Honoring Old Willow, the Earliest Symbol of Penn State and a Nittany Valley Tradition
Penn State’s Old Willow
Honor for and remembrance of Old Willow is perpetuated by the Mount Nittany Conservancy, sharing stories and memories of this beautiful tree and symbol of both Penn State’s past and our hope for the future. As Penn State’s first and most historic symbol, it forever holds a special place of significance in the life of our community, and particularly in understanding student life and traditions of Penn State’s first century.
The experience of Mount Nittany, and the passion for conserving it in its natural state, cannot be fully understood without a similar experience of Old Willow as a living symbol and physical link of the vision of Evan and Rebecca Pugh and all who have come before us, who hiked the hills of the Mountain as surely as they walked the paths of the campus.
On March 26, 2021, the third-generation of Old Willow was blown down after nearly a half century of life due to a windstorm that swept Happy Valley. Yet Old Willow will live on: within hours of the third-generation tree’s demise, Penn State arborists announced that the fourth-generation of Old Willow will be planted and take root on Penn State’s live-giving campus.
“The secret of its success is to be found in the indomitable perseverance of a small number of [the] public-spirited … who were determined it should not fail.” —Evan Pugh, Penn State President, 1864
Centre County Report on Penn State’s Cultivation of Old Willow’s Fourth Generation
On April 2, 2021, one week after the passing of the third generation of Old Willow, the Centre County Report from the Penn State Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications reported on Penn State’s work to cultivate Old Willow’s fourth generation:
Old Willow, a Penn State Heritage Tree
Spencer McCullough, a Ben Novak Fellow, created this short film in 2017 on Penn State’s Heritage Trees and Groves program, of which Old Willow is a part:
Professor Thornton Osmond’s Letter
Professor I. Thornton Osmond, Penn State professor of physics for whom Osmond Laboratory is named, wrote the following letter to Penn State President John Martin Thomas in 1923 on the occasion of the death of the first generation of Old Willow due to a wind storm:
The circumstances surrounding the passing of Old WIllow’s first generation, and Penn State President John Martin Thomas’s response to Professor Osmond, can be read here.
Old Willow, Monarch of the Campus
Ben Novak’s “Old Willow, Monarch of the Campus”, memorializes Old Willow as Penn State’s first symbol and oldest student tradition. Ben Novak wrote this ode and history in 1985 in honor of the tradition of Old Willow and in recognition of the cause for planting a third-generation descendant near Old Main on Pattee Mall.
A successful third-generation of Old Willow took root and grew to flourish and carry on the tradition, as reported by the Centre Daily Times on April 25, 1991. It thrived near Old Main so much so that Penn State designated Old Willow and its descendants as part of the Penn State Heritage Trees and Groves program.
Hear from Ben Novak in his own words, excerpted from his book, “Is Penn State a Real University?: An Investigation of the University as a Living Ideal:”
This recording of Ben Novak was made possible through the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s Ben Novak Fellowship.
Katey and Ross Lehman’s Remembrance
Katey and Ross Lehman wrote “Open House,” a regular column for the Centre Daily Times. Ross Lehman, a Penn State Distinguished Alumnus, served as executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association from 1970 to 1983 and was awarded the Lion’s Paw Medal for lifetime service to Penn State. The following originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times in 1966 in Katey and Ross Lehman’s “Open House” column:
Many persons pass by the “Old Willow” on the mall of the University campus without giving it a second glance… yet this tree is a signal of Penn State spirit to many alumni.
This was illustrated by Penn State’s Class of 1921, which held its 45th reunion here last weekend and also paid tribute to the “Old Willow” at its banquet. The class distributed some literature about the history of the tree, and here’s a good opportunity to acquaint you with some of the background.
The “Old Willow” was planted in 1858 or 1859, but there are various claims as to who planted it.
One story reports that Professor William G. Waring, the first superintendent of farm and grounds, was responsible. He “laid out the grounds, planted the first orchards, gave the first landscape touches of ornament and plan to the campus.”
Another claim is that Lemuel Osman, a young man who worked for the Farm School in the building of the west wing of Old Main, planted it. According to this version, “Old Willow” was an offshoot of trees that grew at Centre Furnace, and Mr. Osman “brought a sprig that transversed the main road.” Some witnesses vouched for its authenticity.
One more interesting story—and as plausible—is that the “Old Willow” was an off-shoot from one at the villa of the poet, Pope, at Twickenham. “It is affirmed that it was brought over by Dr. Evan Pugh, Penn State’s first president, when he returned from a six-year sojourn on the Continent and in England.” Dr. Pugh did bring materials for the Farmers’ High School, and it seems natural that he should wish to transplant a “bit of England” on our pioneer campus… and Professor Waring, quite naturally, could have planted and nurtured the infant tree.
In support of this tradition, Professor I. Thornton Osmond, who retired and moved to Carlisle, wrote a letter to Dr. John Martin Thomas, president of the University in 1923. He wrote, in part: “When I went to State College in 1879, I was told that Dr. Evan Pugh brought a scion from a willow tree on the poet Pope’s grounds at Twickenham, which became the beautiful young tree then about 20 years old. I am quite sure that Prof. C. Alfred Smith was one of those who told me this. He graduated in the first class, and was Dr. Pugh’s assistant for a time.”
The “Old Willow,” by this time, had become a thing of beauty to all on campus. As the historian, Dr. Erwin W. Runkle, said, “Let tradition continue to weave kindly strains about the origin of ‘Old Willow,’ no one who saw it and loved it in its prime will ever forget its beauty and majesty.”
On August 21, 1923, a storm hit the campus and “Old Willow” fell. Fortunately, in anticipation of such an event, a shoot from the tree had been planted beside “Old Willow”… and on Alumni Day, June 12, 1921, this new “Old Willow” had been dedicated.
“Old Willow” has been the recipient of boundless sentiment, campus rites, of many poems of praise, and of endless pictures. “The La Vies of 1916 on, contain splendid reproductions, both real and artistic—showing that even in its declining years, it wore the garb of beauty, and continued to hold a genuine place in the hearts of Penn State men as our oldest natural tradition.”
It still does, as demonstrated by the Class of 1921 last weekend. And the new “Old Willow,” now 54 years old, graces the mall where (according to the Penn State Alumni News in 1923) “today it bids fair to rival in beauty and affection its progenitor.”
This is only a sparse recount of the “Old Willow”… but there’s one final and new note [sic] at the Class of 1921 banquet, cuttings from the “Old Willow” were distributed to class members, and the tradition of the old tree may spring up in the backyards of alumni throughout the state and nation.
If Pope’s words are forgotten, his slip of a willow will not be.