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How Penn Staters Can Encounter Their Heritage

“To Thy Happy Children / Of The Future

Those Of The Past / Send Greetings”

This is the inscription that the University of Illinois’s Alma Mater statue bears for the curious passersby. It’s a perfect encapsulation of everything a place of learning exists to achieve—bringing the reality and wisdom of the past alive in the present, so it can do the same for the future. I wrote about this earlier this year, and shared a few pictures including the iconic personification of Alma Mater at the University of Havana:


At the time I mentioned a concept for Penn State that I want to convey in the hope it can be brought to life sooner rather than later.

The concept: a “Penn State Encountering Heritage” initiative. The purpose being to honor monumental men and women in our history by personifying them across campus through monumental statuary that would make them feel closer to a living part of the university experience.

We possess an incredibly rich history, thick with the vision and strength of countless men and women who’ve helped build Penn State into what it has become. But aside from Joe and Sue Paterno (and maybe George Atherton) I doubt most could name the most significant figures in our creation or development. Let alone the personalities of our best cultural values or local folklore.

Why personify leaders of the past

It’s necessary to acknowledge, even despite our incredibly rich history, that we live in a practical time. What practical value is there in beautiful and romantic notions about honoring monumental leaders?

Ben Novak, a retired four-term Penn State trustee, offers tremendous perspective on the practical value of the past. In “Is Penn State a Real University?: An Investigation of the University as a Living Ideal,” he writes:

“The past, because it was lived, cannot really be destroyed. It can only be covered over, like a lush jungle that gets condensed into a pool of oil or a vein of coal, just waiting to be drilled or mined to have its energy released. But you have to dig for it, and you have to know how to use it. When we don’t know what is in the past, we cannot use it, and we cannot release its power.” There’s a reason that millennia after their death we continually re-approach the Greek philosophers. There is an evergreen sort of power in their thinking and stories. There is similar power in Penn State’s past.

“Fortunately,” Novak underscores, “we do not live in a world where the past, present, and future are in airtight cubicles that we must look at separately as though the past is dead and gone, the present sticks, and the future is always bright. Rather, the past, present, and future are fluid, and keep washing over each other. There were a lot of good things in the past that can brighten the present, and a lot of things in the past that seem to be missing in the present, but which could brighten your future.”

“Spirit,” Novak concludes, “is indestructible. But only if, in a practical sense, we allow it to come alive in us.” By personifying some of the most monumental figures in our history, we can enshrine them as a physical and concrete part of the campus. Doing so creates the context for the sort of personal and communal encounters with our institutional spirit that allows it to come alive in each new class.

An abundance of practical value, both institutionally and personally, can be realized in helping the newest members of the Penn State family encounter a few of her oldest as a means to fulfill the Greek challenge at the root of learning, which is to know thyself.

Who deserves a place on campus

So who are the sort of people that could brighten our future if we were to encounter them on campus?

I’m thinking about Evan Pugh, our visionary founding president whose whole story is little known. His spirit lingers near University House, his home. I’m thinking about his remarkable wife Rebecca, Bellefonte native, whose faith in her husband and his vision outshone death itself. She wanders campus as a symbol of fidelity. I’m thinking about George Atherton, who sustained Evan Pugh’s vision at the turn of the 20th century while encouraging and implementing the development of the modern university structure and who, like Evan, died in striving to realize his vision. Only his grave presently remains.

I’m thinking of Wally Triplett, who came to Penn State in 1945 on academic scholarship as one of our first African American varsity football players and who during the 1946 season came to embody our community’s cultural values a generation before integration became a serious national conversation. Triplett, in bronze, stands in spirit near Beaver Stadium, sharing the stories of his time. I’m thinking of Joe and Sue Paterno, who as nominally athletics figures improbably elevated the academic mission of Penn State while supporting the viability of its diverse athletics programs through the powerhouse of college football. The Paternos belong by their library as much as, if not more so, the athletics fields.

