THON, Mountain, Arboretum

Visited Penn State this weekend with brother Nick, his first trip there with just me. It was great to spend this time together in Happy Valley with him, introducing him to some of the most special aspects of life there. We visited THON at the Bryce Jordan Center:


We visited the Penn State Arboretum, which was my fist time there too. It was incredible to me to be able to experience and catch a scene like this—a feeling of being lost someplace in the middle of nowhere—right on Penn State’s increasingly urban-feeling campus:

And we hiked Mount Nittany at dawn, where I captured the sunrise photo above. It was incredible to hike with him for the first time, and we met up with my cousin (who’s in her junior year) and her boyfriend who graduated a year or so ago. It was their first time on the Mountain, too.



Old Willow in winter


I’m visiting Penn State and the Nittany Valley this weekend with my little brother, and during a walk from the Nittany Lion Inn on the northwestern edge of campus down to College Avenue we passed Old Willow. I explained the tradition of this tree and its special status as a living piece of the past.

It’s rare to see (or rather, to notice) Old Willow in winter. It’s there, but like any willow in winter it lacks the calm and billowing fronds that make it such a beautiful place to sit in warmer weather and think or read or be alone.

I hope this third generation survives for many years to come. In its nakedness it reveals its bent and somewhat top-heavy look more obviously than other times of the year. In any event, Old Willow’s tradition will continue.

A poet writes in the 1894 La Vie yearbook:

Sentinel thou art!
Dear old Willow!
’Neath thy waving, verdant tresses,
Ever coming, ever going,
Pass the tides of busy students,
Ever ebbing, ever flowing:
Untamed Freshmen, all-wise Sophomores,
Stately Seniors, hearty Juniors,
In a motley, ceaseless thronging,
’Neath thy ever-faithful guarding,
Chatting, laughing, thinking, studying
As they go.

THON and its consequences

Penn State’s IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon is happening this weekend. It’s known for being the largest single student-run philanthropic event in America.

Since 1973 it’s raised more than $100MM for the Four Diamonds Fund, which provides aid for children and families fighting pediatric cancer. It’s a great Penn State tradition, it’s a great community effort, and it’s often a genuinely life-changing experience for its participants.

A few years ago I sat down at the Rathskeller with an alum for lunch. We didn’t meet to talk shop on THON, but the conversation eventually turned to Greek Life and fraternities, which have been incredible developers of community life and growth for most of Penn State’s history. This alumnus presented a provocative thought on how to look at the future of Penn State’s Greek Life. I wasn’t in a fraternity in college (he was), so I’m sharing this mainly to think out loud and without knowing how much weight is worth putting behind my friend’s thinking.

The basic idea was this: THON has come to epitomize Greek identity, and so over the course of each year THON consumes an enormous amount of human, financial, and communal capital. All capital that each fraternity or sorority is spending within the Penn State community. And all capital that—at other universities—ends up being spent on the efforts of each fraternity’s or sorority’s national chapter philanthropies and efforts.

What this means is that Greek national associations are less pleased with their Penn State chapters than their peers (even though many of them raise more for THON than other university chapters raise for anything else) and this resentment manifests itself in that the national associations are less likely to strengthen, support, and defend their Penn State affiliates when they need reform, mentoring, or other assistance.

Again, this alum was a part of Greek life as a student and remains committed to it today. I was not a part of Greek Life. I’m presenting this here simply in the spirit of asking, “Is this a plausible explanation for why Penn State Greek Life might be doing more good than ever and yet finding itself weaker and less secure than ever?”

An obvious example of a national Greek organization abandoning its local chapter was the destruction of Phi Delta Theta a few years ago.

In downtown State College there are some 50 historic, beautiful mansions built by fraternities over the past century and a half. And while it seems few fraternities have retained their gentlemanly character, there is the chance for real and tangible loss to Penn State and the community if these houses (and more importantly, the young people within) are left to the fate of bureaucracy and national leadership whose vision seems to involve, in its best instances, tepid disinterest in leaving them to their own fate.

If the framework laid out to me by my friend is basically correct, it means that new systems of support, mentoring, and development for Greek Life needs to come from within the Penn State community, or else we risk the slow collapse of a system once responsible making so much of Penn State so great.

State College mayors

Earlier this week I got a text from a friend in State College who was in a Borough Council meeting. He had gotten word that Elizabeth Goreham, the town’s mayor, wouldn’t be running for a third term.

I was sort of surprised by this, if for no other reason that the mayor’s isn’t particularly old and she seems well liked by most people. Being State College’s mayor is one of those things you could do forever as a way to serve the common good. And it’s a nice part-time job, if nothing else.

