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about 3 months ago

A Walk Full of Memories

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I took a walk last night, and I want to tell you about it.

It started at the HUB. I can still remember my first time in the HUB, all of 16 years old, inquisitive eyes darting from student to student. I had cut out of class early an hour away at Williamsport High School and driven to State College. It was a drive I made often when I first got my license. I was always drawn here. I used to skip class, drive to State College, and pretend to be a student by walking around campus, yearning for the day when I would become a Penn State student myself. It was my shining city upon a hill. It still is. What I didn’t know at the time was that I would one day meet some of my best friends in this building.

My walk continues to the west, past Old Main. There is still some wax residue below me on the patio from the vigil in November 2011. Or maybe it’s from January 2012. It could be the wax from one of my candles. Either way, there is no sign of the tears.

I pass under the pendulous branches of the third-generation “Old Willow” to west of Old Main, seemingly hidden from the regular bustle of campus but very much present. I wonder what Evan Pugh would think today if he saw it. For it was Pugh who brought a sapling from the descendent of this very tree with him in that late October afternoon in 1859 when his carriage pulled up to the back entrance of Old Main — or rather, an unfinished pile of lumber and stone — for the first time. What would Evan Pugh think — of all of this? Of us?

I head down the mall and find myself in front of Irving’s. I’ve conducted more than 150 interviews for Onward State in those wooden chairs. I’ve had just as many lunches, with anyone from Penn State administrators and trustees to friends and student leaders. Oh, how much I’ve learned from every meeting, every conversation, every lunch. I’ve certainly learned much more about life in these chairs than any class in the College of Communications.

Down the street, I pass what was once New Leaf Initiative under Dunkin’ Donuts. This was where I attended my first Onward State meeting nearly three years ago after being hired without an interview or submitting writing samples. We had 6,000 Twitter followers then. I got lost and was late. My first post was about Rick Santorum. Inauspicious beginnings I guess.

I cut past the Graduate apartment building, where I’ve lived in room 210 for three years. Man, have we had some great parties here. I’ll never forget any of those late nights with roommates or visiting friends in the living room talking about life. I’ll also never forget the knock at the door on that gloomy Thursday morning when the police officer told me my roommate was dead.

Going north, I pass the Lion Shrine. There is still nothing that quite gets to me like the illuminated Lion Shrine at night without any people around. The hair stands up on me just like it did the first time I saw it. I don’t think that will ever change. There’s the Nittany Lion Inn. I had a beer with Damon Sims here once. One time on one of those high school adventures, I got yelled at by the doorman for eating too many free apples. I’ve been scared to take an apple ever since.

I keep walking down Park Avenue and look down McKee Street. I remember that night I stood in a yard in front of a ranch house at the end of this street, linked arm in arm with a Penn Stater I would never know, singing our Alma Mater. I remember seeing one of my heroes cry that night. It was the last time I ever saw him.

Back on campus to east, I walk past the tables outside the Creamery. This is the place where I fell in love for the first time. I couldn’t have been much older than 12, and I convinced my mom that she should let me skip school to go to a Pittsburgh Pirates caravan event in State College. I’m not a Pirates fan, so the motivation for being in State College that day is lost to history, but I vividly remember sitting on those benches with an ice cream cone, watching students bustle back and forth unknowingly becoming a part of a love affair that still burns in my heart to this day. From then on, I knew I was applying to and attending only one school. The magic of Penn State had touched my soul in those few simple moments, and it has never let go.

I continue on to the easternmost corner of campus, hidden in the shadows of Beaver Stadium. It’s quiet now, but it doesn’t take much to relive the ghosts that still linger here. I’ve been inside this stadium for every game since 2004 and many before that. You never do forget the first time the hair stands up on your arms as you’re swept away in the atmosphere created in competition by sheer love for an institution. Nothing will ever again capture that purest feeling of joy after the 2005 Ohio State game for as long as I live. Or the 2001 game when Joe Paterno won #324 behind the arm of freshman Zack Mills. Or the 2010 Northwestern game when Paterno was carried off the field on the shoulders of his players for the last time. Or the 2011 Nebraska game with all it meant to our collective identity. No, these memories will never leave me.

I walk around the stadium and darker memories return. There’s the mound of grass where the Paterno statue used to stand. I was there the day it was unveiled on November 2, 2001. Oh, the joy in Sue’s face when they took the sheet off for the first time. I was also there the morning they took it down, the single finger poking out above the blue tarp as the noise of jackhammers filled the air, only one example of untenable leadership that has plagued this university for most of three years. I look down the road, as the lights of the Penn Stater Conference Center fill the air, and think of November 9 when Penn State’s trustees solidified a wicked narrative against our institution forever. I sat front row at the press conference. I’ll never forget that room.

