Honoring Evan Pugh at Homecoming

Evan Pugh, Penn State’s first president, lies just miles north of Penn State’s campus in historic Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. He’s buried with his wife, Rebecca Valentine, in her family’s remarkable plot in Bellefonte’s Union Cemetery. George Atherton, another great Penn State president, is buried on campus and is well honored and remembered as a result of his physical presence. But Penn Staters have forgotten Evan Pugh. If we want to remember who we are we should remember where we came from.

I discovered Evan and Rebecca’s gravesite many years ago thanks to an old Penn Stater. I vividly remember the feeling of first being present at their graves as if it were just moments ago that I was standing there in the cold of an autumn night. Our young founder Evan, bold and visionary, and his lovely wife Rebecca, strong and faithful, in this idyllic resting place nestled in the Central Pennsylvania mountains.

Yet time threatens to rob Penn Staters not only of the memory of their resting place, but also of the dignity of this tranquil place. Rebecca Valentine grew up in Bellefonte, and her family figured prominently in this place, but the Valentines there have left the stage. With their departure the dignity of Evan and Rebecca’s gravesite is at risk:

  • the once stately wrought iron fencing is corroding and in serious need of cleaning and painting;
  • in certain places the fencing has disappeared entirely (a significant section is missing, and the gate itself was wholly removed from its hinges at some point) due to a combination of age and vandalism, and much of the fencing’s decorative finials have been forcibly snapped off and stolen;
  • despite some initial volunteer cleaning of Rebecca’s marker, most of the markers in the Valentine plot are terribly filthy, evidenced by the stark difference between the recently cleaned stone of Bond Valentine versus that of Mattie, his wife;
  • the ground on which the visitor treads near their graves is unkempt and overgrown with weeds of all varieties, and the soil itself pocked and uneven;
  • the stones are weathered with the the light filth of seasons and time;
  • and the stone foundation of Evan’s marker itself is cracked from front to back, which seems likely lead to the eventual collapse of his grave marker—his stone is already leaning slightly, compared to his wife’s;
  • no flowers of any kind, let alone perennials, blossom near Evan and Rebecca’s graves to witness the love of those who remember both of them.

Penn Staters celebrate a “Founders Day” each February, but what do Penn State students, professors, alumni, and others do to tangibly honor their founders? There are many words, but no obvious deeds of remembrance for Evan and Rebecca.

We should restore the memory of Evan and Rebecca, and incorporate honoring them into Penn State’s Homecoming celebrations when tens of thousands of students and alumni come together to remember who they are, and recommit themselves to the ideals of the university. The mangy scene of Evan and Rebecca’s graves that I captured in the film above this spring can change, and during Homecoming (and after restoration) it would even better and far more magical than it did in this photo taken decades ago, before neglect and damage left their mark.

A simple plan of action looks something like this:

  1. Who legally owns/controls Evan & Rebecca Valentine’s resting place? Can Penn Staters earn the right to conserve this special place?
  2. Who is able and willing to restore the stately fencing, recreating its missing sections, repairing its finials, and cleaning and restoring it in its entirety?
  3. Who is able and willing to check the stability of Evan Pugh’s grave marker, and restore or replace its base as necessary?
  4. Who is able and willing to regrade the soil and repair or replace the grass?
  5. Who is willing to plant appropriate perennial flowers to bloom in remembrance?
  6. Who is willing to clean each of the grave stones to restore them to their original luster? Is it possible to add a protective enamel to the stones?
  7. Is Penn State willing to incorporate perpetual conservation/restoration of both Evan and Rebecca’s grave sites and the entire Valentine family plot into the tasks of one of its departments, either the Office of Physical Plant or other appropriate department?
  8. Is the Penn State Alumni Association or another authority willing to incorporate an annual ceremony of remembrance in Bellefonte (including public remarks and Bellefonte reception) during the Thursday of Homecoming each year?
  9. Can a cutting from Old Willow, near Old Main, be successfully planted near Evan and Rebecca’s gravesite—bringing a descendant of the same tree Evan brought from England upon his appointment as president to shade his resting place? Failing this, another stately tree to replace those that have gone missing from the older autumnal photo above?
  10. Are local media outlets willing to make coverage of this remembrance a tradition in and of itself, particularly The Penn Stater, Town & Gown, Centre County Gazette, State College Magazine, Onward State, The Daily Collegian, and others?
  11. Is the Penn State historical marker commission willing to refresh its Evan Pugh historical marker to incorporate mention of Evan and Rebecca’s Union Cemetery resting place, with a photo to ensure every student knows how to pay their respects to our founders?

It’s my dream that even in the far distant future, students and family and townspeople and friendly visitors will be able to marvel at the way Penn Staters celebrate Evan and Rebecca and honor the dignity of their resting place, saying “Look at the love Penn Staters carry with them!” and wondering how they can imitate that love and bring it into their own lives and homes.

In that way, we’ll be honoring Evan and Rebecca twice, by cultivating a better people, too.

We can never talk credibly about there being a “Penn State family” as long as we neglect and dishonor Penn State’s patriarch and matriarch through this forgetfulness.

Let’s restore their resting place and honor them.

Let’s put in the work.