Penn State’s first history

Chris Buchignani writes in Town & Gown about publishing Erwin Runkle’s “The Pennsylvania State College 1853-1932: Interpretation and Record:”


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. …

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.

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