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Guard the Lion Shrine is Set for Friday Evening

Ah, yes, autumn is quickly falling upon us, and with the change in season comes Homecoming Weekend. Every year it is Penn State tradition to Guard the Lion Shrine.

The annual event will be hosted by the Penn State Lion Ambassadors and Army ROTC on Friday, October 14, at 9 p.m. Sue Paterno will tell her legendary story about the Penn State vs. Syracuse Homecoming football game during which a few pranks were pulled on the shrine to increase enthusiasm and spirit. There will be free food and music will be provided by Table Ten.

Also, check out this neat Guard the Lion Shrine promo video.

Below is a story from Lou Prato, the author and football historian shares his story of the great Penn State tradition in a story he wrote for the Penn State Official Sports Report:

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Renewal of the long-dormant series of football games with old rival Syracuse has brought back memories for many Penn State alumni of the now waning tradition of guarding the Nittany Lion Shrine.

Protecting the revered Lion statue from vandalism was almost a rite of passage for many Penn State students for decades. Almost from the dedication of the Heinz Warneke iconic creation on October 24, 1942, the Nittany Lion Shrine became the target of Penn State’s adversaries in football.  And the weapons of choice were paints – usually paint in the school colors of a rival team.

Although Penn State’s student newspaper would report in 1949 that the Shrine had been painted at least once every year since the fall of 1942, the first significant painting occurred on Sunday, October 29, 1944.  The Collegian, then a weekly published on Friday because of World War II, reported the painting in a front page story on November 3.

The assault, police said, has been at about 2 a.m. when “the Lion was smeared with black tractor and machinery enamel. The parts of the Shrine that were marred include the Lion’s face, paws, and tail.  The word “hepcat” [a popular slang term in that era] was painted on one side…and a partially used can of paint and brushes…were found in the shrubbery.”  An editorial on page two urged the student body to do something in the future “to prevent and discourage a possible repetition of this outrage.”

Apparently the vandals were never found, although some Penn Staters suspected they were from Syracuse, since the teams were playing their annual game that ensuing Saturday, November 4, at Syracuse, and black is one of the Syracuse school colors.

Now, in the 1940s and 1950s, the Lion Shrine was located adjacent to the varsity football field and Penn State’s athletic complex known as New Beaver Field.  Police were initially responsible for watching for vandalism, making nightly patrols past the Indiana limestone sculpture.  If any students went to the scene to guard the Lion in the 1940s, it was done haphazardly for there are no reports in the Collegian of students’ involvement whenever the shrine was hit again during that decade.

Over the last half of the 20th century, the Lion was painted many times. Before the games against Penn State’s most intense rivals of that time – especially Pitt and Syracuse – the student and fraternity overnight watches would often last all week before a game.  It’s impossible to note all the incidents that occurred, including some actual clashes with the would-be amateur painting commandos. But two episodes are an integral part of campus lore, and both involved Syracuse. 

Joe Paterno’s first season as head coach in 1966 was not going well, when his wife, Sue, had an idea before Penn State’s eighth game of the year at Beaver Stadium to help boost student spirit and the morale of her husband’s 4 and 3 team.  By this time, the playing field had moved but the Lion Shrine remained near Rec Hall.  Sue decided to paint the Lion ORANGE on pre-game Thursday and drew up an elaborate plan with her cohorts, Sandra Welsh and Nancy Radakovich, the wives of assistant coaches George Welsh and Dan Radakovich.

The trio of culprits was able to dab some washable orange paint and orange streamers on the statue before being scared off. But they were horrified hours later when they heard police knew who had painted the Lion and planned some arrests. As it turned out, three Syracuse students had raided the shrine after them and had covered the Lion from head to tail.  Police did make those arrests.

On the Monday before the 1978 Homecoming game against Syracuse, the Lion Shrine experienced its greatest physical damage of all time.  “Lion’s ear smashed by vandals,” read the front page headline in the Daily Collegian on October 18, 1978.  “Vandals caused about $250 in damage,” the paper reported, “…by smashing its right ear and spray painting yellow letters on the statue…The eight-inch yellow letters, which spelled either ‘SU’ or ‘SUJ’ were removed by University Maintenance…There was no indication how the ear was broken. It probably was done with a hammer or something pretty substantial.”

The vandals were never identified or caught.

The tradition of guarding the Lion Shrine began to fade in the early 1990s when Penn State joined the Big Ten and no longer competed annually against its old Eastern rivals.  It’s unlikely the Nittany Lions’ Big Ten opponents even know – or care – about the one time, usually harmless, prank.  Nowadays, the only time the tradition and spirit is rekindled is during Homecoming week, and it’s nothing like the old days. 

Since Sue Paterno’s zany foray in 1966, the Lion Ambassadors have trekked to the shrine annually following the Friday evening Homecoming Parade.  As the Ambassadors state on their internet web page, they “throw a huge event called Guard the Lion Shrine, which is jam packed with guest speakers, food and drinks, a DJ and, of course, Penn State Pride.”

About the Author

Ryan Beckler

Ryan is a senior in the Smeal College of Business majoring in Marketing. He is a Lion Ambassador who loves giving tours to prospective students. His favorite activities include distributing news and consuming Chipotle.


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