Off in the distance is Mount Nittany, forever high and strong in our midst. I remember climbing it my freshman year, looking out in wonderment for the first time at the beautiful landscape of the Nittany Valley. I remember climbing it in the middle of the night the day after Paterno died, the light from the stadium touching the sky like a divine vortex reaching up to the heavens. I’ll never see anything like that for as long as I live.

Down into campus, I pass by Porter Hall. I lived on the first floor three years ago and made some of my best friends. I regret not keeping in touch with some of them. We all must grow up, but I would do anything to relive that year one more time in the dusty concrete cube in room 102. Only about half of us from that floor made it to graduation this past weekend. I can still name everyone. I miss them.

When I need meaningful time reflect or think, I take walks at night. I’ve used this same route dozens of times since my freshman year, but this time is different. This is the first time I take this walk as a Penn State alumnus, and the first time in more than two years that I take it without being Onward State’s managing editor.

I tell you this story because even as time passes, friends graduate, and traditions change, these memories continue to live with us. I imagine many of you, too, have similar memories stored up about our Alma Mater that have the uncanny ability to come to life at the times when you need them the most.

Most of my memories stem from my time at the helm of Onward State during the last two years, and from the relationships gained as a result. It has been the honor of my life to be a part of this community experiment, but the real joy has come by learning from the thousands of people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting over the last four years, mostly as a result of Onward State. The real joy has come from getting to know all of you. I want to thank a few individually:

  • To Onward State cofounders Davis Shaver, Eli Glazier, and Evan Kalikow. Without your vision and brilliance, I never would have met anyone mentioned below. What you created almost six years ago in 43 Simmons has changed my life in profound ways that I could have never predicted. Thank you for trusting me. I owe my Penn State experience to you.
  • To all of my managing editors during that first year and part of the second: Dan McCool, Devon Edwards, Dan Vecellio, and Dave Cole. You all continue to impact my life in unique and important ways. You have taught me much about writing and life.
  • To my first two friends in Onward State, Ryan Beckler and Drew Balis. You are chiefly responsible for Onward State’s meteoric rise in 2011-2013 and for keeping me sane during my first year as editor. I couldn’t have gotten through that evil 2012 summer without both of your laughter and tears. Sorry for yelling at you every day (but not too sorry).
  • To all the inspiring people I met during my two years in UPUA, notably Chief of Staff John Zang for being dumb enough to bring me on as press secretary; Presidents Courtney Lennartz and Katelyn Mullen for believing in me; Speakers (Chairs?) Spencer Malloy and Anthony Panichelli for constantly inspiring me and always being there for me; and Vice President Brenden Dooley for inviting me to SAE parties having my back until the end. Some of my greatest friendships at Penn State were cultivated on the third floor of the HUB.
  • To the Board of Directors of the Nittany Valley Society, particularly President Chis Buchignani and Vice President Tom Shakely. Your love for Penn State inspires me every day. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to give back to this place that I love long after I hit publish on here for the final time, and for dealing with my persistent cynicism.
  • To my beautiful girlfriend of almost two years Jessica Tully, who taught me that even though the Collegian sucks, not all of the people who work there do. There aren’t many guys who can say they found the love of their life because they started blogging — I’m told it usually has the opposite effect — but I’m elated to say that I did. I truly am the luckiest.

I talk about my memories, because it is through these memories that we never truly leave Penn State, even if we’re not physically present. But I’m not one to talk. Although I graduated on Saturday, I’m not ready to leave the unyielding clutches of the magic of the Nittany Valley. And so I did what anybody not ready to leave should do — I enrolled in Penn State’s law school.

This will not be my last post for Onward State. I did what our Board of Trustees would do and gave myself a cool title without any public deliberation — Managing Editor Emeritus. I hope to stay on and help train new writers, write some longer stories that I haven’t quite had time to tackle recently, continue the relationships I started here, and organize more community and charity events under the Onward State umbrella. Mainly I want to make myself useful. And maybe go to bed at a decent hour.

The finality of commencement has always made me uncomfortable. I, too, will one day leave Penn State, even if I’ve managed to delay it for now (although I do have a weird desire to father a kid-on-a-rope one day…we’ll see). But a Penn State degree is only one point on a timeline that spans a lifetime. Service and love for Our Dear Mother is dissoluble only in death. It’s how we were able to raise more than $2 billion in 10 years, and it’s why hundreds of thousands of alumni return to the Nittany Valley every year to pay homage and still feel such an attachment to this place. Store up these memories and allow them to impact your life. It is through the indestructible spirit of these memories that Penn State comes alive inside of us long after we leave the comfortable shadows of Mount Nittany.

The Robert Browning quote, “Grow old along with me, The best is yet to be” has become cliche around here thanks in part to the sundial in front of Old Main. The class of 1915 got it right — for Penn State and for all who love Her, the best is certainly yet to be. I can’t wait to be a part of it with all of you.