The Phi Psi 500: Charity, Racing, And The Pursuit Of Alcohol
The 1960s and ’70s were an illustrious time in America, boasting free speech and free spirits, and encapsulating the ultimate essence of chill and relaxation. The decades treated Happy Valley no differently, with the grooviest musical artists rolling through town, and festivals like Gentle Thursday setting up on Old Main lawn, with frisbees and balloons in tow.
However, there is one event that lasted more than 25 years and brought together students, faculty, and townies alike in a university-wide bar tour: The Phi Psi 500.
Charity, racing, and the pursuit of alcohol — this was the implied constitution of the Phi Psi 500, an annual 1.1-mile race that took place in downtown State College. Hosted by the fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, the first-ever run included six bars, countless costumes, and ultimately benefited a charitable cause.
The first race took place in the spring of 1969, and began to flourish throughout the ’70s, reaching its peak attendance and popularity in the mid-’80s. Turn out for the great cause was high, and dedicated drinkers lined the streets to watch everyone run by, enthralled by the entertainment and outfit coordination of those involved. According to Ray McCormick, chairman of the Phi Psi 500 in 1975, the crowds of people watching were 10 rows deep, and the town gathered around the race in support.
However, the late 1980s brought an anxiety about the inclusion of alcohol, and, according to the State College Borough Council, the event was unruly and “out of hand.” The bar tour aspect of the Phi Psi 500 began to be phased out, and by 1992, the event was entirely alcohol free, consisting primarily of a pageant-like procession and entertainment. After 1992, there is no documentation of the event.
Imagine: Before the controversy of State Patty’s Day, and even before Arts Fest became a drunken tradition, there existed a Penn State holiday devoted entirely to drinking and fundraising, one that was wholly supported by university officials, charities, and students. The Phi Psi 500 was unfortunately short-lived, existing from 1969-92. Yet one could only imagine, should it still exist, the involvement and dedication of the students, and the sheer amount of money that would have been raised.
Today, fraternities and sororities seem to be bustling; Greek life has become more popular, with their activities and pledge numbers growing each year. This was not always the case — in the late ’60s, Penn State fraternities were actually losing members, with many students seeking a more alternative, independent lifestyle.
Jim Hedrick, a Phi Psi graduate of 1967, said that during his years at Penn State, the fraternity was searching for a way to inform more students about itself. Sig Chi’s Derby Days was catching the attention of many sororities, and Phi Kappa Psi wanted to do something similarly noticeable. According to Hedrick, the brothers tossed around the ideas of bike and trike races, but the area seemed too hilly and nothing seemed to click. The Indiana University in Bloomington had a Little 500 bike race — but Penn State’s chapter wanted to do something a little different.
After the realization that the skill everyone had in common was drinking — something that has not changed a bit since the ’60s — the brothers began looking at a timed relay race, one beginning and ending at their house at 403 Locust Lane, and including the bars downtown. Finally, Phi Psi had its concept, and just needed to put it into action.
Getting the bars behind the idea wasn’t an issue. As far as the support of the university and State College, the event would raise money, and the fraternity would pick a local charity each year to which the money would be donated. Then, according to Hedrick, some “covert inquiries” had to be made in order to see if other fraternities and sororities would participate, but without revealing the event idea itself, lest it be taken. Yet seemingly without a hitch, everything fell into place, and the brothers gained the support they needed to make their timed drinking relay into a legitimate happening.
Joseph Korsak, the chairman of the first two races, was only 19 when he helped with the first Phi Psi 500. According to Korsak, getting the borough behind the event was incredibly simple. “The borough bent over backwards to cooperate,” he said. Other brothers who were 21 and older visited the downtown bars to request partnership with the event, and were able to get them on board — although the drinks would not be included in the entrance fee of $10, so every runner had to bring quarters for their beverages. (That’s right — only 25 cents per drink!)
Although it may be harder to understand in today’s world, where the regulation of drinking and partying is much higher than it used to be, the fundraiser initially benefited the Centre Community Hospital. “No one had difficulty with the irony of a beer race for a hospital,” Korsak said.
The first Phi Psi 500 shirt.
Finally, the discussions and preparations were complete, and in the spring of 1969, the first ever Phi Psi 500 made its way throughout downtown State College.
“I would say that the first year was quiet,” Korsak said. Certainly, planning such an elaborate and comprehensive fundraiser was a success; but in the first year, only about 30 people participated, primarily serious competitors from fraternities, with a small amount of money raised in the end.
It quickly grew.
By the time Ray McCormick took over as chairman in 1975, the race was well underway and the entire 1.1-mile course was outlined by rows upon rows of spectators. The bars downtown were still involved, with the favorites being the Phyrst (the first stop on the course), the Rathskeller, the Brewery (although then it was known as the Futura), and a bar that is unfortunately no longer in business called Crazy Carl’s Brickhouse Tavern (it was situated beside the Phyrst and down the alley, near where Rita’s is today).
Canoe races were also a staple of the 500 by this point, according to both McCormick and Korsak. With the ladies of Greek life wanting to become involved, women of around 20 sororities would enter the competition in teams consisting of five sisters and, in the Phi Kappa Psi house, would chug-race each other. Teams would line up on opposite sides of a table, and, at the drop of a cup, would begin chugging down the line, one girl after another. Imagine flip cup, except less flipping, and more drinking.
To add to the spirit of the races, the Phi Psi brothers were the coaches of various sorority teams, cheering on and encouraging the participants.