I’ve only met Goreham a handful of times, and I know more about her during time as a member of the State College Borough Council than I do of her time as mayor. I knew more of Bill Welch, her predecessor in the mayor’s chair. Bill was one-time editor of the Centre Daily Times and a Borough Council member among many other things before his time as mayor. He was also a friend my friend to Ben Novak, and inspired him to write his mid-1980s beer columns that became the basis for The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution.

Bill was just one of many of a whole generation that was still alive and active when I came into Happy Valley as a freshman in 2005, but who have mostly passed from the stage today. Their generation created and shaped so much of the contemporary Penn State and State College that we’ve inherited—theirs were memories that knew of the college campus before the Sexual Revolution, and knew a Penn State that was something much closer to a practical liberal arts school than the corporation it is today. Theirs was a generation in its prime during Penn State football’s national championship era, and seized  on Paterno’s vision to raise Penn State to new academic heights on the back of his player’s fame.

Theirs was a generation that built so many great things. It makes me wonder what our generation will be remembered for.

Last night Don Han announced his candidacy for mayor. I’ve met Don a few times. He’s got a good reputation, and works for my friend’s old law firm. He’s quoted saying:

“State College is a great town. Penn State is a stable and well-paying employment center, the downtown is vibrant, property values remain strong, and State College consistently earns high ratings for safety… However, the borough needs to protect the stability of its neighborhoods through a combination of zoning, ordinance enforcement, and owner-occupied housing initiatives, such as the Community Land Trust and the Homestead Investment Program.”

No doubt this is all important, but I wish we could speak more simply in local politics. The job of State College’s mayor is to preside over the beautiful rituals of the town, and to encourage it to become an even more beautiful and enchanted place.

That’s what Bill Welch did. It’s what Elizabeth Goreham has tried to do. And it’s what I hope Don Han does.

State College changes

Robbie Rockwell at Onward State wrote to a bunch of Penn State alumni recently, asking for memories of the ways in which State College has changed over the years. I didn’t write, but my friend Chris Buchignani did. After his time as a student in the late 1990s/early 2000s, he decided to settle in State College. I’m sharing a portion of what he shared with Onward State:

Town and campus have changed so much in the 20 years I have lived here, you wouldn’t believe it. Commercial development along the North Atherton corridor has exploded. Campus roads have been closed or rerouted (Pollock Road once connected to Atherton; Shortlidge once connected Pollock and Curtin). Countless new buildings have been constructed (including Business, Forestry, Architecture, Law, IST, Science, and Hockey). The HUB has been renovated and expanded twice. Rec Hall and the IM Building have been expanded. The new Schlow Library has been built. The State Theatre repurposed and reopened. A total overhaul of State College High School is rapidly progressing, while Memorial Field has been tinkered with more times than I can count. These are a fraction of the substantial changes, and they’ve all occurred over just the last two decades.

The guts of the Nittany Valley are timeless and ageless, but we get some plastic surgery practically every year.

What I want to know is what big changes have occurred on or off campus that were particularly surprising or upsetting to you?

I lived in Toftrees for several years and absolutely loved the proximity to nature and illusion of isolation offered by the dense woods up there. The amount of development in the last several years is absolutely heart-breaking to me, so much clear-cutting. There was a charming character to the place that is irreparably diminished.

Were there any places that you spent a lot of time at that were torn down for something new?

I definitely think of the short-lived roller hockey rinks along Bigler Road that lasted less than a decade after their construction before they were demolished to make way for Millennium. Lots of pick-up and league games were played there, and it was a shame to lose that resource.

While it was not demolished, I also feel compelled to pour one out for the Playland Arcade on College Avenue. A relic of a bygone era for sure, but also a long-time beloved hangout for students and townies alike where I once inexplicably spent $10 in quarters to beat CarnEvil. Here’s a fun short documentary that tells its story.

How do you feel about high rises being built downtown? 

I have mixed feelings. I suspect, based on recent conversations, that some of my friends in The Nittany Valley Society feel more strongly than I do. While I think the process that got us to this point was basically a mess, I’m glad the Fraser Center is now a thing and not a giant hole surrounded by a dangerous, rusty fence. I am open to the new construction and think it has its place. I hope we’ll have the foresight to keep it to the periphery of the Downtown and not compromise the distinctive “college town” character of the main drag. That is a cultural resource for this place that could be mismanaged or squandered as surely as a natural resource.

What was a popular bar or restaurant that is no longer around? 

