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When Jim Met Nancy: A 1959 Penn State Love Story

As Cupid comes around this Valentine’s Day, there is certainly no shortage of happy couples in Happy Valley.

When Jim Gilbert met Nancy Baier at The Corner Room in 1959, the ultimate Penn State love story was about to unfold. 

It was the kind of love few get to enjoy and the kind that would last them a lifetime. 

“And, it’s been that way ever since,” Nancy said. 

After graduating from University Park in 1961, the couple has been married for over 60 years with two children who attended Penn State. Both Jim and Nancy are second-generation Penn Staters, too, and now have grandchildren who claim the unique title of fourth-generation students. 

Courtesy of Jim and Nancy Gilbert

A Phi Mu Delta brother majoring in Hotel Management, James “Jim” Gilbert came to campus with his two older brothers, also in his fraternity. Jim’s mother began the family lineage of Penn Staters, attending the university in 1923 and even rooming in Old Main as one of the few women on campus at that time.

A synchronized swimmer, Nancy B. Gilbert majored in recreation education and advocated for women’s athletics before Title IX standardized women’s sports. She soon became a sister of Alpha Omicron Pi, the sorority often paired with Phi Mu Delta. 

Through a sea of sisters and brothers, the two caught each other’s eye one afternoon at The Corner Room. In a future-shaping moment, fate took over for the lifetime to come.

“It was an after-class activity,” Jim said. “We probably had an ice cream sundae and a cup of coffee maybe.”

Introduced then as sophomores, the two started to get to know each other on the Greek life scene. They even double-dated from time to time, described quite comically by Nancy in nature.

“That was ‘B.J.,’ before Jim!” Nancy said. 

As junior year began for the duo, Jim asked Nancy out on a date for the first time. In a tradition recognizable to any Penn State couple, the future Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert attended the first home game of the 1960 football season together.

“It was because he had heard about my mother’s wonderful tailgates,” Nancy said. “We tailgated right in front of Eisenhower Chapel.”

For this very first date in the crisp fall air, kickoff was at 1:30 p.m. and the game wrapped up just three hours later. 

“Then, we’d go back to the fraternity house and have beer and spaghetti for dinner on Saturday night,” Jim said. 

Courtesy of Jim and Nancy Gilbert

Under the supervision of their house mother, Phi Mu Delta’s brothers would invite their dates back to 500 Allen Street for supper. But at that time, the University had a strict curfew for female students.

“And then, he had to bring me back to the dorm and then go back to the fraternity,” Nancy said.

Strolling home through the State College moonlight, Jim joined Nancy on the first of many walks together. Then, he tagged back up with the boys while Nancy reunited with sorority sisters in McElwain Hall. 

“Well, usually we took our dates back to the dorms, and then we’d go to the New College Diner to get something to eat, like stickies,” Jim said.

Continuing to date through the semester, the young couple enjoyed a variety of on-campus events, including lavish dances, gym meets, and themed fraternity parties. Most were included in the $1,000 price tag of yearly tuition, but a few standout events cost a bit extra for the college kids. 

“I think The Kingston Trio was 25 cents, and we saw them in Rec Hall,” Nancy said. “Bill Cosby for a dollar or two, also.”

As the fall turned to winter, the couple decided to make their relationship official by the standards of the time, and the two got “pinned.”

“They would serenade us in McElwain,” Nancy said. “The girl would go to our window… The fraternity would be down on the grass, and they would sing and present with a dozen roses.”

Accompanied by a chorus of brothers on a chilly December evening, James asked Nancy to wear his fraternity pin, honorably placed next to her own sorority pin and over her heart. 

“But you couldn’t get together!” Nancy said. “The girl had to stay in the dorm, and the guys were down in the courtyard there at McElwain because it was after nine o’clock.”

Following the excitement on the lawn, the sorority sisters would gather for their own celebration.

“Then, the sorority got all together in the room and you’d pass a candle around,” Nancy said. “If it went around once, you had gotten pinned, and if it went around twice, you had gotten engaged… The person that happened to would then blow out the candle, and everything would break loose.”

The following November, in 1960, Jim proposed to Nancy at the Christmas tree farm that eventually became their family home in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania. Jim then traveled to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to serve in the National Guard and often cooked sticky buns for officers with his Penn State talent.

Two years later, the couple was married in Nancy’s hometown of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Almost the entirety of the bridal party was made up of fellow Penn Staters, making it a proper blue-and-white wedding.

“There were gardenias on the top of the cake too, but we didn’t smash it on each other. We were nice,” Nancy said. “…We weren’t allowed to kiss at the altar, either.”

“There were a lot of no no’s back in those days,” Jim said with a laugh.

Life soon brought the pair back to University Park, and Nancy took on a role as the Dean of Women’s Staff at Penn State. Working together and living in McElwain Hall as a couple now, the Gilberts returned to a weekly date night spot: table C4 at The Tavern. 

“On one of our first dates, that’s where Nancy had her first legal drink, and I wasn’t old enough at that time to have a beer at that table,” Jim said. 

Becoming beloved regulars at The Tavern, Jim and Nancy became fast friends with late owner Pat Daugherty. Staff would expect their patronage weekly, and C4 would be waiting for them upon arrival.  

“Every time we’d go there, Pat would come by and talk to us at our table,” Nancy said. “And, Jim would say, ‘When are you gonna put that brass plaque on there that says, ‘This is Jim and Nancy Gilbert’s table?’” 

A few visits later, Jim and Nancy also celebrated their milestone 50th wedding anniversary at the same spot.

When remodeling The Tavern in 2021, Daugherty gifted Jim and Nancy their table, six decades after the couple first sat there together. 

“We were given the table before Thanksgiving of ‘21 and we’ve been sitting at it since ‘59,” Nancy said.

Today, the table stands proudly in their State College home and served the Gilbert Thanksgiving dinner in 2021. As the centerpiece of their living room, it is still in use, often housing a puzzle in progress by the couple.

Courtesy of Jim and Nancy Gilbert

“Now, we can put the plaque on it ourselves…It’s like having a child, you know?” Jim said. “We’ve had that table the whole time.”

Sitting together for over 60 years at The Tavern, the couple also found a lifelong tradition to withstand the test of time. On each visit to C4, Jim and Nancy ensured their table’s candle was lit and has done the same for every dinner of their marriage.

“We always have candlelight for dinner,” Jim said. “We have not had dinner here without candles or candlelight, and we turn the other lights off.”

“Every night since we’ve been married,” Nancy said. “Our corner cupboard’s full of candles!”

Staying true to tradition and to each other, the couple fell in love and navigated life’s many twists and turns. 

“Well, you have to cooperate… be honest with each other, and sympathize with each other,” Nancy said.

Laughing and loyal for over 60 years, the couple has made a lifetime of love look easy and synthesized their endless memories with simplicity. 

“We just enjoy each other’s company,” Nancy said. 

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About the Author

Lizzie Palmieri

Lizzie is a junior majoring in Marketing and Psychology from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Ask her about Disney World, Diet Pepsi, or dancing on the Jumbotron at Beaver Stadium. When not causing general trouble, Lizzie enjoys playing golf, performing in the theatre, and being the CEO of reorganizing the fridge. Her favorite thing to do is hang out with her sassy sidekick, 19-year-old Italian Greyhound, Macaroni. Follow her on Twitter @lizziepalmieri if your deepest desire is bestie vibes only.

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