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.

pugh_grave-autumn_fog.jpgPenn 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.

Little Free Libraries

I snapped this photo back in February when I was visiting Penn State/State College with my brother Nick. This “Little Free Library” is located at the Penn State Arboretum, and I think these are generally super-clever and valuable contributions to community life.

Little Free Libraries are often expressions of a particular neighborhood as much as a community or wider place. The people of a place make them what they are, placing books that are often specific to that place rather than just whatever was left lying around. They become a way for a community to communicate bits about itself to each other and to visitors.

And they’re valuable for suggesting Here’s how you might like to spend some of your morning when you’re enjoying a distinctive place like an arboretum’s gardens, or when you’ve reached the summit of Mount Nittany and are ready to find a tree or rock to lean up against and enjoy a secluded afternoon with friends or by yourself.

I think adding one of these to Mount Nittany’s trailhead would be the perfect way to say, A hike can be more than just coming and going. Linger a bit—and enjoy this story while you do…

Penn State Greek Corps

As a follow-on to yesterday’s Vision for Penn State Greeks, I wanted to clarify some things after speaking with some who read it. I also want to offer a practical idea for how we might start addressing the problem of “spiritual meaning” I identified as the underlying problem beneath the surface of fraternity and sorority challenges.

First, a basic history of the fraternity and sorority system is worthwhile for getting a larger perspective on this topic. What’s relevant to note is that fraternities and sororities developed from something, and that “something” was often informally/organically organized literary and civic/rhetoric clubs. These were students who started with a shared interest in what we would today call a “special” interest, like oratory or singing or dancing or political debate. That’s why I pushed back yesterday against the idea of lofty and abstract language. Young men and women will only develop authentic relationships if they are together for practical purposes like singing together. We want practical relationships.

Second, the history teaches us that change must occur organically. It almost certainly can’t be viola’d with a sweeping “reform program.” And it can’t be the result of nostalgic alumni wishing to simply recreate the Greek system of their own time. Whatever happens, it should be something new.

Third, and relatedly, I have no specific plan in mind. There’s no program. I view the Greek issue as fundamental as “Will these places be vehicles/excuses to learn how to be human beings?” If not, can we find some other way to do that within the university structure? All that “other half” stuff that Cardinal Newman talks about in his book, The Idea of a University.

Fourth, because everyone wants a program even though I think a formal initiative would be foolhardy: Why not try something like a “Penn State Greek Corps” that would seek to “enlist” about 200 people. It would seek Greek alumni, but be mostly non-Greek. It would be diverse in age, gender, professional background, etc. These corps members would be asked to build a relationship with their designated fraternity or sorority, and encouraged to experiment. It wouldn’t be a one year tour, but something closer to a decade-long commitment—real relationships. That would be the only real deliverable, and I think it could produce significant positive results. These corps members would be honored at Homecoming. they’d be invited to meet the trustees and star professors at special events. They’d be shown love in various ways for their extraordinary commitment. Penn State would build a relationship with them, too.

After yesterday’s piece was cross-posted to Onward State it picked up 500+ Facebook shares and I heard back from many people who said it got them thinking. If nothing else, I hope that it helps Penn Staters think less tribally and with more heart.

Vision for Penn State Greeks

I remember touring Beta Theta Pi a few years ago. It was over Arts Fest in 2013, and I had been invited along with some others to see inside the new crown jewel of Penn State’s fraternity system.

An alum had contributed a huge sum of $6+ million to entirely renovating the historic fraternity basically from floor to ceiling and now that it was in physically excellent shape, Penn State administrators had been making a show of the place and talking on their website, their magazines, and everywhere in between about what a model Beta would be for fraternities. Beta had cameras throughout for monitoring conduct in its public spaces. It had a house mother to help regulate basic administration of the property. It had a working relationship with Schreyer Honors College, if I remember correctly—or at least a minimum GPA requirement and other superlative standards for membership. And it had been reformed as a dry chapter.

