It’s Arts Fest at Penn State, and I’m enjoying it. I had to miss it last year for a conference, so it’s especially good to be back this year and see friends and return to hallowed places. One of those places it the site of Old Willow, Penn State’s earliest symbol and tradition—more on that below.
In the warm weather I like to make time to sit or splay myself out beneath the branches of Old Willow and take in the atmosphere. It’s still possible in this place to be totally at peace in the midst of the campus and near the heart of downtown State College, which is something like miraculous given how enormously the place has grown since Professor Waring planted the first generation of this tree in the 1859.
A great song to get transport you in mind, if not body, is Ella Fitzgerald’s “Willow, Weep for Me” from her 1959 “Hello Love” album. Here’s Ella’s rendition, and here’s Louis Armstrong’s.
For decades, freshmen bowed to Old Willow as Penn State’s oldest living tradition. Legend claims that when Penn State’s first president, Evan Pugh, returned from a six-year sojourn in Europe, he brought back an off-shoot of a willow from the famous garden and grotto of English poet Alexander Pope. This sapling was planted on the Allen Street Mall, near Sackett Building, by Professor William Waring in 1859. Waring was the first superintendent of farms and grounds and was charged with the layout of roads, buildings, orchards, and landscaping. After wind felled the tree in 1923, an off-shoot of this tree grew until the late 1970s, when this third-generation tree was planted.