make them feel closer to a living part of the university experience.
We possess an incredibly rich history, thick with the vision and strength of countless men and women who’ve helped build Penn State into what it has become. But aside from Joe and Sue Paterno (and maybe George Atherton) I doubt most could name the most significant figures in our creation or development. Let alone the personalities of our best cultural values or local folklore.
Why personify leaders of the past
It’s necessary to acknowledge, even despite our incredibly rich history, that we live in a practical time. What practical value is there in beautiful and romantic notions about honoring monumental leaders?
Ben Novak, a retired four-term Penn State trustee, offers tremendous perspective on the practical value of the past. In “Is Penn State a Real University?: An Investigation of the University as a Living Ideal,” he writes:
“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.” There’s a reason that millennia after their death we continually re-approach the Greek philosophers. There is an evergreen sort of power in their thinking and stories. There is similar power in Penn State’s past.
“Fortunately,” Novak underscores, “we do not live in a world where the past, present, and future are in airtight cubicles that we must look at separately as though the past is dead and gone, the present sticks, and the future is always bright. Rather, the past, present, and future are fluid, and keep washing over each other. There were a lot of good things in the past that can brighten the present, and a lot of things in the past that seem to be missing in the present, but which could brighten your future.”
“Spirit,” Novak concludes, “is indestructible. But only if, in a practical sense, we allow it to come alive in us.” By personifying some of the most monumental figures in our history, we can enshrine them as a physical and concrete part of the campus. Doing so creates the context for the sort of personal and communal encounters with our institutional spirit that allows it to come alive in each new class.
An abundance of practical value, both institutionally and personally, can be realized in helping the newest members of the Penn State family encounter a few of her oldest as a means to fulfill the Greek challenge at the root of learning, which is to know thyself.
Who deserves a place on campus
So who are the sort of people that could brighten our future if we were to encounter them on campus?
I’m thinking about Evan Pugh, our visionary founding president whose whole story is little known. His spirit lingers near University House, his home. I’m thinking about his remarkable wife Rebecca, Bellefonte-native, whose faith in her husband and his vision outshone death itself. She wanders campus as a symbol of fidelity. I’m thinking about George Atherton, who sustained Evan Pugh’s vision at the turn of the 20th century while encouraging and implementing the development of the modern university structure and who, like Evan, died in striving to realize his vision. Only his grave presently remains.
I’m thinking of Wally Triplett, who came to Penn State in 1945 on academic scholarship as one of our first African American varsity football players and who during the 1946 season came to embody our community’s cultural values a generation before integration became a serious national conversation. Triplett in bronze stands in spirit near Beaver Stadium, sharing the stories of his time. I’m thinking of Joe and Sue Paterno, who as nominally athletics figures improbably elevated the academic mission of Penn State while supporting the viability of its diverse athletics programs through the powerhouse of college football. The Paternos belong by their library as much as, if not more so, the athletics fields.
I’m also thinking of people from outside the Penn State experience who nonetheless came into it in an historic way, representing some of its best aspects. I’m thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. at Rec Hall, symbol not only of America’s Civil Rights achievements, but also an historic voice representative of the vision of an inclusive culture who shared his prophetic voice with Penn Staters months before Selma.
I’m even thinking of institutional and legendary symbols like Alma Mater’s personification as the source of knowledge and conveyer of institutional heritage. I’m thinking of Princess Nittany, the folkloric originator of Mount Nittany and the inspiration for our identification as Nittany Lions.
What do we presently have? We have two modest busts of Evan Pugh and George Atherton in Old Main’s foyer, a place few students ever visit. What stories do these small busts share with the people of the campus and community? What physical context is there for gathering there or for sharing moments with others? None.
Each of these men, women, and iconic symbols I’ve mentioned speak in some way to aspects of our university’s character. Each represents some fundamental strain in the DNA of the contemporary community, and each helps unlock part of the secret meaning of the declaration that “We Are Penn State.”
One of my favorite places in Philadelphia is Washington Square. In 1954, planners created what you see above, George Washington and the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier. It’s a remarkable yet restrained and modest honor that creates the physical context for gatherings and ceremony and admiration.
