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From Wally Triplett To Canceled: The Story Of The All In Statue

The Joe Paterno statue incites endless public debate among Penn Staters, but behind closed doors, the missing depiction of another Penn State legend has fueled controversy over the past few years.

Trailblazer Wally Triplett passed away last week at the age of 92. He was Penn State football’s first African-American starter, the first African-American to earn a varsity letter at Penn State, and the first African-American Penn Stater to be drafted into the NFL.

Triplett earned an academic scholarship and came to Penn State in 1945, becoming one of the first African-Americans in Penn State football history. He also co-founded the Gamma Nu chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity during his time as a student. He played at Penn State through 1948 and earned his degree in health and human development before being drafted by the Detroit Lions.

The story of Triplett’s team began in 1946, when Penn State was supposed to play Miami. At the time, most southern schools wouldn’t allow their teams to compete against teams with African-American players unless they agreed not to let these players travel. So the team put it to a vote in Old Main, and the game was canceled, a decision made eight years before Brown v. Board of Education was passed.

The following year, Penn State football was undefeated with a 9-0 regular season. Of the four bowl games in existence at the time, only the Rose Bowl allowed African-American players, but Penn State was headed to the Cotton Bowl.

If the Nittany Lions were to play in the game, no African-American players would be allowed to participate. Penn State was rumored to be meeting with its opponent, Southern Methodist University, to discuss removing these players from the bowl game team. This idea didn’t sit well with Triplett and his teammates.

Team captain Steve Suhey was against those meetings and, as the legend goes, uttered the words no Penn Stater will ever forget: “We are Penn State. There will be no meetings.”

The Penn State players’ act of solidarity proved worthwhile. Triplett became the first African American to play in the Cotton Bowl and caught the game-tying touchdown in Penn State’s 13-13 draw with SMU. He was inducted into the Cotton Bowl Hall of Fame in 2018.

Triplett’s story isn’t about football. It’s about the Penn State spirit in the team, as described by Michael Weinreb in The Penn Stater Magazine — “a group with such an inextricable bond that they rose above the tensions and preconceptions and prejudices of the era, a group who stood up for civil rights out of loyalty to the bonds they forged on a football field.”

After Triplett’s death, the Centre Daily Times published a column advocating for the university to build a monument in his honor. It was Triplett’s dream — a public display of the team that impacted not just football, but the civil rights movement.

“That was his ultimate goal that he never achieved,” Lou Prato, Penn State football historian and former director of the All-Sports Museum, told the CDT. “He was able to get a historical marker, which is outside Beaver Stadium near the museum entrance. It’s there, you can go and read it. But that (monument) was his ultimate goal.”

But a big part of this story was missing from the Centre Daily Times’ retelling — the part where students approved a Wally Triplett statue that Penn State’s bureaucracy prevented from ever coming to fruition.

The idea reached the ears of the right people when a proposal titled “Wally Triplett/Steve Suhey Statue Honoring Diversity, Inclusion, and The Penn State Spirit” came before the Facilities Fee Advisory Committee (FFAC) in March 2016.

The FFAC, co-chaired by the presidents of the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) and the Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA), made recommendations for the spending of student facilities fee dollars. The committee included eight other students as well as senior administrators, including the vice president of student affairs, senior vice president for business and finance, and the athletic director.

Kevin Horne, who authored the original Triplett proposal and was co-chair of the FFAC at the time, is now an attorney with Student Affairs and declined to comment, saying only that he’s hopeful the current students who continue to manage the fee will consider other projects in the future that “promote the unique aspects of the Penn State spirit and its stories.” Emily McDonald, the other FFAC co-chair who supported the project at the time, could not be reached for comment.

The Triplett/Suhey Statue proposal set the scene for erecting such a tribute: While other institutions use their campuses to eternalize the personalities behind their best cultural values or local folklore, Penn State’s campus remains vastly underutilized when it comes to instilling that sense of spirit in the student body. Despite efforts to honor the university’s past, Penn State does not contain a single statue of an actual person — not Evan Pugh, Penn State’s first president, not Rebecca Ewing, Penn State’s first female graduate, not Jesse Arnelle, Penn State’s first African-American student body president, and certainly not Wally Triplett.

“There are many Penn State leaders and stories that deserve more recognition on campus… but Triplett is the best choice to begin a long-term commitment of personifying important Penn Staters and their stories on campus,” the proposal reads. “Penn State, while obviously not perfect, was ahead of the times when it came to racial issues in intercollegiate athletics. It’s about time we [start] telling that story and honoring those who made it possible.”

The FFAC approved the proposal unanimously and expected the statue would soon come to life thereafter, like with previous approvals. Members planned to form a student committee to solicit, review, and critique proposals from artists before landing on a cost estimate, according to minutes from the FFAC meeting. They would acknowledge the ongoing statue issue with President Barron and other administrators, hoping to find a time when the Triplett statue could be celebrated, not denigrated.