It was a lovely story, and one I was tempted to believe. If anything could work to pull Greek life away from the worst stereotypes of Animal House culture, maybe it was Penn State’s effort with Beta. I took some photos during my tour of the house that summer:

It took less than a decade for Penn Staters to learn what we got in return for $6+ million in alumni generosity and a years-long PR-campaign from administration: one of the the worst breeding grounds for scandal and ultimately tragedy in modern Penn State fraternity history.

After the terrible death of Timothy Piazza during a drinking party at Beta earlier this year, administrators hastily suspended the chapter and booted its members midway through the semester. And today, as criminal investigations continue into the total neglect of Beta brothers to look after a sophomore at their house, Penn State administrators announced there will no longer be a Beta chapter. I can’t help but marvel at what’s happened at/to Beta in so short a time.

A Penn State challenge, not a Greek problem

While the question of legal culpability for Timothy Piazza’s death is determined through the legal system, the larger question that we can all consider is the moral culpability of Penn Staters writ large—and administrators in particular—in modeling ethical and moral behavior for our 45 fraternities and dozens of sororities.

I wasn’t in a fraternity at Penn State, but I care about fraternities and sororities because I believe in their potential as distinctive communities to form young boys and girls into men and women. I believe in this potential because we know that historically they did exactly this—particularly through ethical and moral formation and the development of brotherhood and sisterhood. (John Shakely, my grandfather, was in a fraternity at Penn State, and my grandmother Marion was in a sorority at Penn. I saw the formative impact those experiences had on them even late in life.) If nothing else, America desperately needs to rejuvenate social structures and experiences that cultivate character and singular men and women with confident and grounded senses of self who are capable of being strong threads in the communities they settle. Fraternities and sororities served that role once, and while we could get rid of them due to the nuisance they’ve become, it’s not clear we’d be any closer to some better system of social development for young people. Fixing them seems a far more worthwhile challenge than the easier route, which would be washing them down a drain that’s already clogged with cultural traditions jettisoned over the the last century.

So I care a great deal about Penn State’s fraternities and sororities. I think the young people in them have largely been abandoned and left to their own idle and directionless ends for decades. After the death of Timothy Piazza, I was amazed at the number of older people so ready to condemn kids aged 18-22 for their negligence. I was amazed not because I condoned their negligence, but because I wondered what other than blame-shifting and poor behavior we could expect from the kids in an environment where they receive no meaningful ethical or moral instruction—or more importantly, actual modeled behavior.

Penn State administrators did just about everything right in their renovation and reform of Beta except the most important thing in failing to provide any concrete sense of ethical or moral vision for a fraternity. Instead, they held up lofty words. But words have little meaning when divorced from behavior, and something our culture almost universally lacks today is the sort of sustained and authentic relationships where modeled behavior has a chance of influencing another person. Without relationships, words are just abstractions and bound for failure.

Abstractions v. concretes

Beta had words: “To Develop Men of Principle for a Principled Life.” Beta had a purported vision, which included things like “Betas will be universally known as friends, gentlemen and scholars” and “Beta Theta Pi will be acclaimed and respected by the academic community” and “Betas will be in high demand by leaders of business, government and the professions.” And Beta had a mission, which included things like “devotion to intellectual excellence” and “high standards of moral conduct and responsible citizenship.” Beta sought to cultivate “lifelong friendship” and “cultivation of the intellect” and “responsible leadership” and “responsible social conduct” and “commitment to community.”

Beta shared, more or less, basically the same sort of vision and mission of every fraternity and sorority. Let me suggest that the problem with Beta’s words are that they’re abstractions. And abstractions can be bent to mean anything, or nothing.

Aspirations (for fraternities and sororities especially) need to find expression in concrete habits and traditions and ways of being. You’re not “universally known as friends.” Instead, you’re “known as the smiling and stopping-to-help fraternity.” You’re not “devoted to intellectual excellence.” You’re the “top-tier engineering fraternity.” You’re not “committed to community.” You’re “the visiting-sick-and-elderly fraternity.” You’re not “developing men of principle.” You’re “a fraternity that attends mass/synagogue/mosque together.”