We don’t have to think as grandly as the University of Havana’s Alma Mater, or as traditionally as this Washington Square monument. But we owe it to ourselves to think more aggressively and with bolder vision than tucked-away lobby room decorations.
Where to start
I think history is most relatable when it’s personal. This is why the most engrossing stories of the past are often told through the people at the center of events, rather than through the otherwise context-shorn details of the events themselves.
Thanks to Erwin Runkle’s history in The Pennsylvania State College 1853-1932: Interpretation and Record, we know an incredible amount about the persons and personalities of Evan Pugh and Rebecca Pugh, as well as George Atherton.
To start thinking through how a sculptor might embody our founder, Runkle describes: “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.”
Later: “On June 6th, 1863, Dr. Pugh was returning to Willow Bank when a severe thunder storm arose. The horse he was driving was frightened, and backed the buggy over the bank into the stream, throwing the future Mrs. Pugh and himself under the vehicle. Dr. Pugh managed to extricate himself, raise the buggy and rescue his fiancee who suffered severely from bruises and shock. Dr. Pugh sustained a broken arm…”
After Pugh’s death in 1864, J.B. Lawes writes Rebecca Pugh: “Although I had my fears that he was taxing his powers too severely, I was watching his course with great interest, as I felt certain that if he lived he would be the founder of a great college. I hope some permanent memorial is proposed. I shall be proud to become a contributor in honor of a man whose character and abilities I so greatly admired.”
Each of these vignettes brings Evan Pugh to life in a special way. There are countless more examples throughout Runkle’s book alone. Writing more than 80 years ago, Runkle points a lingering truth about J.B. Lawes 1864 proposition: “That memorial remains to be erected; somewhere in the Commonwealth there should be the will and consecrated means to give it fitting form and substance.”
So how can a “Penn State Encountering Heritage” initiative be implemented? I think there are a few opportunities. I think the most natural home for something like this is among student leadership, working to institutionalize this in the way that Homecoming exists to perpetuate culturally significant traditions.
In terms of revenue, support through a time-limited “Encountering Heritage” allocation approved by students or voluntarily crowdfunded for a period of time makes sense as one of many potential solutions.
But if student leaders aren’t keen, an alternative home for such an initiative is the Penn State Alumni Association—specifically through an Alumni Council standing committee. Another possibility is through the Alumni Association’s staff-led programming efforts wherein alumni might be engaged broadly—almost of an alumni version of the Senior Class Gift concept, wherein alumni would vote and support on a recurring five or ten year schedule.
Another possibility is through an Alumni Association partnership with Homecoming or the Senior Class Gift committee to jointly administer such an initiative.
The opportunity exists. The important thing is to start.
In “The Legends of the Nittany Valley,” folklorist Henry Shoemaker records some of the American Indian and settler stories that provide much of the cultural and historical basis for Penn State mythology, including Mount Nittany as our sacred symbol and pristine retreat, the love story of Princess Nittany and Lion’s Paw, and even the reclusive Nittany Lion.
Yet stories alone have no independent life to speak of; their significance grows from the affection, tenderness, and patience of the reader, from the moments spent in solitude or near friends with the words of a long-dead peer over a coffee at Saints or W.C. Clarke’s. Herodotus or Dante would be nothing without the gift of time and attention paid in gratitude by the living reader. It’s through that gift that we reverence something culturally significant, and make something from the past a part of our present time.
This is what tradition is, if distilled—the continuing act of encountering the past, helping it come alive again in some way, and then in due course becoming a part of the past ourselves as we look to the future. This beautiful notion is encapsulated in an even more beautiful practical, example: The singing of Robert Burns’s 1788 “Auld Lang Syne” every New Year’s Eve. It’s a literal and lyrical Scottish injunction to remember our friendships and honor days gone by on the eve of a new time.