But the ensuing process wasn’t so smooth.

Initial concern from administrators focused on the location of the statue and how alumni might react if a Triplett statue were built before the Joe Paterno was (if it ever would be) returned, according to a former member of the FFAC.

The proposal suggested two potential locations: Beaver Stadium (ridden by controversy after the razing of the Paterno Statue) or the courtyard between the Kern and Chambers Buildings, the former location of New Beaver Field, where Penn State football played its home games from 1909 to 1959.

Student advocacy of the second location — the former site of New Beaver Field — seemed to appease administrators at the time, and students involved in the FFAC were under the impression that the statue would be constructed.

After that semester, the FFAC, as it then operated, was dissolved to make way for the current Student Fee Board, which effectively absorbed the FFAC and the Student Activities Fee Board. Some of those on the FFAC had graduated when it approved the statue, and others hadn’t heard updates in months. Eventually, they heard “through the grapevine” that administrators had further concerns about the Triplett statue, specifically that Triplett was not encompassing of all diversity, and the potential pushback for creating a statue of a person other than Paterno.

By this time, it was fall 2016, and the university was preparing to kick off its “All In” campaign — a year-long effort to promote diversity and inclusion. Barron first introduced the initiative to Penn State’s Board of Trustees in September, including a permanent tribute to “All In.”

“We have a group led by Marcus Whitehurst and representing groups from across the university to consider a broad set of ideas, many, many ideas on how it is that we pay tribute to our history and reflect our hopes and plans for the future of Penn State,” Barron said.

He described an example of what the tribute might look like: putting words on “some permanent structure” that reflected history and a commitment to diversity and inclusion. “One of the ones that’s got to be there is ‘We play all or we play none,’” Barron said, referring to the Triplett story.

There was no mention of the FFAC approval or the original student-driven proposal. The Triplett statue had officially become the “‘All In’ Commemorative Piece” complete with its own committee completely separate from the then-dissolved FFAC and the students who had worked on the proposal.

Four months later, the university’s Office of the Physical Plant (OPP) put out a call for design submissions. A few dozen submissions were received, but students on the committee were “unanimous in their disdain” for the ideas and mockups presented to them, according to a source familiar with the meeting. They suggested a few of their own ideas and agreed that none of the submissions should move forward, leaving under the impression that student opinion had decided the best action.

Summer break came and passed, and to the students’ surprise, the university announced the winning statue design (pictured below) at the end of August 2017. Several student members of the “All In” committee emailed administrators expressing their dismay over the process and the selection of that particular design, which they had specifically shot down in the aforementioned meeting.

Rendering Courtesy of Penn State

The “All In” commemorative piece was to be constructed on the eastern side of Old Main, also utilizing trees already existing in the location. It was designed to “evoke a forest with tree elements of different heights and sizes inviting the visitor into a clearing” and create a “sunflower effect” with the steel trees facing toward the large space in the middle of the piece.

From the beginning, the design was criticized for the same reasons the “All In” campaign itself was condemned. Rather than creating true change in the realm of diversity and inclusion on campus, it was hypothetical — an empty promise at best, and an advancement of a bullshit public relations campaign at worst.

In an apparent attempt to remedy their dissent, administrators invited the students who returned that semester to a meeting with sculptor Juan Ruescas, who designed the winning piece and was also an architecture professor. Unfortunately for Ruescas (who, let me be clear, is in no way at fault in this whole debacle), he was not briefed prior to the meeting and seemed to be blindsided by the opposition and anger from students, according to a source who attended the meeting.

Soon after the meeting, students were informed that the project had been canceled and the “All In” statue idea was no more.

Penn State didn’t want to admit it, though, and it seemed the university would rather have let the project “slip through the cracks.” Penn State Spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in October 2017 that the university and student leaders were “reconsidering” the commemorative piece and the next steps in the process.

“As the effort has progressed, many new opportunities have been introduced, from expanded diversity recruitment initiatives to national conferences and continued awareness efforts,” Powers said. “Over time, it has become clear that many student leaders would like to reconsider the commemorative portion. Other students are supportive.

“President Barron will be in touch with the campus art committee, the artist, Juan Ruescas, who has done a masterful job in his conceptualization of the project, and student leaders in considering next steps,” Powers added. “The campus will let stakeholders know how the university is proceeding on this effort at the right time.”

It’s now been more than a year, and apparently “the right time” has yet to come.

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About the Author

Elissa Hill

Elissa is a senior public relations major and the managing editor of Onward State. She is from Punxsutawney, PA [insert corny Bill Murray joke here] and considers herself an expert on all things ice cream. Send questions and comments via e-mail ([email protected]) and follow her on Twitter (@ElissaKHill) for more corny jokes.

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