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Former Penn State Letterman, Longtime Trustee Jesse Arnelle Dies At 86

Former Penn State football and basketball letterman Jesse Arnelle died on Wednesday, October 21, due to heart disease, according to his online obituary and The San Francisco Chronicle.

Arnelle is survived by his wife, Carolyn Block-Arnelle; his daughter, Isis Bastet Arnelle; and his son, Michael Arnelle. He’s also survived by a niece, nephew, and grandnephew.

Arnelle graduated from Penn State in 1955 following historic career with the Nittany Lions’ football and basketball programs. He helped lead Penn State to the 1954 NCAA Final Four and, at the time, became Penn State’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder with 2,138 points and 1,238 rebounds.

Later, both NFL and NBA teams drafted Arnelle. He chose to join the latter and played with the NBA’s then-Fort Wayne Pistons for 31 games.

Arnelle left professional basketball to serve in the United States Air Force, earn a law degree from Dickinson School of Law, and become an overseas Peace Corps director. He practiced law until his formal retirement in 1998.

“Jesse had an abundance of experience and much success throughout his life, but he always remained strongly connected to Penn State,” President Eric Barron said. “His impressive contributions as a student-athlete are only surpassed by the positive difference he made for the people within our University community and in many others.”

While at Penn State, Arnelle served at the forefront of the university’s civil rights movements. He was elected Penn State’s first Black student body president in 1954 and turned heads by delivering a powerful 25-minute address at Penn State football’s 1968 awards banquet. That speech, found in its entirety here, called on the university to solve its racial issues and injustices.

“Let no one doubt that I love this Pennsylvania State University deeply, but freedom is dearer to me,” Arnelle said in his closing words that night. “So in the words of Martin Luther King, let freedom ring; Let freedom ring from the top of Mount Nittany; Let freedom ring from the bell in Old Main; Let freedom ring from the chairs of every Dean and Department head of every faculty. Let freedom ring! Let freedom ring from the Office of the President of the University; from the meeting room of the Board of Trustees; from the Governor’s oak desk in Harrisburg, and when the day dawns on freedom at my beloved Penn State and all its commonwealth campuses then I will come back and join hands, and we will sing together the prophetic words: Free at last, free at last. Great God Almighty, we’re free at last.”

Additionally, Arnelle served on Penn State’s Board of Trustees for more than 45 years. He co-founded the Penn State Renaissance Fund, which aims to increase and support minority students at Penn State, the Campaign Steering Committee, and Penn State’s National Development Council.

“With his range of life and professional experiences, Jesse brought a unique perspective to the board,” Penn State Board of Trustees President Mark Dambly said. “Jesse was a pleasure to work with, and his forward vision and insight will be missed, as will his good nature and generosity.” 

In his spare time, Arnelle served as president of the San Francisco African American Historical Society. He also enjoyed learning languages (including Spanish, Turkish, and French), traveling, and listening to symphonic, dance, and jazz music. He was also a passionate fisherman, camper, and walker.

Arnelle’s family will host a private viewing ceremony on Friday, October 30 in San Francisco. According to his obituary, his loved ones hope to hold a more traditional service to celebrate his life when the coronavirus pandemic subsides and larger events are safe again.

Onward State sends its condolences to Arnelle’s family in these difficult times.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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