Mount Nittany and Joab Thomas

I’ve been spending some time recently on scanning and digitizing a few boxes worth of early Mount Nittany Conservancy archives that Ben Novak provided to me. As the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s founder and first president, Ben was instrumental not only in the organization’s major land preservation and fundraising efforts throughout the 1980s and early 1990s that we covered in Conserving Mount Nittany, but also in creating and promoting the distinctive “Square Inch” Life Estate Deeds, which provide a true, legal square inch of Mount Nittany for the life of the donor—recorded with the Centre County Recorder of Deeds—in exchange for a beautiful, framed deed certificate.

Over the course of these scanning and archival efforts, a number of prominent Penn Staters and State College names appear, including Dr. Joab Thomas and his wife. Dr. Thomas was Penn State’s president from 1990-1995, and he and his wife ordered their Square Inch in the early 1990s:




I was very sad to hear that the All-American Rathskeller in State College is being forced to close its doors. The Skeller is one of those places that feels like it’s been around forever, with a gritty yet lived-in, distinctive, and welcoming feeling with worn cement floors that tell the stories of generations whose paths have met there, and wooden rafters, bars, and booths that have an age and weight and even wetness whose physical aroma conveys the place’s character in a way that few establishments ever allow to develop.

Skeller feels like it’s been around forever because, in a certain sense, it has. Few if any Penn Staters or Nittany Valley people are still alive remember a Happy Valley without the Rathskeller. It’s 84 years old, and Pennsylvania’s oldest continuously operating bar. The Foster Building, which houses the Skeller, is one of the oldest structures in State College. You can see it in this 1924 photo of State College:


The Foster Building houses the Skeller among other College Avenue businesses, was purchased by new local investors the Herlochers earlier this year:

Duke and Monica Gastinger have owned the two businesses since the 1980s, but the Rathskellar has been around since November 9, 1933, three days after the end of prohibition in the United States.

Chuck and Neil Herlocher — yes, those Herlochers — bought the property, which houses Spat’s Café, The Clothesline, The Apple Tree, Old Main Frame Shop, Rathskeller and Sadie’s, in June. None of the other businesses have yet announced their closing, so the fate of the property is still unclear.

“My father and I are happy to be purchasing this historic area,” Neil Herlocher told the Centre County Gazette in June. “Business there will continue as usual. There are no plans to make drastic changes to the properties, although we will do some renovations and improvements.

Jay Paterno chimed into #SavetheSkeller Twitter conversation to share another angle of the story, which is that the Foster Building was nearly purchased by national investors intent on tearing it down and building something new, as is happening so many other places in State College’s downtown:

Herlochers Save Rathskeller Location From Wrecking Ball

In July 2017 our company Cornelius LLC concluded an investment in downtown State College with a plan to buy the Foster Building. While other investors intended to raze the property, we were steadfast in our commitment to preserve the historic nature and location of this landmark building.

When we took over the property we became aware that the operators of the All American Rathskeller and Spats had been operating without a lease since 2011 and paying well below market rates. Attempts to resolve the issue were unsuccessful. Our offer to purchase the businesses were also turned down.

We understand the concern many Penn Staters and State College natives have expressed. We want to assure you that as State College residents and Penn Staters we fully understand the historic importance of that location and memories made there across decades. We are committed to maintaining the character of the location that was founded in 1933 by Pop Flood as the Rathskeller and Gardens until 1934 when Doggie Alexander named it The All-American Rathskeller.

Our goal in the coming weeks and years is that Penn Staters past and present will walk into this location and find their memories of great times past still living there. The new tenants will be the latest in a long line of owners who have maintained the proud tradition of good times and good friends meeting in this downtown State College landmark.

If it’s true that Duke and Monica Gastinger refused to sell the Rathskeller name/intellectual property after rent negotiations failed, that their out-of-lease rent was way below market etc., that’s a real shame. Not only will Happy Valley lose the oldest-bar-in-Pennsylvania distinction, but it will likely lose the physical place as an historically authentic gathering place.

Ross Lehman, 1942 graduate of Penn State who was later head of the Penn State Alumni Association, once reflected on some of the things that made a Penn State experience what it was in his Centre Daily Times column “Open House:”

If I had felt lonely and isolated in these hills it was not for long. I became part of the heart throb of Penn State, and it was a new, exciting world. I fell in love with this unique place.

The campus was, and is, something rather special. It houses the “Penn State spirit,” which is a difficult thing to define because it is composed of so many things.