I’m also thinking of people from outside the Penn State experience who nonetheless came into it in an historic way, representing some of its best aspects.  I’m thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. at Rec Hall, symbol not only of America’s Civil Rights achievements, but also an historic voice representative of the vision of an inclusive culture who shared his prophetic voice with Penn Staters months before Selma.

I’m even thinking of institutional and legendary symbols like Alma Mater’s personification as the source of knowledge and conveyer of institutional heritage. I’m thinking of Princess Nittany, the folkloric originator of Mount Nittany and the inspiration for our identification as Nittany Lions.

What do we presently have? We have two modest busts of Evan Pugh and George Atherton in Old Main’s foyer, a place few students ever visit. What stories do these small busts share with the people of the campus and community? What physical context is there for gathering there or for sharing moments with others? None.

Each of these men, women, and iconic symbols I’ve mentioned speak in some way to aspects of our university’s character. Each represents some fundamental strain in the DNA of the contemporary community, and each helps unlock part of the secret meaning of the declaration that “We Are Penn State.”


One of my favorite places in Philadelphia is Washington Square. In 1954, planners created what you see above, George Washington and the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier. It’s a remarkable yet restrained and modest honor that creates the physical context for gatherings and ceremony and admiration.

We don’t have to think as grandly as the University of Havana’s Alma Mater, or as traditionally as this Washington Square monument. But we owe it to ourselves to think more aggressively and with bolder vision than tucked-away lobby room decorations.

Where to start

I think history is most relatable when it’s personal. This is why the most engrossing stories of the past are often told through the people at the center of events, rather than through the otherwise context-shorn details of the events themselves.

Thanks to Erwin Runkle’s history in The Pennsylvania State College 1853-1932: Interpretation and Record, we know an incredible amount about the persons and personalities of Evan Pugh and Rebecca Pugh, as well as George Atherton.

To start thinking through how a sculptor might embody our founder, Runkle describes: “a rugged, energetic physique, a straight-forward common sense manner, combined with the heart of a child, and the integrity and moral robustness of mature manhood.”

Later: “On June 6th, 1863, Dr. Pugh was returning to Willow Bank when a severe thunder storm arose. The horse he was driving was frightened, and backed the buggy over the bank into the stream, throwing the future Mrs. Pugh and himself under the vehicle. Dr. Pugh managed to extricate himself, raise the buggy and rescue his fiancee who suffered severely from bruises and shock. Dr. Pugh sustained a broken arm…”

After Pugh’s death in 1864, J.B. Lawes writes Rebecca Pugh: “Although I had my fears that he was taxing his powers too severely, I was watching his course with great interest, as I felt certain that if he lived he would be the founder of a great college. I hope some permanent memorial is proposed. I shall be proud to become a contributor in honor of a man whose character and abilities I so greatly admired.”

Each of these vignettes brings Evan Pugh to life in a special way. There are countless more examples throughout Runkle’s book alone. Writing more than 80 years ago, Runkle points a lingering truth about J.B. Lawes 1864 proposition: “That memorial remains to be erected; somewhere in the Commonwealth there should be the will and consecrated means to give it fitting form and substance.”


So how can a “Penn State Encountering Heritage” initiative be implemented? I think there are a few opportunities. I think the most natural home for something like this is among student leadership, working to institutionalize this in the way that Homecoming exists to perpetuate culturally significant traditions.

In terms of revenue, support through a time-limited “Encountering Heritage” allocation approved by students or voluntarily crowdfunded for a period of time makes sense as one of many potential solutions.

But if student leaders aren’t keen, an alternative home for such an initiative is the Penn State Alumni Association—specifically through an Alumni Council standing committee. Another possibility is through the Alumni Association’s staff-led programming efforts wherein alumni might be engaged broadly—almost of an alumni version of the Senior Class Gift concept, wherein alumni would vote and support on a recurring five or ten year schedule.

Another possibility is through an Alumni Association partnership with Homecoming or the Senior Class Gift committee to jointly administer such an initiative.

The opportunity exists. The important thing is to start.

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About the Author

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