These are the sort of specific habits and traditions that can sink into the bones of those involved. They’re not abstract, fluffy PR material constructed to earn “acclaim and respect” from the academy community.

I’d bet every fraternity and sorority proclaims some sort of commitment to “intellectual excellence.” That’s a beautiful thing. If it’s true, then tell me: Where are the obviously and distinctly intellectual Greek students? Why aren’t they being spotlighted every fall at Homecoming? Why don’t any specific names immediately leap to faculty or administrators’ minds at every Board of Trustees meeting, so they’re thinking, “I need Trustee Such-and-such to meet fraternity-brother So-and-so.” More broadly, where are fraternities and sororities cultivating distinctive strengths? Let’s have fewer vague pleasantries about “commitment to philanthropy” and instead be able to answer specific questions like, “Point me to the jazz sorority, please.”

We don’t literally need a “jazz sorority,” but we should be cultivating a Greek system as distinctive and full of obviously (and literally) remarkable men and women as we can. That’s what real community looks like.

Not alcohol, but a lack of spiritual meaning

Every time a tragedy at a fraternity or sorority happens, some alcohol or hazing or illicit behavior is cited as the problem. That’s certainly the case today:

Alcohol misuse, hazing and sexual misconduct among students are challenges at nearly every college and university across the country. Greek-letter communities throughout higher education are distinctly affected by these issues, and have generally failed to effectively address them through their self-governance processes. The same is true at Penn State, where research shows that fraternity and sorority members are four times more likely than the general student population to be heavy drinkers; sorority women are 50 percent more likely than other female students to be sexually assaulted; and fraternity men are 62 percent more likely to commit a sexual assault than non-fraternity men.

A large part of the challenge stems from the autonomy these groups have assumed. Typically, colleges and universities cede ultimate responsibility to the organizations themselves, and while alumni boards and national organizations share part of that responsibility, the undergraduate members are often given broad latitude.

I think the second paragraph could have been better written, but if its identification of “autonomy” is speaking to the need for better relationships between fraternity and sorority students with others, then I agree.

What we need, though, are not legal relationships for the purposes of rear-end covering. We need the sort of authentic relationships with young people that can say something like: “You’re 20 years old, and have just joined a fraternity whose mission is to cultivate ‘principled men.’ How specifically are you going to achieve that, and how will you make amends if you fall short?”

That’s the sort of question that hasn’t been asked for decades. And because no one in a position of authority has been asking that sort of question, young people have lost connection to ethical and moral vision and consequently what I’ll call a sense of “spiritual meaning” for what they’re doing in a fraternity or sorority in the first place.

It’s for these reasons that I think the solution lies not in fixing the drinking problem, but fixing the spiritual void that leads to total, unregulated, and unrepentant public drunkenness and debauchery in the first place. It’s a spiritual problem, in other words.

(I don’t mean to take this “spiritual meaning” problem too literally, but I have to point out that for the first 50 years of fraternity life at Penn State, something as specific as Sunday chapel attendance was mandatory for all students, not just fraternity and sorority students. There was a larger, common campus culture that rooted behavior. We’re less than 90 years removed from mandatory chapel, and many within living memory still remember how a practiced religious experience publicly shaped their lives and behavior, rather than simply serving as a sanitized, privatized “worship” service that wasn’t supposed to be seen or discussed in polite company.)

Too many today will brush aside the idea of a “spiritual meaning” problem, and ignore the void of meaning that I think exists in the hearts of most people (not simply young fraternity and sorority members) and will instead decide that trying to better regulate alcohol consumption, or make already-illegal activities like hazing somehow more prohibited (one of today’s recommendations), will be a better way to help people. Down that path lies the dual fate of morally-pleasurable virtue signaling for the “helpers” and ultimately disaster for the “helped.”

