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The Best Senior Class Gifts In Penn State History

With the announcement of the 2015 senior class gift coming today at 2 p.m., we took a look back at the best class gifts to grace Penn State. Penn State has received 151 class gifts in its long history, so we set out to find the most meaningful, inspirational, or otherwise noteworthy class gifts that have both stood the test of time and proudly represented Dear Old State.

1904 – The Old Main Clock


While the familiar toll of the Westminster Quarters ringing from Old Main’s bell tower makes it easy to keep track of time, the clock faces tell anyone on campus the exact hour, down to the minute.

The clocks adorning Old Main were a gift from the Class of 1904, and remained atop the historic building until they were renovated in 2011. For six months, students and passersby had to settle for painted plywood disks to tell time until the newly renovated clocks were installed in Jan. 2012.

The renovation project replaced the broken glass and hands with custom laminated glass, and reused the original cast iron frames and Roman numerals. The original clock mechanism was replaced with a new automated one controlled remotely by the Office of Physical Plant to ensure that all four faces display the correct time.

1909 – George W. Atherton’s Monument 

Image: Wikimedia

George W. Atherton served as Penn State’s president for 24 years, beginning in 1882. He is often called the University’s “second founder” for his help in transforming the school from an unrecognized agricultural college on the precipice of financial collapse into the respected land-grant college that it is today.

Many wonder why the late president’s grave sits on the north side of Schwab Auditorium along Pollock Road. Upon his death in 1906, General James A. Beaver, former Pennsylvania governor and president of Penn State’s Board of Trustees, suggested that Atherton be interred in front of Old Main, but Atherton’s family preferred the then-quieter location beside Schwab. In fact, Atherton personally asked steel magnate Charles Schwab for a gift to build what is today Schwab Auditorium, and took a personal interest in its construction.

The Class of 1909 dedicated a granite monument to honor one of the most important and legendary leaders the university has ever known.

1916 – “Main Gates” at College Avenue and Allen Street

Allen Street
Image: Patrick Mansell,

A gift from the Class of 1916, the first stone pillars that stood at the site of the famous downtown landmark were purchased from the 1904 St. Louis Expo and were topped with statues of two lions holding shields. Dubbed “Ma” and “Pa” Lion by students, they became two of the most popular landmarks on what was then the main campus entrance. Formerly a through street onto campus, the gateway into town was meant to symbolize the transition from college life to the “real world.”

The lions were removed in 1930 when an iron grill was added to the gates, but replica stone pillars now sit at the corners of Pollock and Burrowes roads near the IST Building and the corners of Curtin Road and Atherton Street near Rec Hall.

1932 – Old Main Frescoes


The frescoes located on the upper walls of Old Main’s lobby were created from the ideas of professors Harold Dickson, J. Burn Helme, and Francis E. Hyslop to pay tribute to the University’s Land Grant education. With financial aid from the graduating class of 1932, the professors of art and architectural history hired artist Henry Varnum Poor, a well-known fresco artist, to design and create the frescoes. He began sketches in 1939 and began painting in April 1940 to depict Penn State’s Land Grant history.

It only took Poor four short months to complete his original sketches and finish the roughly 1,300-square foot painting. He was rehired in 1948 to paint additional frescoes on either side of his original piece of work.

1939 – Ski Lodge


In what is certainly one of the most bizarre gifts, the Class of 1939 donated $2,000 to build a ski lodge near the site of the present-day Tussey Mountain ski slope. The lodge burned down in 1948 and was never rebuilt, so the class redirected the insurance proceeds toward the Helen Eakin Eisenhower Chapel.

1940 – The Lion Shrine

lion shrine

But the next class followed up the ski lodge with what is easily the university’s most famous gift. After Class of 1907 graduate Joe Mason saw Princeton’s Tiger and was mocked for not having a mascot before a baseball game against the Ivy League foe, Mason replied with an instant fabrication of the Nittany Lion, the “fiercest beast of them all,” who could overcome even the tiger. Years after the official adoption of the mascot, the Lion was finally given a home and a physical presence for all to see.

The site was chosen as a likely spot for pep rallies, given its strategic location between Rec Hall and the southern end of Beaver Field, then the site of home football games, commencement, and other major university events. Though Beaver Field picked up and moved to the east side of campus in 1960 (becoming Beaver Stadium in the process), the Lion statue remains in its original wooded site. The statue, which cost approximately $5,000 when Heinz Warneke chiseled it out of a 13-ton block of limestone, narrowly won the vote, 243–225, over the other proposed class gift of a scholarship. The Lion was dedicated at Homecoming in 1942.

The funds for a beautification project to spruce up the area around the shrine were donated by the Class of 2012. The renovation, completed by local stonemason Philip Hawk, added a base made out of Pennsylvania rock from Mt. Nittany and the Purdue Mountain Range in Howard, as well as new LED lighting and a wheelchair accessible ramp. The goal of the project was to create a naturalistic environment around the Lion Shrine, designed to appear like the habitat of an actual mountain lion. Thanks to a new video of an animated Nittany Lion leaping from atop its throne, it’s no longer hard to imagine how Penn State’s beloved mascot would appear as a life-like creature.