Perhaps it can be called a feeling, a feeling that runs through Penn Staters when they’re away from this place and someone mentions “Penn State.” The farther we are away, in time and distance, the stronger the feeling grows.

It is a good feeling, a wanting-to-share feeling. It is full of a vision of Mount Nittany, which displays a personality of its own in all its seasonal colors, from green to gold to brown to white. It is the sound of chimes from Old Main’s clock, so surrounded by leaves that it’s hard to see; it is getting to class not by looking at the clock but by listening to it.

It is the smell of the turf at New Beaver Field after a game, and the memories of Len Krouse, Leon Gajecki, Rosey Grier, Lenny Moore, Mike Reid, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Todd Blackledge and Curt Warner helping to swell our fame … and the top of Mount Nittany as seen from the grandstands in autumn.

It is the quiet of Pattee Library, facing two rows of silent elms; sunlight falling gently through those elms on a misty morning; a casual chat under a white moon on the mall.

It is talk, too: a great deal of talk, here, there, all around … in fraternity and sorority bull sessions or over a hasty coffee in the Corner Room or Ye Olde College Diner, talk un-recalled except for the feeling of remembrance and the heart-tugging wanting some of youth. …

It is a dance in Rec Hall; a beer in the Rathskeller; a kiss in a secluded campus niche; the romance that bloomed into marriage; the smell of a theater; the laugh of a crowd; the blossoming of spring shrubs and the blend of maple, oak, birch and aspen colors in the fall; the ache of a night without sleep; and the sharing of a thousand other little things and incidents that honed our “Penn State spirit.”

“A beer in the Rathskeller” amidst so many other great and small points of the mystic chords of Penn State identity may seem like a small thing, but that would be to miss the fact that the greatness of Penn State is in its innumerable little greatnesses, of which the Skeller has been a remarkable part for so many generations. It’s also remarkable that, in Ross Lehman’s tribute, every other specific place he recollects remains a living part of campus and town life. It’s a testament to the fact that, as much as changes in so little time in a college town, so many of the great little things stay the same in the towns that earn legendary reputations.

Downtown State College is experiencing a once in a century (or more) “reset” of a lot of its built environment. Over the past century a general agglomeration of mostly local investors purchased downtown properties like old homes, low-slung storefronts, etc., and made little business empires of them. Now, as they die or their families re-assess their holdings, many are selling to national developers who are building what for a downtown like State College are much larger mega-developments of six or eight or twelve story mix-used structures. A great deal of local ownership is vanishing, and that’s a shame to the degree that it makes local businesspeople less accountable to local people, and to the extent that State College becomes aesthetically, architecturally, and culturally more derivative of other college towns due to the “cookie cutter” building mentality of taking what might have worked in College Station or Ann Arbor and plopping it on a piece of land, heedless of the harmony or complementarity of surrounding structures. What conservationists can do is add their voices to the choir singing for as much of the old, time-worn authentic characteristics of past places to be re-incarnated in the new skins of the new buildings to come as is possible.

All things considered, I’m cautiously optimistic that the Herlocher’s local purchase of the Foster Building will achieve some degree of good conservation, although it’s a tragedy for the distinctiveness of State College to lose the Skeller in the process.

I reflected a few years ago on what “nostalgia” really means by asking “Where nostalgia lives” in a practical sense:

When I walk down College Avenue and sit on that stone bench, I’m sitting in a place where my grandfather sat at one point nearly 70 years ago. I’m sitting in a place where my cousin sat nearly 20 years ago. And maybe my children or theirs will sit there at some point.

We’re so socially, economically, and physically mobile today that most of us don’t have fixed, solid places like this to root our experiences. Where is the family farm that’s been with us for generations? Where is the tree in the yard planted decades ago? Where is the room in the house where your great grandmother once softly sang as the leaves of that tree rustled in twilight?

We lack these things. We move. We die. And thousands of experiences and stories are fragmented as a result. It becomes difficult to remember what we’re doing here.

In the context of the reality of this daily life, college towns and the little places they contain like College Avenue’s stone bench tell us what we don’t have. We probably won’t recover most of the beautiful little experiences of yesterday’s America, but at least in our college towns we are often presented with some of the life we’ve lost and reminded we can have it again, even if just for a pleasant visit.

