Penn State History Lessons: The Nita-Nee Society Club
Penn State loves its myths. Whether it’s the murky origin story of the nickname “Happy Valley” or the faux rivalry between Andrew Carnegie and Charles Schwab, Penn Staters love to infuse the University’s history with legend. And who can blame them? The stories that tour guides and Penn State alums tell to their children are truly incredible– full of plot twists so epic and characters so dynamic that they belong on the silver screen, not the middle of central Pennsylvania.
But there’s one Penn State myth that’s, well, far less exciting. It has to do with why sororities live on-campus, instead of in off-campus houses like fraternities. The legend goes that those sorority houses would be considered brothels, due to the amount of unmarried women living in such close quarters.
As it turns out, this myth really has no truth to it. We debunked the long-told legend last year. Penn State sororities were actually allowed to have off-campus houses, and many of them did. But that all changed after World War II. Off-campus housing prices spiked, and the newly renovated on-campus living options were too good to pass up. The sororities have been renting their space from the University ever since.
But what came before the on-campus sororities? That question, it turns out, has an answer with mythic origins as well. Because before there were sororities on campus, there were women’s societies. And the first one was called Nita-Nee Society Club.
The society club, according to the 1986 edition of La Vie, was founded on December 3, 1921. The founding members of the society club were given very specific rules from the University about their new organization. First of all, no greek letters could be used in the club’s name. Secondly, no undergraduate student could pledge the the Nita-Nee Society Club until her second year at school. Finally, the first three years of the society club served as a trial period. In 1924, the entire female student body would take a vote to determine Nita-Nee’s future.
Needless to say, the Nita-Nee Society Club passed that vote. Other similar organizations, like the Sychor Club and La Camaraderie soon joined Nita-Nee. Additionally, the University allowed some of these society clubs to affiliate with national sororities in 1926. That’s how Chi Omega became the first sorority at Penn State.
But back to the Nita-Nee Society Club. Their next move happened in 1928, according to that same edition of La Vie. That year, the University assigned the first five society clubs to on-campus cottages. Nita-Nee received Stone House, while Synchor Club moved into Willard (no, not the building with some of the grossest bathrooms on campus).
Technically, the Nita-Nee Society Club only lived in Stone Cottage for three years. Because in 1931, the club decided to go greek. Thus, the Nita-Nee society club became Penn State’s chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta. The Omicron Eta chapter became the first sorority to call Stone Cottage home.
Hold on, that’s not the end of this history lesson. I was intrigued, as I’m sure you are, by the actual name “Nita-Nee.” I decided to investigate a little, to try to uncover if the name meant anything more than a poor man’s spelling of “Nittany.”
Of course, I found yet another Penn State myth to explain the name. This myth is by far the oldest I’ve ever read. It dates back to before Penn State was founded, and is probably best described as a legend more than a myth. This bit of folklore is attributed to the writer Henry W. Shoemaker, who spent his life documenting the stories and oral histories of rural Pennsylvania.
Like every legend you’ve been told, this story could be just another tall tale. But after all, we are Penn State. We love a good story, especially if it’s about the place we all hold so dear. So take this legend with a grain of salt, but only if you feel it necessary. Here’s the legend of Princess Nit-A-Nee:
According to legend, there once was an old warrior who lived in the valley between Tussey and Bald Eagle Mountains with his wife. Each year, the couple would plant crops in the valley, hoping they would grow before the cold winter came through the valley. But every year, the winter season destroyed the couple’s crops, leaving with them with no food during the coldest months of the year.
The couple, along with the rest of the tribe living in the valley, were couldn’t handle the cold any longer. They were all prepared to leave the valley they called home, until a mysterious maiden named Nit-A-Nee appeared.
Nit-A-Nee’s name meant “windbreaker,” and boy, was that a fitting name. The young women taught the tribe how to build shields to protect themselves from the harsh winter winds. The people who lived in the valley were so grateful to the maiden that they named her their princess.
Princess Nit-A-Nee, like most young maidens in most folk stories, then fell in love. She fell in love with a warrior named Lion’s Paw. But their love was short-lived, as Lion’s Paw was killed in a battle against those same evil winds that plagued the valley’s people. Lion’s Paw’s shield was stolen from him in his sleep, and he was left unarmed to fight the fierce wind.
Princess Nit-A-Nee was distraught when she found out about her lover’s death. She searched for his body in every square inch of the valley. At last, she found Lion Paw’s body, standing straight as if he was waiting for her to find him. The princess threw her arms around her beloved, and carried his body to the center of the valley. There, she began to build a mound of honor around him.
When at last she had finished the mound, a huge storm came blowing into the valley. Thunder shook the valley, and the wind wailed throughout the entire land. The entire tribe looked up to find Princess Nit-A-Nee on top of the mound, stretching her arms out to greet the lightning.
Suddenly, Lion’s Paw’s funeral mound began to grow. It grew and grew, until a new mountain came to join the Tussey and Bald ridges. When the storm cleared, the tribe found a lion and eleven orphaned lion cubs on top of the mountain. Each cub carried Lion’s Paw’s bravery and Princess Nit-A-Nee’s mystery. From that day forward, the lion cubs protected the valley and the people who called it home. Thus, the legend of Mount Nittany was born.
Whether you believe that legend or not, it doesn’t make the story any less thrilling. And hey, without it, the Nita-Nee Society Club would be short one incredibly cool name. The legend of Mount Nittany’s connection to the Penn State and its organizations are a testament to the University’s incredible story.
Penn State was born out of legend and steeped in tradition. Today, it thrives from this unique patchwork of folklore, storied rivalries, tales of bravery, and history. No wonder we all love to call this place home; it’s the stuff legends are made of.