For me, it’s the Sports Cafe (once known as the Sportscenter), home of Tears of the Lions wings and $2 Michelob Amber Bocks. It was located on the corner of College and Burrowes where Noodles & Company is today. Huge projection TVs inside, outside deck seating in the front, pool tables in the basement, and zero belief in capital reinvestment. It was great. I gathered with hundreds of fellow Penn Staters to share many great (and not so great) moments in sports. I’m a Cubs fan, so this October, I went to Noodles & Co the day after the Series and got my picture taken in the exact spot where I stood to watch the Steve Bartman play. The Gingerbread Man deserves a nod, and I assume Rotelli’s closing is still fresh in the local memory, so Sports Cafe is the one.

Are there any things that were torn down or renovated for the better; meaning were some places on campus just a pain to have to go to? 

I never kept a car in Lot 80, but by all accounts, that is one campus change that no alumni will lament. If I’m not mistaken, Lot 80 was cleared out to make way for Katz and/or the Arboretum. The H.O. Smith Arboretum has been one of the nicest, most welcome additions to campus during my time here. It’s a great spot and keeps getting better. I hope they’ll get a planetarium soon.

I should also mention the studio facilities for The LION 90.7fm. The station was hidden away on the second floor of the Burrowes Building when I was a student and made the long-overdue move to the HUB (behind the fish tanks) in 2003. The new space in the HUB expansion is the best ever – it’s a tremendous resource for the organization, and I’m very appreciative of Dr. Sims and the Student Affairs leadership who prioritized that.

God willing, we will one day add Hammond Building to this list. it’s a truly miserable eyesore.

Can you think of any new editions to campus or downtown that you wish were there during your time at State?

Pegula. Easily. I had the extreme pleasure of getting to cover Icers hockey for The LION, and Coach Battista was exceedingly gracious with his time throughout. It was impossible to be around him and not feel the infectious passion he had for Penn State hockey and the dream of a top-flight varsity program. Many times I would sit in Greenberg as the crowd went wild and think, “What if this were a real arena, with ‘We Are’ chants going back and forth across the ice as we played Michigan or Ohio State?” It was a wild dream then, and I still can’t quite believe it’s become such a successful reality. I can’t help but feel a bit jealous of the Roar Zone.

How do you feel about the lack of open space and large buildings being put in like the Milenium Science Complex?

I’m not sure lack of open space is problem, at least not yet. We still have the IM fields and the Arboretum, and being a local, I know that the Centre Region maintains a sprawling parks system that is relatively accessible to the student population. That said, I did experience some melancholy as I watched the Thomas Building expand and then the Millennium Science Complex cover over what were once open fields. I spent so many happy hours in college playing sandlot football games on Pollock Fields – one of my best memories. No future generations will get to make more of those, plus it’s a damn shame to see the site of one of my all-time favorite athletic accomplishments covered over (a brutal block to clear out the lane for a punt return touchdown – it was a thing of beauty).

To keep Penn State great

I don’t know the author of the poem I’m sharing here, but I in light of the five year anniversary of Joe Paterno’s death I wanted to share it. I first received this in an email in July 2012, months after the coach had died and just as the (since repudiated) Freeh Report was making its impact. It was a dark time for Penn Staters, when a poorly managed crisis was leading to so much institutional destruction and heartache that continues to provide the basis for confusion. This captures a time that I’m thankful is behind us, though the rebuilding will take the rest of my life.

The witchhunt is over
The mob got their wish
To land a defenseless
Carcass on their dish

Because no one would stop them
No one would say
There are still unheard players
In this tragic play

So they asked for an arm
And a leg and a head
And were given a statue
While all our hearts bled

The hypocrites blathered
With hate and disdain
They wanted us dead
But they’ll still show our games?

But I know they can’t kill us
They can’t keep us weak
We will not be cowered
Because our leaders were meek

Penn state is just football?
Not on your life
It’s because we are more
That we will beat this strife

The professors will research
Will find the next cure
The students will party
Of that I am sure

Rose’s girls will keep spiking
Cael’s boys keep on pinning
And despite what “they” say
It won’t just be ‘bout winning

They’ll do it the right way
As has always been done
They can vacate the wins
But we know what we won

Tell it to MRob
Tell it to Poz
To Sean Lee and Connor
Then protect your jaws

Penn State’s about people
Penn State’s about pride
NCAA can’t govern
What we feel inside

They can’t kill our memories
Can’t take back our friends
And they can’t force our story
To a premature end

The haters can hate us
Our leaders can cave
But our student body
Can’t be made to behave

They’ll still dance for cancer
Their studies won’t cease
They will change the world
If not solve world peace