In the wise words of McCormick, “Always put your best chugger last.” (His wife was the anchor of her Delta Gamma team.)
A canoe race, looking like a scene from your most recent apartment party.
The festivities surrounding the Phi Psi 500, such as the canoe races, were as exciting as the race itself. With the addition of an “Anything Goes” category, some participants decided to focus less on the competitive running aspect, and more on the frivolity of themed costumes and group performances. Korsak candidly reminisced, “Teams of completely inappropriately dressed people would walk through the course: make-believe priests, nuns, doctors with a sick person on a gurney.”
That’s what the spectators wanted to see — college students, dressed up and aiming to entertain. The sidewalks were lined with people wanting to see what hilarious costumes would walk by next, and they eagerly cheered on their peers in the less serious competition. Just as some runners of the Boston Marathon dress up to amuse the crowd, so did the college students by throwing on a tutu or acting like a boy band.
A runner in the Phi Psi 500 of 1981 clowns it up. (Photo: La Vie)
However, not all the fun was restricted to the members of the “Anything Goes” category, or to the social drinkers who remained in the Phi Kappa Psi house.
In 1975, when McCormick chaired, two main personalities of the community were heavily involved. Jo Hayes, the mayor of State College, was a Phi Psi brother; in addition, John Oswald, Penn State’s president at the time, was also a Phi Psi. In McCormick’s own words, “We ruled and were able to shut down the town of State College for a day.” With the support of the university and town alike, the Phi Psi 500 really reached its peak, gathering everyone together downtown.
The police were also involved — but not to restore order or arrest hooligans. “We had five-person relay races,” McCormick said, “where I had five State College policemen competing against five Philadelphia policemen.” Believe it or not, the local law enforcement got involved in the best way, taking part in the festivities themselves and having a good time with the rest of the town. “I believe the locals won that race,” McCormick recalled.
The Phi Psi 500 was not for the faint of heart. (Photo: La Vie)
Of course, alongside all the shenanigans and funny costumes, there were some serious contenders. According to McCormick, one of the fastest — if not the fastest — records for the 1.1-mile, five-beer chugging minimum was five minutes and 45 seconds. Think about that the next time you down a beer at the Phyrst.
The event continued to flourish, and along with the numbers came big names, big events, and genius preparations and discoveries.
In order to train for the feat of physical endurance and digestive excellence, some fraternities would set beer stops at strategic locations on the golf course and practice running between them, simply to become better contenders.
Fraternities and sororities eventually made the weekend of the Phi Psi 500 the same weekend as formal, in an effort to further marry Greek events together, so that their spring celebrations could exist within the span of three days.
Penn State fullback and future Steelers player Franco Harris was the MC of the race one year, lineman and future Packers player Dave Robinson another, and even Joe Paterno himself contributed his support, helping to create ads for the race.
Although the first race consisted of less than 30 participants, only 13 years later the involvement hit 1,400 people. The highest recorded registration total was over 3,000 runners, with tens of thousands of spectators lining the streets of State College. Because of the sheer amount of people, the race was later capped at around 2,000 participants.
It would have been a sight to see: Thousands of college students, alumni, and townies all together, sprinting through downtown, with quarters taped to their arms for easy access to beer money. People would run to the next bar, rip the quarter off their arm and throw it onto the counter, chug their beer, and keep on going.
A runner from the Phi Psi 500 of 1977 makes his way along the course. (Photo: La Vie)
As far as everyone was concerned, the race itself was a community experience. Everyone participated, supported it, and drank. This was truly different from the partying that we see today; there was less concern for the social stigma of a town gathering together to race and drink because the stigma simply didn’t exist.
Korsak reflected on the event’s earlier years: “Drinking beer in the late ’60s wasn’t a ‘crime’ back then, the way it is today.” Seeing your college professor or the owner of a local restaurant running down Beaver Ave. to buy his or her next drink wasn’t strange; in fact, it was welcomed.
For many, the Phi Psi 500 was a necessary break from the stress of schoolwork. Occurring every April, the race was a precursor to finals week, and provided the relaxation students needed to make it through the end of classes and following exams.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and the push to retract the bar-related part of the Phi Psi 500 began in the late 1980s. Although the race was still a good cause and continued to raise money for local charities, it was the public drunkenness of the 10-row-deep crowds that was the main source of the issue.
A Daily Collegian article from 1985’s race reported that, even when drinking soda rather than beer at the bars became an option, the drunkenness and vandalism that the event incited proved too much to maintain. More policemen were called in to patrol the area, and none would have the day off, hoping to control the spectators.
However, even with the extra security and open container law, the event still caused issues on the streets, in the bars, and even in various fraternities that were situated alongside the Phi Psi 500 course. The university became more and more engaged with the event, honing it in and calming it down, until it was finally alcohol-free in 1992.
The Phi Psi 500, which began as a way to combine the true loves of Penn Staters — fundraising and drinking — and which brought together the community in a stress-free event, was lost to the changing times and drinking laws. The lighthearted nature of the 1960s and ’70s became a thing of the past, and with it went the carefree gatherings such as Gentle Thursday and the Phi Psi 500. For now, we have our State Patty’s and Arts Fests to abide our drinking interests, and THON satisfies the need for fundraising.
But never forget the Phi Psi 500, where Penn State alums joined the two in glorious, drunken matrimony.
Those were the days… (Photo: La Vie)
Feature Photo: La Vie, ’85 | Many thanks to the brothers of Phi Kappa Psi for their contributions and stories.