When I had lunch with Onward State’s David Abruzzese in May earlier this year, we sat in what might literally have been the same booth at the Skeller where my grandfather might have sat in 1946 when he arrived as a freshman, or in 1947 when he was struggling to memorize his Greek poetry, or in 1950 when he would have been celebrating commencement:


Pop looms large in my childhood memories as a source of wisdom and gentle love, and though he’s been dead nearly 17 years now, losing a place like the Skeller rips away one of the last physical places in the world where I can go and spend some time with memory of him, where I feel particularly connected, as if time might evaporate and his younger self might walk through those cellar doors to sit down with me for a bit, one more time.

And it rips away a physical place where I might bring my own son or daughter one day, sharing a similar experience, and looking into the twinkling eyes of uncertain youth to share the reassuring words that the sands of time and veil of death that covers ancestors, friends, and communities seemingly long separated isn’t always so thick in every place—that in certain places the sands of time pass ever more slowly, giving us a chance to savor what might otherwise be a quotidian moment in the most delicious and heartening way with someone we love, and with whom we’ll share a small place in the vast universe to return together in spirit.

To lose the Skeller, for a town to lose that sort of place? It really hurts.

Little radio memory

I took this short little video in July 2012 in State College, when I was visiting I think over Arts Fest—a bit of The LION 90.7fm, Penn State’s student radio station. I came across it recently when going through some files, and it brought me back to that moment I filmed it, as rain spattered down a bit, cutting through thick summer air and slowing the world a bit.

It brought me to think a bit about what made The LION 90.7fm so attractive and compelling to me as a freshman at Penn State. It was the sound of a student-led, public broadcasting station that was able to speak freely, broadcast freely, and play whatever it felt was right. It was a station that didn’t want anything from its listener; indifferent in the good sense, of being removed from the concerns of the wider commercial market. It clearly empowered the human voice, and seemed to give it a confidence and force beyond what its generally youthful broadcasters had really earned, and consequently had a verve to it that made it a joy to listen to.

I remember tuning in occasionally even while in high school, feeling like I was getting to know bits and pieces of Penn State and State College months before I’d really be there in earnest. And now I return to it from time to time, to hear of a Penn State and town that seems slightly different from the one I remember, but that retains that essential element of compelling indifference.

College Avenue scenes

As Homecoming recedes in the mirror, Christmas and the wider holiday and holy season approaches. As I was walking along College Avenue this morning before leaving town, I noticed State College Borough crews hoisting the Christmas Tree at the Allen Street Gate. Christmas wreaths had already been placed earlier in the morning on the lamp posts lining College and Beaver Avenues. A somewhat less chilly, and certainly more festive-feeling, day after a frigid Homecoming experience. Autumn will soon give way to winter, but in the meantime I’ll enjoy both seasons and start thinking about ways this Christmas can be marked without allowing the hollow sentimentality or secular-type materialism to evaporate Advent’s essential mystery.

Penn State v. Rutgers

An absolutely cold and (for that reason) unpleasant Homecoming game against Rutgers yesterday. It was a beautiful afternoon, but just too cold. I hope Penn State doesn’t schedule Homecoming so far late into the autumn again anytime soon. In the stadium, I walked a complete circuit of the lower concourse to get a sense of the playing field from different angles. Ultimately settled in the upper deck at NDU, but filmed a few minutes in the third quarter and finally the Alma Mater post game.

Homecoming scenes

I’m at Penn State this weekend for Homecoming. It’s the latest in the autumn that Penn State’s ever held Homecoming, and unless a serious upset occurs this afternoon, the Rutgers game represents a sort of neighborhood match between two nearby Big Ten universities. I’m sharing a short campus walk that Nittany Valley Society broadcast on Facebook yesterday, along with photos I snapped in the afternoon. It was a beautiful day in State College, but incredible frigid and slightly windy. Depending on how things go today, I’m not sure how much time I’ll spend in Beaver Stadium’s windswept benches.

Gabriela Stevenson shares some of the history of Penn State’s Homecoming, past and present:

The first ever “Alumni Home-coming Day” saw the return of over 1,100 alumni to State College for the third game of the season against Dartmouth, which Penn State won 14-7 in front of “the largest crowd that ever witnessed a game on New Beaver Field.” October 9, 1920 and the rest of that weekend, enhanced by old acquaintances, camaraderie, and a “smoker” in the old Armory, “was so great a success it promised to become one of the biggest events on the college calendar.”

Decades after that first Homecoming Day, it was evident that this statement remained true. By the 1950s and 1960s, Homecoming weekends were packed with activities like an alumni golf tournament, a Homecoming ball, and a Nickelodeon movie night. …

Now, as Penn State prepares for its 97th Homecoming weekend, Homecoming Alumni Relations Director Emily Heere says her committee seeks to carry out Homecoming’s original core mission.

