John Shakely, my grandfather, died in December 2001 after a multi-year struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. I was barely a teenager at the time of his death, but his life, his adventurousness, his western Pennsylvania humility, and his presence haven’t ever really left me even if my experiences with him were only a child’s experiences. He’s one of those figures in your life that grows larger with time and distance, rather than smaller.

A connection we share is Penn State and Central Pennsylvania’s Nittany Valley, where he went after serving in World War II in the Army Air Corps. When I first found out that Michael Pilato’s Inspiration Mural was raising money for conservation a few years ago, I knew I wanted to pay tribute to my grandfather there. The Nittany Valley Heritage Walk is creating a beautiful brick pathway surrounding the landmark mural, and I’m thrilled to be able to leave a little sign of my grandfather, of Pop, in a place where he spent time.

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I saw my grandfather’s paver stone in person for the first time in December 2013 when I visited for The Nittany Valley Society’s Willow Gathering. We cremated my grandfather, and until recently there was no grave or site to visit. Because of this, this marker has been all the more meaningful to me. His marker is one of the set of five in the foreground of the above photo, roughly front and center.

He majored in Geology at Penn State and worked for many years as a geologist in the Middle East and elsewhere. Eventually he came home, earned his master’s degree, and settled in Bucks County, Pennsylvania to raise a family. He taught high school history at Central Bucks West for nearly three decades.

I hope this marker can become something special far into the future for new generations of our family to make an increasingly distant ancestor feel a bit closer to reality.

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A member of Penn State’s Class of 1950, he graduated the same year Joe Paterno arrived in State College. In this respect, it’s appropriate that his marker has ended up directly in front of Joe Paterno’s mural visage.

While I’m reminiscing about him (as I did somewhat in Conserving Mount Nittany), two other things:

In a very direct way, I’m thinking I might owe Penn State my life. When Pop joined Sigma Phi Alpha he cemented a friendship with fraternity brothers. Three of these brothers were heading from State College to Philadelphia one night for a group blind date with sorority sisters at the University of Pennsylvania. Pop ended up coming along because they needed a ride, and he had a car. He met the woman who would become my grandmother that night.

And finally: another fraternity brother named Paul Linvilla (who would later take over Linvilla Orchards in Delaware County) became his first mate when Pop bought Skoal, his 30 foot Tahiti ketch sailboat. They sailed from Miami across the Pacific and chronicled some of their journey in a surprisingly vivid way for two young 1950s adventurers.

These are some of the memories of both personal experience and history that come to mind when thinking of my grandfather, and now each time I return to the Nittany Valley and see his marker.