We can’t look to our collegiate peers for help. If someone else had fixed the root problems of Greek life, we would have heard about it. Continuing to adopt one another’s surface-level policy reforms won’t fundamentally change Penn State’s fraternities and sororities. That’s just a recipe for becoming derivative, and if that’s the plan, then we might as well close shop. No one seems to be doing any better, and that means we have an opportunity to lead rather than follow. To attempt to foster a whole sense of Penn State community again. If we want a better outcome than what we’ve got for nearly 50 years, we’ve got to consider different approaches.

Do we really care?

Do we really care? This is the uncomfortable question at the center of this conversation.

If we care, we’ll figure out how to mandate that fraternity and sorority students have full-time older people who live with them and have meaningful power to regulate their personal behavior—not only through an enforceable code of conduct, but also by earning respect through real relationships and decades of personal investment.

If we care, we’ll figure out how regular alumni (Greek and non-Greek) can be routinely and specifically invited into fraternities and sororities during special times of the year like Homecoming to be impressed by the talents and habits and traditions of young people, and those alumni will be given ways to form relationships with those young people. We’ll do this because we’re smart enough to remember that every passionate alumni giving relationship is simply one form of commitment to the community, and it’s well past time to cultivate deeper relationships with those graduates.

If we care, the reaction of townspeople and administration and faculty will not be to first condemn or tsk-tsk fraternities and sororities at every turn, but to figure out how to model behavior and form relationships (and even publicly shame them when necessary) in ways that encourage a healthier way of being. When is the last time a professor, for instance, showed an interest in building up the sense of self of a fraternity or sorority student, let alone a chapter or the system? When have professors been encouraged by the Faculty Senate or administration to do this as a necessary part of earning tenure—or simply as something looked upon favorably during contract renewal season?

As much as the students at Beta are morally culpable for Timothy Piazza’s death, so are Penn State administrators who have an obligation more directly than any other to elevate the Greek system. Today’s steps are small but important ones, but I can’t help but point out that Penn State’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life has lacked a leader for quite some time. (And its last prominent leader was most recently in the news on charges of disorderly conduct and prostitution.)  Today’s statement identifies “autonomy” as a large part of Greek life’s challenge, but it’s an autonomy that a generally indifferent administration has long seemed to be fine with—getting to condemn the Greek system’s worst cases of debauchery without ever being willing to insinuate itself into the day-to-day lives of those young men and women.

(A key threat in today’s news is that future sanctions could result in Penn State declaring the entire Greek system dry. What kind of a plan is that, given that Beta itself was allegedly dry? We’re instructing students that the solution is to drink less, but we’re not instructing them in how to drink responsibly—which isn’t typically the same thing as simply drinking less.)

It’s an indictment of administration, but also all of us in the larger Penn State community, that it’s taken a student’s death to even take today’s small steps toward changing something deeper than surface-level policy in viewing Greek problems as our whole community’s challenge rather than some vague sense that every generation of socially neglected 20 year olds have faulty ethics.

Showing that we care

Ours is a problem of spiritual meaning, and the solution lies somewhere near the cultivation of authentic relationships with the young people in fraternities and sororities that every Penn Stater should be encouraged to visit, know, mentor, and help elevate as distinctive members of our community.

Featured photo credit

State College streetcars

I’m writing to share a romantic vision. I’m telling you this right off the bat to so that you can take a hike if you’re the cold hearted, unsentimental type. If you don’t care about aesthetics, and if you don’t know where nostalgia lives, then get out and save yourself the grief of what’s to come…

I believe that the Penn State/Nittany Valley communities are among the most distinctive and special places in the country. I think there’s a genius loci to the place, a pervading spirit of at least practical relational and economic if not also spiritual magnetism. It’s one of my aims in life to do whatever I can to help cultivate an even more distinctive and romantic spirit in the place that more than a million living American college graduates will have called their home in this century.

