Engulfed in the Beaver Stadium massif is the Penn State All-Sports Museum, an oft-overlooked, comprehensive chronicle of the history of Penn State athletics. I met with Ken Hickman, the museum’s director, to check out the facility and learn how he’s navigated the many changes in Penn State sporting history.
A Brief History
The facility opened in 2002, and it is in many ways an extension of the old football trophy room in the Greenberg football building –which preceded the Lasch Building — according to Hickman.
Hickman, a 1998 graduate of Penn State, was the curator of the American Merchant Marine Museum and a curator on the U.S.S. Constellation in Baltimore.
But since returning to State College in 2006, Hickman has traded marine memorabilia for collegiate collectables and now is in charge of archiving the ever-changing history of Penn State sports. According to him, there’s only a few other museums in the country that cover college sports with such breadth and depth; the All-Sports Museum includes exhibits for all 31 varsity sports.
“The only other facility like this in the Big Ten is out in Iowa,” said Hickman. “There are only a handful nationally that represent all the sports.”
Obtaining the Artifacts
Part of the process for setting the place up was, naturally, finding the necessary physical memorabilia to fill the shelves of the museum.
“Before this building existed each program took care of its own stuff,” explained Hickman. “To start this museum, we literally went through every closet in every athletic building, trying to get our arms around what we have.”
The thought of university employees rummaging through the closets of Beaver Stadium and Rec Hall may seem ridiculous. However, Hickman then pointed to an unassuming trophy in a basketball exhibit.
“A lot of folks don’t realize that we played in a final four,” he said. “This is the 1954 Final Four trophy, back when they used to play the consolation game. My predecessor literally found this in a closet in Rec Hall.”
Now, they’re able to work through the relevant coaching staffs to receive their documentations. For example, after the hockey team’s first Big Ten win last weekend against Michigan, Hickman made sure a game puck and program were set aside for the museum.
Penn State in the Olympics
There’s a large focus throughout the museum on Penn State Olympians, especially those in track and field.
Unbeknown to many, Penn State had an incredible track program in the decade after World War Two, according to Hickman, himself a distance runner.
One of these Penn State track stars was Barney Ewell, who, said Hickman, “would be more famous than Jessie Owens had World War Two not happened.”
Ewell was a star in college but was drafted to serve in the war during the 1944 Olympics games, his peak years. Miraculously, at the age of 30, Ewell qualified for the 1948 Olympic team in London. In the 100 meter final he finished second, earning a silver medal in the first photo finish in Olympic history.
Hickman also shared the story of Horace Ashenfelter, the only Penn State individual Olympic gold medalist (3000m Steeplechase). Ashenfelter’s gold medal, along with his running shoes and racing bib, are displayed prominently in the museum.
Ashenelter worked for the FBI, and in the 1952 games in Helsinki, he raced members of the USSR. Joked Hickman, “It was the first time an American spy was chased by a Russian.”
Dealing with Change
Hickman noted that, unlike in previous museums he’s worked at, the history he’s attempting to chronicle is changing everyday. Thus, he’s in many ways tasked with documenting both the past and the present. It’s a difficult job, and one compounded by the fact that he’s running out of physical space.
“The story keeps going,” he said. “We’re always cognizant of where we are in space, we’re very selective about who goes up on the wall.”
For example, the last exhibit in the sinuous museum is of Bill O’Brien, titled “A New Era”. Even though it’s only been up for about a year, the exhibit is already outdated, and it’s time for it to come down.
And of course, Hickman has been forced to navigate the Sandusky Scandal.
“We had two group photos of assistant football coaches that we did have to replace but that was it,” he said. “We still – and I know a lot of folks have had some concern about this – we have not adjusted Joe’s legacy at any shape or form, and I would not foresee doing that until the legal process is played out.”
He and his staff haven’t added anything to document the scandal, either, for two reasons. First, according to Hickman, the museum more than anything serves to celebrate the student athletes, not to detract from them or their achievements. Additionally, the facility is one of the first places recruits visit.
Hickman said some expansion ideas have been tossed around, but “none have taken more precedence over the others.”
At one point, the museum was to be built out near Lot 44 (adjacent to the stadium), along with the Nittany Lion Club, the Varsity ‘S’ Club, and several offices. He doesn’t think that’s still a possibility.
For now, however, Hickman’s committed to documenting Penn State sports for the foreseeable future.
As for the JoePa statue one day being on display in the museum’s premises?
“We’ll see,” said Hickman.