“…Homecoming offers the perfect opportunity for alumni to head back to Happy Valley and embrace not only the tradition and things that shaped them into the person they are today, but also the new changes and generations of people that have followed in their foot steps,” she said. “I think the only thing that has changed about Homecoming in terms of connecting with alumni is the fact that there are so many more opportunities now than there were in the past for Alumni to connect and stay in touch with Penn State.”

But alumni will no longer get marshmallows stuck in their hair. There are no alumni golf tournaments, no semi-formal Homecoming balls, no cider parties. Pride Events Director Matt Monaghan recognizes the shift in event focus as a way to include more students in the festivities.

“While alumni are highly encouraged to attend all Homecoming events, the events now focus on creating memories now that students can look back on when they visit Homecoming events as alumni,” he said.

Penn State v. Michigan

Watching Penn State beat Michigan last night was just downright fun, from Saquon Barkley’s opening touchdown 42 seconds into the game, to the seconds that the clock ticked to zero with #2 Penn State over #19 Michigan 42-13.

These sorts of seasons come so infrequently, you just have to relax and enjoy the magic of the season. Penn State hasn’t been this highly ranked since 1999. Penn State hasn’t seen attendance in Beaver Stadium like last night in its history: 110,823 set the all-time record for turnout. And Coach James Franklin hasn’t had a 7-0 start before in his career.

To top it all, ESPN’s College Game Day visited State College, and broadcast from Old Main’s lawn. I took a few photos while watching Coach Franklin’s interview on TV earlier in the day.

Enjoying this for as long as it lasts.

Penn State v. Iowa

An entire game unfolded in four seconds at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City last night, as Penn State somehow defeated Iowa 21-19 as time expired with an incredible just-above-the-defender’s-fingertips reception.

I was on the phone as the fourth quarter wound down, and had lost hope that Penn State had any chance of winning the game after watching our unsure and listless offense struggle to put real points on the board. I was already mentally preparing for a steep drop from the four spot in the rankings.

Then Trace McSorely and Juwan Johnson somehow connected in those last four seconds. I snapped the photos above of those final seconds; just incredible. I’ve never seen a game like that. Onward State’s got a good recap.

Visiting WDFM

After Kevin and I sat in on HIST 197- History of Penn State the other day, we stopped by Pattee/Paterno Library to see the new “Student Broadcasting” historical marker in person. It was my first time seeing it in person, and I shot this short video to give a sense of perspective as students walked along Pattee Mall in between classes:

Afterwards Kevin and I visited 304 Sparks nearby and I took the photos below as we visited the site of WDFM’s old headquarters from the 1950s through the 1980s. WDFM was the second major incarnation of student broadcasting and the one most alums remember, though that will change in the next decade as many of those alums pass from the scene and younger generations from The LION 90.7fm become engaged in supporting students. At 304 Sparks we met two women who now call those offices home: Dr. Deryn Verity and Dr. Sharon Childs. They were both delightful to talk with and to introduce to the history of their spaces.

Finally we stopped by The LION 90.7fm’s home in the HUB-Robeson Center, and visited with Ross Michael, the station’s vice president of operations. Unfortunately, we learned that the students had lost half of their Penn State home football game broadcasting credentials, because they haven’t been active in utilizing them for the past two years, particularly in participating in press conferences or media availabilities.

Showing up and living up to the mission of public service is important.

Penn State v. Akron

Despite the wet weather, today turned out to be a beautiful one for Penn State’s 52-0 drubbing of Akron. Started off by visiting Paul Clifford at the Penn State Alumni Association’s “Huddle with the faculty” series at 9AM at Nittany Lion Inn. Andy Bessler presented on, empathy, and inter generational relationships.

Afterwards Paul and I hailed an Uber and got as near to Beaver Stadium as possible, then walked the rest of the way. It was raining  steadily and more or less heavily by this point, so I hustled over to the Penn State Ag Arena RV tailgating lots to meet up with Chris Buchignani and friends. At noon kickoff, Ben Novak and I Ubered downtown, ordered Wings Over Happy Valley, and dried off while watching the first half from the Glennland Building. Then Ben went off to a meeting, and I Ubered back to the tailgating lots with fresh Yuengling for post-game.

A few hours after the game was over, I walked down from Beaver Stadium to downtown, and met friends for dinner at Champ’s, where we spent the rest of the night.

I might make it up for Homecoming in November, but otherwise this will be a busy autumn and that will mean cheering Penn State on from a distance.