It’s with this aim in mind of conserving the specialness of place in Happy Valley that I also consider what’s not special about the place. A thing that’s not special about Penn State and the region? These:


They’re just regular buses. They’re somewhat quiet. They’re not hideous. But they’re buses. And they’re big and formuliac. They are at war with an otherwise nostalgic aesthetic.

I understand that for most of CATA’s regional routes (the routes throughout the wider Centre County region) that these buses make the most practical and financial sense. But wait. Look again at that beautifully and legitimately arresting scene of that black and yellow San Francisco streetcar above. Now imagine that in navy blue and white, with elegant chimes at each stop, trundling its way along the Blue and White Loops that circle Penn State’s campus and State College’s downtown. Do you hear it? Listen…

And because even abstracted art is an attempt to speak to the essence and nature of its subject, imagine those blue and white streetcars, little bells chiming politely, as a part of Richard Greenleaf’s incomparable College Avenue watercolors:


Wouldn’t that be just one of the most unusual experiences of local and neighborhood travel you’ve ever had? And wouldn’t it be just one of the most beautiful things to see snaking itself through town and campus? Can’t you just see that blue and white streetcar there? Maybe it’s already there…

Think State College streetcars aren’t feasible? They’re uniquely feasible—even practical: “They work best in places with some fundamentals already in place, says Daniel Malouff, a Washington transportation expert. There are a few basic things he says a city needs for a streetcar to work: dense population, easy walkability, a line that moves relatively quickly and some frequency of service. ‘If you can get all four, you will have a smashing success,’ Malouff says.”

So a limited route like this is practical. It’s not grandiose, and it would still serve the needs of the Blue and White loops that are currently served by those unremarkable buses that are totally beneath the aesthetic of one of the most special places in the country. If nothing else, why not making this place more resilient by making it more distinctive from every other college town? It would be fun, and that used to be half the point to any public initiative.

(I stole the photo above from Julia Kern, who took it in San Francisco and was the inspiration for this post. I’ve had a vague feeling about this for years, but her photo was the spark for this post.)

Discovering Evan Pugh

Chris Buchignani writes “In Search of Evan Pugh,” which I’m excerpting from liberally. I’m also including two photos that I took of Pugh’s gravesite when Chris and Kevin Horne and I visited there last spring. Bellefonte’s Union Cemetery is an idyllic place, and the perfect setting for this story:

Evan Pugh, Penn State’s founding president and one of the most consequential personalities in the Valley’s history, whiles away eternity just a short journey from the flowering campus whose humble seeds he planted. He is memorialized as a scholar, scientist, and leader at his gravesite in Bellefonte’s Union Cemetery.

Soon after his arrival here, Pugh began courting, and eventually married, Rebecca Valentine, daughter of one of Bellefonte’s most important families. He is buried alongside her in the family plot. Once a hub of power and influence throughout the commonwealth, attractor of wealth and exporter of governors, modern Bellefonte retains much of its historic character, but only a fraction of its practical significance. So it is with the gravesite of its once-famous socialites. In their time, Pugh and Valentine were the Nittany Valley’s original power couple; now their place of honor lies in silent neglect. The community that inherited their legacy bustles on ahead, its founder largely forgotten.

The first president of Penn State deserves better.

Over its 160 years, Old State has weathered wild turbulence blowing in from the wider world – civil war and world war, social revolution and heart-breaking scandal – more than once it has teetered on the brink of extinction, yet always it has persevered. Pugh deserves to be remembered as the progenitor of that hardy nature, our penchant for defiant survival.

While barely remembered or recognized today, Pugh is the perfect central character for Penn State’s origin story. Erwin Runkle, the University’s first historian, painted him as possessing “a rugged, energetic physique, a straight-forward common sense manner, combined with the heart of a child, and the integrity and moral robustness of mature manhood.” A bull-necked he-man built to tame the wild, but with a keen, inquisitive mind better suited to conquering a more esoteric landscape.