How to move forward?
JoePa knows that play
Written worlds only hurt
If you believe what they say

We all know the truth
Where the failings occurred
And won’t let our entire
Culture get slurred

Coach OB is staying
A man with some courage
Who faces a challenge
And won’t be discouraged

The fans back with a vengeance
Led by a great leader
Though they MIGHT be fewer
The wins will be sweeter

When each season is over
And the games are all played
The players can proudly say
I’m one who stayed

They’ll mean more in our hearts
Than any past team
Because they all hung tough
When Prez Rod made us scream

Kick us while we’re down?
Do at your own risk
Because we will be back
Like a tornadoes’ twist

You learn more about people
When you’re at your worst low
Who is behind me
As I get up and go?

Go harness your anger
Let it drive you each day
To keep Penn State great
And make our enemies pay

We will get our revenge
When we just won’t die
When we don’t limp away
To our bedroom and cry

The last chapter’s not written
We still own our fate
It’s up to us to decide
Are we still Penn State?


Joe Paterno, gone five years

Joe Paterno died in January 2012. It feels like yesterday, yet five years have passed since that time. A beautiful video tribute to him, set to Rudyard Kipling’s “If,” first marked the one year anniversary of his death but is just as fitting now.

Mark Dent wrote after the first year anniversary of the coach’s death. Aside from a few oddities in the article that give away his out-of-towner status (like referring to the State College Borough repeated as a “city”) his piece is a good introduction to the historical context from which Paterno came. (In some ways, Dent’s piece is better than Joe Posnanski’s book-length mess of a biography.) Dent writes:

dsc_0875_med_sidewalk_joeOf all the places in the world, Paterno lived in this town. Of all the neighborhoods in this town, he lived three blocks from campus in this one-story house. A million-dollar man lived like he still made the $20,000 he claimed he did in 1969, when the games always started in the afternoon, the coaches ate and drank with everyone else at the Tavern, and Paterno wanted a place to raise his growing family, a place to call home. …

There was no gate at the street’s entrance, and no security guard to check for identification, read license plate numbers or scan names on a guest list. The leader of one of college football’s best teams surveyed his kingdom from a ranch house.

College football coaches don’t live like this — current Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, for example, lives in Boalsburg, several miles from campus in a house that cost $1,225,000. Only the ancient coaches did. Penn State’s Bob Higgins had a house just up the street, near McKee and Adams Avenue, in the 1930s. Joe Bezdek, who coached one year in 1949, lived near McKee and Mitchell Avenue, a block away. Paterno was like them, residing in a bygone era.

When reporters came from around the country to share his story with a national audience, they highlighted the house. Sometimes they sat across from him at the round table in the kitchen. They remarked: “You should see his house. Then you would know this is real, this is not an act.”

You should see his house. You would know this is real. This is not an act.

Paterno was an old timer, for sure. But living in a real neighborhood and being a real person isn’t a symptom of “residing in a bygone era” as Dent writes. No, Paterno didn’t reside in a bygone time, but rather in our time. He simply chose to live the way of always had lived, and in doing so ended up carrying the style and manner of those “ancient coaches” along with him. And isn’t that so much of what attracted us to him? (Before the stupidity and banal evil of the Sandusky scandal made it impossible to talk with non-cultists (both pro- and anti-cultists) about him.) He chose not to let the old ways recede into a quaint and pointless nostalgia. He chose to live in a normal way, that ended up becoming exceptional in the context of different times.

At some point, reminiscing over the greatness of the past, the good old days, and bygone times shifts from a virtuous exercise into a vice. I think this occurs when we repeatedly choose to praise goodness without learning how to emulate it. We might be stating truth in saying that “water is wet,” but if we’ve forgotten the joy of jumping in the water and actually getting wet, we’ve entered the realm of harmful nostalgia.

The trick is this: We can live in the same style and manner. We can make friends, and build our kingdoms, and coach each other along in the game of life. And even if we become the million-dollar man we can choose not to live like the money has changed us because in reality it hasn’t changed us—only our means, and hopefully not our circumstances.

If the ideas that have given Joe and Sue Paterno the power to attract us with authenticity (You should see his house. You would know this is real.) are dead, then our lives are only destined to ever become a part of a pointless nostalgia.

If… if… if we want to honor Joe and Sue Paterno, we can choose like they chose to carry the style and manner of old times into new times. We can be human to one another. We can choose not to forget our roots; not to isolate ourselves; not to fall into artifice; not to withdraw.

It’s a choice not between whatever we decide is bygone or timely, but over whatever we choose to make real in our own lives.