This helps explain why Mount Nittany, by all accounts an ordinary Pennsylvania mountain, is nonetheless sacred for Penn Staters and the people of the valley. As with the stories of the past, we’ve infused the Mountain with a distinctive meaning. Penn State Professor Simon Bronner writes that we “inspirit the land” of Mount Nittany and places like it. We do this in a thousand distinct ways, through hikes alone to learning and sharing the same stories to nights spent with friends around a small fire.
The Mount Nittany Conservancy is what makes our experience of the Mountain possible—specifically what makes our experience of it as a natural space, protected from development, a perpetual part of the Nittany Valley experience. Even if you’ve never heard of Henry Shoemaker, and aren’t inclined to pick up his stories, the Mount Nittany Conservancy has made it possible to encounter a bit of the legend, mythology, and history of the Mountain through “The Story of Mount Nittany” and “Mount Nittany in Legend and Myth.” “Mount Nittany in Legend and Myth” is a digestible seven minutes and is concerned with origins:
“The Story of Mount Nittany,” meanwhile, is a meditative 40-minute encounter with the reason the origin stories matter. In it, we hear from the people who conserve the Mountain for all to enjoy, from personalities as varied as Nittany Lion’s letterman Bob Andronici and student-volunteers combating erosion, to trailblazer Tom Smyth recounting decades of history (at 13:30), to Vince Verbeke’s “wayfinding stations” (18:21), to Penn State Arboretum director Kim Steiner’s insight on Mountain forestry (21:25), to Mount Nittany Conservancy founder Ben Novak’s experience of the “ordinary” Mountain (24:04), vision for land acquisition (28:08), and creation of square-inch deeds (31:55), to Bob Frick’s experience with less-preserved mountains (25:30), to Ben Bronstein’s historical markers (26:15), to Sue Paterno’s reflection on the Mountain (32:37) and Coach Joe Paterno’s affection for Mount Nittany as one on the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s inaugural board. Bob Frick, a Mount Nittany Conservancy board member, served as the executive producer of these great stories, which were co-produced with WPSU’s Katie O’Toole and Patty Satalia.
Nearly a century before many of us were born, Henry Shoemaker declared: “There is no spot of ground a hundred feet square in the Pennsylvania mountains that has not its legend. Some are old, as ancient as the old, old forests. Others are of recent making or in formation now. Each is different, each is full of its own local color.”
Mount Nittany is one of those Pennsylvania mountains, and the Nittany Valley remains a place where legends continue to take shape. Thanks to Henry Shoemaker’s stories, and the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s stories, you can get a better sense for why the Mountain matters and why hiking it is such a special experience.
“Hiking Mount Nittany” is one of those things that finds its way onto the Penn State bucket lists of most students, and it’s something many make a ritual pleasure. A single hike often serves as an occasion for encounter with “local color” of the Mountain and the valley, a color which has a radiance that outlasts every autumn.
In The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Friedman’s central insight is that globalization and Information Age technology work in tandem to diminish the distinctiveness and importance of location—of physical place. Nearly a decade after his book’s 2005 release, this “world is flat” thinking has seeped into almost every pore of the face of our culture. We’re all too familiar with the negative effects of our flatter, globalized world in the form of outsourcing and offshoring, but we’ve also seen the positive ways that innovations such as Amazon’s impressive supply chain, Penn State’s World Campus, and social platforms have enabled people to shop, learn, and communicate.
Yet, a remarkable new book edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister functions as a sort of rebuttal to Friedman’s vision of a world where location is irrelevant. In Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, McClay and McAllister write:
“Whether we like it or not, we are corporeal beings, grounded in the particular, in the finite conditions of our embodiment, our creatureliness. … In losing ‘place’ entirely, and succumbing to the idea that a website can be a place and that digital relationships can substitute for friends and family, we risk forgetting this reality of our embodiment, risk losing the basis for healthy and resilient individual identity, and risk forfeiting the needed preconditions for the cultivation of public virtues. For one cannot be a citizen without being a citizen of some place in particular; one cannot be a citizen of a website, or a motel.”
