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Penn State History Lesson: The Origins Of ‘Happy Valley’

Penn State goes by quite a few different names. You’ve got the official epitaph: The Pennsylvania State University (don’t forget the “the”). Then there are the abbreviations of that title, like Penn State and PSU. But perhaps the most popular tags for the university are the most colloquial ones — take Happy Valley, for example. That nickname for Penn State is plastered everywhere, from t-shirts to shot glasses.

Happy Valley is such a popular tag because it’s simply a good description of Penn State. Even though we’re hours away from the sprawling metropolises of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, it doesn’t feel like we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere. The whole town buzzes with this amazing energy, a contagious mix of joy, dedication, good times, and hard work. We really do live in the happiest of valleys.

But where exactly did the term “Happy Valley” come from? It wasn’t the product of an extremely expensive marketing campaign, and it didn’t just start appearing on bumper stickers and coffee mugs overnight. To answer that question, we have to go back to the 1950s.

According to a Town & Gown Magazine article entitled “The Origins of Happy Valley,” the phrase started with one man: Pat O’Brien. O’Brien and his family came to State College so he could finish his Ph.D. in speech communications, and he was later hired by the university as a speech instructor. But before that, O’Brien was a tank commander in the South Pacific.

For O’Brien and his wife Harriet, State College was an escape from the chaos and commotion of their lives. In fact, Pat O’Brien called State College his very own “Happy Valley.” He used the term informally, throwing it around with his friends and family.

After the O’Briens made the move to Centre County, they befriended another couple who loved Penn State and the community just as much as they did. Their names were Ross and Katey Lehman. The Lehmans and the O’Briens became fast friends, as Pat and Ross were both veterans. According to that same Town & Gown article, Pat and Ross were always hanging out and singing Penn State songs together.

Now this friendship may not sound important, but Ross and Katey Lehman were column writers for the Centre Daily Times. They started writing these “Open House” columns in 1954, and continued until 1980. The Lehmans used this column to write about family life in State College. Not coincidentally, the Lehmans starting using Pat’s adorable nickname for State College.

It’s in this “Open House” column that the first printed reference to “Happy Valley” appeared on June 22, 1961. The exact quote, which was written by Katey Lehman, reads like this:

“‘The mountain is better seen when viewed from the plain.’ I don’t know who said that, but it applies to those of us who live here in this ‘happy valley’ and sometimes take it for granted.” 

She didn’t even capitalize it! And she put it quotations! Katey Lehman continued to use “happy valley” in several of her columns. She even titled one of the “Open House” columns “Happy Valley And Jet Age.”

From its humble beginnings in this small column, the phrase “Happy Valley” was adopted by Penn State’s student body. Some students used it to describe the magical feeling of going off to college. No parents, no rules, and more freedom do make Penn State really seem like a valley full of happiness. But for other students, “Happy Valley” was more of a sarcastic term.

Especially in the 1960s and 70s, students would call Penn State a “Happy Valley” to knock on the university’s isolation from the rest of the world. These kids thought that Penn State’s somewhat sheltered existence was unrealistic. According to that same Town & Gown article, “Happy Valley is a joke” was thrown around by these snarky students.

The term’s positive connotation came, not surprisingly, from Penn State’s athletic department. Once Joe Paterno started coaching in 1966, Beaver Stadium was thrown into the spotlight with national broadcasts. The football program’s overwhelming success really made Penn State seems like a “Happy Valley,” so the anchors adopted the phrase as well. Suddenly, everyone who had a television set knew exactly where Happy Valley was.

According to that same Town & Gown article, everyone who used “Happy Valley” to describe Beaver Stadium thought the phrase had been around for decades. Little did they know that the term was first printed just five years before. Before that, it was just one guy named Pat who called this place Happy Valley. Oh, how the times have changed.

About the Author

Anna Foley

Anna is a senior majoring in Communication Arts & Sciences and Spanish with a minor in Theatre. Yes, she went to Spain. Follow her half-funny thoughts @exfoleyator and send her chain emails at [email protected]

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