The Willow Gathering

The Willow Gathering takes place tonight in State College. The Willow Gathering is a celebration of Penn State, the Nittany Valley, and their people. By bring people together for a special night, it’s a tangible way we put our mission into practice to “foster a spirit of community across time.”

This is The Willow Gathering’s final year. And it’s the first time we’re syncing it up with Homecoming.


The Willow Gathering’s name refers to two aspects of the Nittany Valley’s history. First, it’s named in honor of Old Willow, Penn State’s oldest tradition. Old Willow was planted in the late 1850s during Evan Pugh’s presidency as a symbol of the hope of the founders that the institution would “take root” and flourish in the years to come. This sort of thing was common then, but today is relatively unknown. Old Willow lived into the 1920s, when a second generation cutting was planted, which lasted until the 1970s. A third generation descendant was planted, but never took root physically or culturally, and the tree vanished from the cultural consciousness of much of the community until recently. Old Willow’s fourth-generation is now recognized on the Old Main lawn.

You can learn more of the history of Old Willow in Ben Novak’s book Is Penn State a Real University?. The photo of Old Willow below is from a 1923 Penn State Alumni News profile, which can be found in the Hintz Family Alumni Center on campus:

Old Willow on the Lawn.jpg

The second motivation for The Willow Gathering’s name relates to the hope that, in the same way Old Willow’s roots physically took root in the soil of this place, perhaps new students, professors, trustees, alumni, and friends can become more firmly rooted in the cultural landscape of the community we share by coming together in fellowship.

The Willow Gathering takes place as a means to work against the “information silo” effect that can especially plague university communities, where specific constituencies self-segregate with the effect of cultural corrosion that can seriously weaken communities. In years past, I’ve met students and businesspeople, trustees and alumni, and others. I’ve stayed in touch with a few of them, and strengthened some relationships.

Roger Williams, retired Executive Director of the Penn State Alumni Association, delivered one of our past keynotes on “Evan Pugh and George Atherton: Penn State’s George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.” Roger’s keynote was my favorite so far.

Old Willow.jpg

Tonight Paul Clifford (Roger’s successor) will be keynoting at The Atherton Hotel with an expected attendance of 50 guests—we intentionally kept this small so that guests have a chance to meaningfully connect with one another. There will be open bar with craft beer availability, tying in with our book The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution, and specific time set aside for fellowship among friends old and new.

I hope more students and alumni consciously develop local relationships and reasons to return to the Nittany Valley—even beyond our great football tradition.

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