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‘Storyteller, Teacher, & Friend’: Penn State Remembers Curt Chandler

On Friday, the Penn State community gathered to honor the life of communications professor Curt Chandler, who died on January 31 following a largely private battle with pancreatic cancer.

Hosted by Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications in the Carnegie Building, Chandler’s memorial service sought to reflect on his life through the stories of those who knew him most — his family, colleagues, and many, many students. Although everyone in the room would surely wish such a ceremony wouldn’t be needed, it was clear that Chandler’s legacy will live on within the Penn State community for generations to come.

The night began with a roughly 25-minute video presentation featuring anecdotal snippets from Chandler’s former students and friends. Many reflected on taking classes with him over the past 15 years or working by his side through extracurricular ventures across campus. Some recalled collaborating with him to cover events like presidential elections or even trips down to Puerto Rico or Rio de Janeiro. Others simply thanked him for joining their wedding parties, sparking career interests, and supporting them in any way possible — even after graduation.

A handful of anecdotes truly stuck out among dozens of video tributes. One time, Chandler offered a group of students the socks and gloves off of his car floorboard when they were struggling to stay warm on a trip. Another, he offered to drive students down to Washington, D.C., for an opportunity to work in a newsroom. Some former students even showed family Christmas cards sent from Chandler over the years.

No matter who spoke, the video tribute’s themes stayed consistent and painted Chandler as an otherworldly supportive educator, friend, and mentor. One Penn State alum put it best: “It was a real thing: ‘What would Curt Chandler do?'”

Once the video tribute wrapped up, media studies instructor Kevin Hagopian took the Carnegie Cinema stage to play host for the evening. He thanked a handful of Bellisario staff before handing things over to Dean Marie Hardin.

“As I stand at the front of this room, I’m looking out from a place that was often occupied by Curt Chandler,” Hardin said. “The seats in front of him filled with students, and the screen behind him lit up with a multimedia project designed to spark curiosity and discovery. Now, knowing Curt, I can’t help but imagine this room during those classes transformed into a kind of magic carpet for the creative journey to which he invited every student to join him with a joy and enthusiasm that was absolutely contagious.”

“The work he did in this room was just part of the magic of Curt Chandler,” Hardin continued.

Noting the memorial service’s robust attendance, Hardin emphasized that Chandler touched the lives of countless Penn Staters. She thanked the community for continuing Chandler’s legacy by sharing stories.

“There’s no way in a single program that we could capture Curt’s legacy, but we’re giving it the Bellisario College try,” Hardin said.

Next, Chandler’s daughter, Madeline, took the stage. To the audience’s delight, she shared more personal stories from Chandler’s personal life, including his days leading a Girl Scout troop or canoeing.

“I loved hearing all about how my dad was an educator or a storyteller,” Madeline said. “But specifically to me, my dad was a dad — not just to me, but for so many people…I’m glad I got to share my dad with so many people, but I’m also glad that my dad was mine.”

Following Madeline’s remarks, the ceremony moved on to another video presentation, this time filmed and compiled by Chandler’s son, Vincent. The clips showed Chandler rummaging through his photography collection, showing off everything from his first camera to some beloved photos. Along the way, of course, he offered stories that reflected a lifelong love for photography.

Later, current and former students of Chandler’s took the stage to recall more fond memories with the beloved professor. They remarked on his trademark bellowing belly laugh, his overt kindness, and his love for teaching.

“Curt is one of those people who will always make you feel really good,” said Shadé Olasimbo. “He is a professor who never left a student by the wayside, staying up late answering emails and sending his help right into their professional careers, myself included.”

Former student Michelle Bixby also spoke and implored community members to contribute to the Chandler Grant for Storytelling — a needs-based scholarship that will aid “the budding succeeds of another promising, young visual journalist.”

“Despite his grim diagnosis, Curt wanted to ensure that students still received the help they needed long after he was gone,” Bixby said. “I ask that you consider joining me in continuing Curt’s legacy of generosity.”

Friday’s memorial service ended with a recording of a recent phone call between Chandler and his longtime Pittsburgh Post-Gazette colleague, David LaBelle. Throughout their chat, Chandler was wholly honest about his terminal diagnosis. He reflected on hospital stays and chemotherapy treatments, the latter of which he stopped after bluntly realizing his condition was heading in the wrong direction.

Chandler said he was diagnosed with stage-“3.5” cancer — a somewhat less-aggressive form than a stage-four diagnosis. He noted that he was grateful to still have the strength to reach out to loved ones and make final preparations.

LaBelle and Chandler (right) pose for a photo.

“There’s all this stuff I wanted to do. There’s all this stuff I still want to do, but it’s just not going to happen,” Chandler said. “I wanted to travel with my wife. I wanted to do some study abroad [programs] with students. I have some student projects that are interesting. I wanted to spend way, way more time with my kids. I just have to pick and choose now.

“There’s some things I can change, and there’s some things I can’t,” Chandler continued. “The things that I can’t change, I’m just not going to sweat it.”

Chandler reflected on his legacy, both what’s left behind for his family and his countless students and colleagues at Penn State. He thanked the university for its tireless support over the years, all of which enabled him to tell stories and inspire the next generation of journalists.

Countless students worked with Chandler over the years. Many, in fact, took one of his courses, COMM 271, as their first communications class. But no matter how many classes of his they took or how many projects of his they worked on, it’s clear that students and community members will remember Chandler’s legacy for generations to come. He has, undoubtedly, created a lasting example of what Penn State professors can strive to become.

Chandler’s full memorial service is available to watch on YouTube. An obituary written by the Bellisario College is available online, too.

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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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