1966 – Armillary Sphere


Often mistaken for the Class of 1915’s sundial, which is actually located on Old Main Lawn, the armillary sphere on the terrace of Old Main is actually a gift from the Class of 1966.

Armillary spheres were used before the Common Era to measure celestial objects in relation to Earth. The sphere is perched on the back of a turtle, a nod to the Greek god Atlas who held the world on his shoulders.

A common myth held by many Penn Staters is that the sphere marks the exact center of Pennsylvania. The idea is based on simple logic: the sphere is in the center of Pennsylvania’s Land Grant University, in the center of the state, and in Centre County. But it’s not true. According to geographers, the center of Pennsylvania actually sits somewhere between State College and Bellefonte, near the fish hatcheries of Fisherman’s Paradise or on the grounds of the State Correctional Institution at Rockview.

1986 – Elm Trees for the Mall


The “Elm Re-Leaf” campaign was dedicated by the Class of 1986 to fund the purchase of elm trees for the campus mall. Six sizable new elms were planted to replace those lost to Dutch Elm disease, and it at least saved the elms for the time being. Today, the campus features roughly 150 elms, making the university one of the last large stands of elms in the United States.

1997 – Peace Garden


Following a tragic on-campus shooting in which State College native Jillian Robbins shot and killed student Melanie Spalla on the HUB lawn, the students of the Class of 1997 dedicated a Peace Garden to honor the life of their slain classmate.

Located on the lawn between the north end of Henderson Building and just to the west of the HUB, the garden was built to “celebrate a peaceful and civil university community.”

Chris Weideman, a spokesman for the Class of 1997, said creating the Peace Garden “will help preserve open space and give students, faculty, and staff an out-of-the-way spot for study and conversation without all the pedestrian traffic of the malls.” The Peace Garden remains a casual place of reflection to this day.

1999 – HUB Aquarium


Just keep swimming, just keep swimming. The HUB Aquarium is used as the most-frequented meeting place at Penn State. A gift from the Class of 1999, the aquarium is maintained by students on a day-to-day basis and makes the HUB unique in its own right. Featuring 650 gallons of water, the tank is home to 30 different species of fish.

2011 – Penn State Veterans Plaza


The Class of 2011 voted to honor fallen alumnus Lt. Michael P. Murphy, the only Penn State alumnus to be awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military commendation.

Murphy, a 1998 graduate with dual degrees in political science and psychology, was honored in 2005 for his actions as a Navy SEAL during the war in Afghanistan. The feature-length film “Lone Survivor,” based on the best-selling book of the same name, tells the tale of four Navy SEALs including Murphy who were overwhelmed by enemy fighters while on a reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan. Murphy’s final act of bravery ended up costing him his life, but allowed Marcus Luttrell, the only survivor, to be located and taken home.

The Lt. Michael P. Murphy/Penn State Veterans Plaza, located on the east side of Old Main along the Henderson Mall, honors all Penn State veterans. More than 3,200 donors contributed to the project, surpassing $260,000, the largest amount ever raised for a class gift at Penn State.

The plaza’s design features a circular walkway and curved stone wall, centered around an artistic representation of a warrior’s shield, symbolizing honor and sacrifice. The shield’s surface is carved with a “rippling water” effect to evoke a feeling of tranquility.

The curved wall bears the inscription of a Greek phrase, believed to have been spoken by Spartan mothers to their sons before battle, meaning, “With your shield, or on it.”

Honorable Mentions

Numerous class gifts have enriched the Penn State community over the years, and it’s almost impossible to spotlight them all here. Scholarship funds are chief among those that I’ve left off this list, but that should not diminish their value to the university in any way. I suggest you go back and look at the staggering number of gifts from past graduating classes to get a better understanding of how generous the student body has been to its alma mater.

Here are some of the class gifts that barely missed the cut.

  • 1912 – Wireless tower and radio station
  • 1926 – Scoreboard and timer for “new” Beaver Field
  • 1936 – Pipe organ for Schwab Auditorium
  • 1953 – Record album collection for library
  • 1963 – Bronze seal of the University over the fireplace in the main lounge of the HUB
  • 1983 – Agricultural Arena
  • 1990-91 – Creamery Courtyard and Cafe
  • 1992 – Penn State landmark sign in front of Beaver Stadium
  • 2004 – Willard Plaza
  • 2013 – “We Are” Sculpture

Editor’s Note: This story contained a correction to the 1904 class gift.

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About the Author

CJ Doon

CJ is a senior journalism major from Long Island and Onward State's Sports Editor. He is a third-generation Penn Stater, and his grandfather wrestled for the university back in the 1930s under coach Charlie “Doc” Speidel. Besides writing, one of his favorite activities is making sea puns. You can follow him on Twitter @CJDoon, and send your best puns to [email protected], just for the halibut.


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