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The Man Behind The Library: Fred Lewis Pattee

Every time a student walks into the university’s main library, they face an unconscious choice: Paterno Library, or Pattee Library?

Every student knows that when they enter the Paterno Library, they are stepping foot into a building named after a Penn State icon. A man who went to the Board of Trustees and stated, “You can’t have a great university without a great library.” A man who took it upon himself, along with his wife, to chair an $18 million campaign to renovate and expand the already massive library. A man who also happened to coach the football team. His story is one that every Penn State student is familiar with.

When a student walks into the Pattee Library, well…they don’t think much of anything. The name has become so associated with the building that many lose sight of the man for which the building was named. Occasionally, a knowledgeable student will remember that Pattee wrote the alma mater, but to many, his Penn State contribution is lost.

Early Life

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Fred Lewis Pattee was born on a farm in Bristol, New Hampshire on March 22, 1863. His parents, both farmers, sent him to study in local public schools. During this time, Pattee was inspired to write after working in a printing shop. In 1884, he enrolled in Dartmouth College and graduated with a Master of Arts degree.

When his aspirations to be a journalist were put on hold due to financial issues, he began to look for work as a teacher. His first post-graduation teaching position was at grammar school in Eatontown, New Jersey. But his poor health kept him from teaching at the school for extended periods.

In 1889, at the age of 26, he married Anna Lura Plumer, a New Hampshire Institue graduate, who was “a most intelligent companion and helpmeet of her husband.” Four years later, the two had their first and only daughter, Sarah Lewis Pattee.

Teaching at Penn State

Pattee began working at Penn State in 1894, after working a variety of jobs and publishing his first work, “The Wine of May, and Other Lyrics.” He began by filling in for the head (and only member) of the English department at what was then called the Pennsylvania State College. He was quickly promoted to assistant professor, and a year later he became a full professor.

While teaching, Pattee became determined to create an American literature curriculum of his own. He was tired of American literature being lumped in with British literature. In 2012, associate professor Julia Kasdorf wrote, “Pattee always insisted on the necessity of studying American literature as a field distinct from English literature, and on the importance of considering literature in relation to culture and geography.”

His efforts were not in vain. He is now regarded as the first professor of American Literature.

Writing the Alma Mater

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(The Alma Mater in Pattee’s handwriting. Photo From: Penn State University Libraries, Digital Collection)

As of 1901, Penn State had no official college song, a fact that deeply upset Pattee. So in April, he took it upon himself to find a song to complement the strong Penn State spirit. His lyrics were in tandem with the hymn “Lead Me On,” an already common commencement song. Pattee felt that the song music was spirited and was well-suited for males to sing.

The song was first performed during the Alumni Dinner of Commencement Week. Upon hearing the song, Governor Beaver (The President of the Board of Trustees) declared it the official Penn State song. University President George W. Atherton agreed. Then, the six-verse song was cut down to three verses and became the official Alma Mater that students sing today.

Pattee was not completely pleased with his original work, specifically about the song’s lyrics “at boyhood’s gate” and “molded into men.” The college had been co-ed for 30 years, but males still dominated the student body.

In his autobiography, which was published posthumously, Pattee suggested changing the lyrics to “childhood,” and instead of “molded into men,” there should be a repeat of “dear old state.” In 1975, International Women’s Year, the Board of Trustees accepted Pattee’s suggestion. This second version stands as the current Alma Mater.

Pattee Library

Library Work

When Pattee began work at Penn State, the school’s original library was located in Old Main. There were about 1,500 volumes, mostly dealing with agriculture. Ten years later, the Old Main library grew too large and was moved to the Carnegie Library, a gift from college trustee Andrew Carnegie. The building had a 50,000 volume capacity. However, it only took 34 years for the building to become overrun with books, and by the time it closed, the library was holding three times the volume capacity.

To compensate for this, the Pattee Library was constructed as a multibuilding from the Public Works Administration-General State Authority project, and its construction lasted from 1937-40. In 1941, at the building’s dedication ceremony, Pattee donated 2,000 volumes of American Literature to his library’s namesake. This gave the library the prestigious title of having the best collection of reference material on early American Literature in the country. The books included nearly all anthropologies on American Literature that were published in the first half of the 1800’s, and first editions of notable early American writers.

Penn State Retirement

A year after the death of his first wife in 1927, Pattee remarried to Grace Gorrell Garee. After his marriage, he made the difficult decision to retire from Penn State and move to Garee’s home state, Florida. So in 1928, Pattee retired with an emeritus rank. While in Florida, he began a professorship at Rollins College in Winter Park. Pattee died on May 6, 1950 at the age of 87.

A year later, his autobiography, titled “Penn State Yankee,” was written

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(Pattee’s bust in the library. Photo from: PSU Libraries)

Personal Work

Pattee was not just a teacher, but also an avid writer. His works include:

Books and Collections

  • The Wine of May, and Other Lyrics
  • The Foundations of English Literature: A Study of the Development of English Thought and Expression from Beowulf to Milton.
  • Mary Garvin: The Story of a New Hampshire Summer.
  • Poems of Philip Freneau. 3 vols.
  • The Breaking Point.
  • A History of American Literature Since 1870.
  • The First Century of American Literature.
  • Penn State Yankee. State College:
  • The House of the Black Ring: A Romance of the Seven Mountains. (Inspired by his time in Happy Valley)

Essays and Articles:

  • “Is There an American Literature?” Dial 21. (November 1896): 243-245.
  • “American Literature in the College Curriculum.” Educational Review 67.5 (May 1924): 266-272.
  • “A Call for a Literary Historian.” American Mercury 2.6 (June 1924): 134-140

Photo: Haliey Rohn/Onward State

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About the Author

Brandilyn Heckman

is a junior majoring in Secondary Education (English). Though she commutes to class from her home in Penns Valley, she refuses to be called a 'townie.' Along with Onward State, she currently interns with the Centre Daily Times. In her spare time, she is unafraid to show her love for Penn State, Landon Donovan, and Captain America. You can follow her on twitter at @Brandilynh or contact her via email with [email protected]

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