Those who live in the shadow of Mount Nittany tend to know that physical place still matters, and that McClay and McAllister are right to defend special places as powerfully as they do—as spaces where “public virtues” are cultivated and American character is molded and shaped for the future. The specialness of places such as the Nittany Valley work like a magnet, drawing new people to them and creating new communities in time.
Literary critic Henry Seidel Canby (and father of folklorist Edward T. Canby) observed as long ago as 1936 that “it is amazing that neither history, nor sociology, nor fiction, has given more than passing attention to the American college town, for surely it has had a character and personality unlike other towns.” There are many reasons that the Nittany Valley is America’s “Happy Valley,” just as there are an almost infinite number of reasons “I ♥ NY” resonates with so many who experience the Big Apple, and elicits so many personal stories and perspectives on the basis for this affection.
As a folklorist, Canby’s son, Edward, understood that learning the stories of specific places and peoples could unlock the secret of their character. By learning about people and sharing their stories with newcomers, the specialness of a place could be conserved and perpetuated through time, and new generations could experience a bit of the past in a meaningful way.
In other words, the past could be learned about and experienced not as something dead but as a living part of the cultural environment. Mount Nittany, as one example, isn’t simply another Pennsylvania hill to those who love it, and have hiked it, and have spent a lifetime looking upon her gentle slope. Mount Nittany becomes, rather, a place where romance is kindled, or nights are spent with college friends, or, for those who know the lore of Princess Nittany, perhaps a place where the spirit of the American Indians and mountain lions still lingers. Indeed, Erwin Runkle’s The Pennsylvania State College: 1853-1932 records that founding president Evan Pugh would take students hiking on Mount Nittany and spend nights there. No, for those who learn the stories, the Mountain and the Valley could never be merely two more unremarkable or interchangeable points on the map.
And just as the Mount Nittany Conservancy exists to protect Mount Nittany as a physical symbol of our area, it likewise exists to conserve the stories, memory, and spirit of the Nittany Valley so that new generations of students, townspeople, professors, alumni, and friends can better understand why so many people call this place Happy Valley.
If we didn’t preserve the stories and spirit of Mount Nittany, there wouldn’t be a way for us to understand why we conserved the Mountain in the first place. After all, without learning the stories and experiencing the Mountain ourselves, we would have to frankly admit to any visiting or skeptical friend that maybe it isn’t so distinctive—because without our culture, the landscape loses its spirit. But because we appreciate Mount Nittany not only as part of our physical landscape but also as part of our cultural heritage, it helps define our Nittany Valley as truly remarkable.
Conservancies exists to proclaim that place matters—perhaps now more than ever. And the Mount Nittany Conservancy exists in a particular way to conserve what the Romans called a genius loci, “a pervading spirit of a place.” The Mount Nittany Conservancy aspires to conserve the story and stories of the Nittany Valley as surely as it aspires to conserve the Mountain itself. In this way, we strengthen and lift up both our human and environmental ecologies as more than the sum of their constituent parts—as more than simply such a great number of passionate people or an abundance of wooded acres. We seek the conservation of a living spirit and lively acres, rather than the administrator’s impulse to reduce people and places to subjects or artifacts to be controlled and preserved, like museum-piece curiosities.
In seeking to perpetuate a love for Mount Nittany and a conservation of her acres in their natural state, the Mount Nittany Conservancy exists just as surely to share the story of the community by better connecting her people to their shared history.
Why is the Nittany Valley such a genuinely remarkable place? Where and how might we encounter that Nittany Valley’s specialness? And together how can we experience and pass along our stories to new generations and avoid the “flattening” that has hollowed out so many other communities? Mount Nittany, as a touchstone for so many generations of Penn Staters, Central Pennsylvanians, and friendly visitors, is also a natural place for these spirited questions and evergreen challenges to be engaged and to transform our experience of Happy Valley as a community of intangible goodness.
As America gets “flatter” in the years to come, special places like ours will be challenged to better articulate “why place matters.” Mount Nittany, along with the Nittany Valley’s communities, perpetually in conversation about their heritage, will be prepared for a future where culture counts and place matters more than ever.