When he assumed the presidency of a fledgling agricultural college situated in what, to most, seemed like the middle of nowhere, but Pugh called “splendid isolation,” the entire notion of bringing the baser study of agriculture and industry to the hallowed enterprise of higher education was itself a risky proposition. Only through Pugh’s dogged leadership and dedication to a revolutionary vision for American education did the Farmers High School find its footing, and though he tragically died young, so impactful was his short time that its influence echoes through the ages.

The man deserves a statue or memorial on campus. As things stand today, we’ve failed even to honor his memory by caring for his burial place. Seemingly abandoned by the family line, the Valentine plot has fallen into disrepair over the decades. The tombstones have become grimy and covered in lichen; the landscaping, such as it is, overgrown and unkempt, and the once-ornate wrought iron fence enclosing it crumbles.’

It might seem like a stretch, but after studying Pugh’s life over the past decade I’ve come to believe that no one can properly understand Penn State’s instrinsic spirit, nor its eventual emergence as a national institution, without understanding the unifying and clarifying personality of Evan Pugh who shaped our definitive founding years. An ambition of ours is for Penn State to begin institutionally honoring Evan and Rebecca. It’s my dream that one day a small Bellefonte choir performance and memorial ceremony at their gravesite will become a part of our Homecoming tradition.

The journey of exploring Pugh’s back story has revealed much that we did not expect: Finding an original handwritten copy of Rebecca Valentine’s will at Bellefonte’s Pennsylvania Room, encountering the Bog Turtle Brewery in Pugh’s hometown of Oxford, PA and their limited run of Evan Pugh Vanilla Porter, discovering a forgotten memorial marker placed by the University on family lands still inhabited by Pugh’s distant descendants. We take pride in restoring some luster to the memory of our Penn State family’s “first couple,” and we enjoy the pleasant surprises along the way.

So why all the fuss? If, today, so few people venture out to honor Evan Pugh’s memory that his grave fell into disrepair in the first place, why bother with some long-dead historical figure it seems most people can’t be bothered to remember?

Because whether you are an individual or a community, knowing your story – and honoring its heroes – builds confidence and inner strength.


When I was in Washington late last month for Michael Novak’s funeral, I stayed at the Marriott in Foggy Bottom. It’s functionally a part of George Washington University’s campus.

After arriving on Friday night, I looked at what was nearby for dinner and ended up grabbing a sandwich from Carvings, a small deli around the block. It was a beautiful night, still in the mid-60s after a day that cracked the 70s in late February. The twilight was hanging in the air, and students were enlivening the streets and windows. On the way out I picked up a copy of The Hatchet, GW’s student newspaper.

The cover story was an uninteresting feature on their outgoing president’s global fundraising tour. Inside, an opinion piece by Sky Singer was more interesting. Headlined, “GW should let underclassmen take classes pass/fail,” Sky writes: “When I was a freshman … I felt hesitant to take classes I knew nothing about but thought might be interesting. The worry that I would fall behind on completing my requirements and the stress of maintaining a strong GPA during my first term dissuaded me from trying things outside of my comfort zone. But looking back on my first couple of years at GW, I wish I had taken the time to explore more classes and subjects I was not exposed to…”

I think this is absolutely right, and something I’m adding to my wishlist for Penn State. Our colleges have become far more administrative and credentialistic in their nature, and I’m sure what Sky describes at GW is a reality among most young people. When young people stay in their comfort zones and avoid interesting but intimidating subjects, the humane and liberal arts aspects of their education suffer.

Penn State was once at the forefront of radically rethinking what it meant to be a college-educated citizen, blending the liberal and “mechanical” arts to encourage the development a more comprehensively-educated sort of person. If students are taking simple courses to maintain a stellar GPA, their degree diminishes in its value.

Why not something as radical as a “first semester pass/fail” policy to encourage curiosity, boldness, and discovery?