Penn State’s Hidden Treasures: How my hometown saved civilization

My hometown — Tyrone, Pa. — has one favorite son: Fred Waring.

The man who taught America how to sing — and how to make a margarita more efficiently — is, by far, the most famous person to come from the small central Pennsylvania town of about 5,000 people that’s a little over 25 miles south of State College. There are some others: D. Brooks Smith,  well-known as a federal judge and not as well-known as my cousin; Ethan Stiefel, a former principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, and actress Emme Marcy Rylan, of Bring It On 3 and soap opera fame, all have Tyrone connections.


Here’s a shot of just some of the Fred Waring memorabilia in the Special Collections wing of the Pattee Library. Waring, born in Tyrone, Pa., in 1900, was a Penn State distinguished alumnus and trustee. He also had some spiffy threads.

(Worth noting: There was another guy, Chick, who used to stand on the street corner in front of Burger King and do some sort of unscripted avant-garde Tai Chi that we all called “Chick-aerobics”  and who, along the way, achieved some regional fame in a David Letterman-Real People-Ripley’s Believe It or Not kind of way.)

But, as yet, none of these famous Tyroners have their own collection at Penn State. Fred Waring, distinguished alumnus and trustee of the University,  does. It’s on the third floor west of Pattee Library, and it contains a fascinating amount of stuff that could interest researchers in music, broadcasting, local history, genealogy and other fields.

Tim Babcock, coordinator of the Special Collections Library, Audiovisual and Fred Waring Collections,  gave me a special tour of the room. It’s typically open Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., but Tim took me on a lunch hour tour. I thought he did this because I was from Tyrone and that held sway, but now I’m pretty sure it’s just because Tim’s a nice guy.

There are a lot of Waring-related treasures in the room, some of them amazed me and, since I’m from Tyrone, I know a thing or three about Waring’s career already. Here are a few:

Waring was a musical innovator. He was the first bandleader to successfully merge choral music with Big Band music. It was a style that was all his own.

He almost discovered Jimi Hendrix. Waring discovered guitarist Les Paul and gave him a job in his band. Les Paul, if I remember the story correctly, saw Hendrix play in Greenwich Village and went down the next day to sign him, but — ‘Scuse me I just missed this guy — Jimi had jetted off that morning to England and into rock and roll history. OK. So, this is a stretch, but it was worth a shot.

And, speaking of stretches: he saved civilization. Waring was something of an tinkerer. He studied architectural engineering at Penn State and teamed with another engineer to help perfect and promote the Waring Blendor. Waring, always the innovator, put the “o” in Blendor, a few of which are on display in the special collection.

Waring, though not much of a drinker himself, used the blender to mix drinks for his band. Jonas Salk, however, saw another function for the blender besides whipping up a quick round of daiquiris for the horn section. He used the Waring Blendor to prepare cultures for his experiments to develop the polio vaccine. (It was originally called the pelio vaccine before Waring re-branded it. Kidding!)

And, thus, Tyrone saved civilization. And, to a lesser extent, psychedelic rock.

At least that was my take-away.

Just a note: I’m interested in creating a series of posts about the hidden treasures you can find at Penn State. If you know any — or would like me to look into a rumor of a hidden treasure — just let me know. Add a request in the comment section.

Nittany Lyin’ Tales: Penn State’s grand tradition of campus legends and tall tales

The first lectures that a few thousand newly arrived Penn State students receive each year when they arrive on the University Park campus usually cover the stories and traditions of the campus. The students’ friends, fellow classmates and upper classmen typically administer these Penn State 101 lectures.

Some of these stories are even true.

But a lot of the tales told in dorm rooms, discussed on the Old Main lawn and passed around the HUB-Robeson Center are part of a much grander university tradition: campus legends. Like their urban legend counterparts, campus legends are slightly twisted tales about the campus, its buildings and its people.

Here are a few for your April Fool’s Day enjoyment:

Photo by Patrick Mansell

The Center of Controversy
For most Penn Staters, the University Park campus is the center of their universe, so it’s not a stretch that they believe the campus is the geographic center of the state. As evidence, they claim the blue-green armillary sphere — gift of the class of 1966, often called “the globe thingy” — that rests at the edge of the Old Main patio, or the nearby sundial — a gift of the class of 1915, marks the state’s center.

For additional evidence, believers say that Penn State’s founders selected the Centre Country location for the University because it was the exact middle of the state and, of course, “centre” is French for center. While the basic French is on target, the rest of the statement is well off the mark, a few miles off the mark, actually.

“Old Main Lawn is not the center of the state,” said Penn State archivist Jacqueline Esposito. “The University was not put here for that reason.”

Some students — who are probably not on their way to classical mythology class — also say that the turtle at the sculpture’s base is a reference to the myth of Atlas. The Titan grew tired of schlepping the world around on his shoulders, so he placed the globe on the back of a turtle. Except, Atlas never shared his burden with a turtle in the myth. (Hindu mythology does speak of a World Tortoise, however.)

By the way, the geographic center of Pennsylvania is near Fisherman’s Paradise along Spring Creek, near Bellefonte, according to Penn State cartographers.

The Zamboni Apocalypse?
One of the more recent rumors making its rounds on campus is that the Pegula Ice Rink would serve as a makeshift morgue in a disaster.

Photo by Patrick Mansell

The Pegula, which hosts Penn State’s men’s and women’s ice hockey teams, was opened in 2013 and seats about 6,000 (living) spectators. Despite the roominess, according to Penn State disaster and risk management officials, there are no known plans to use the ice rink as a place to store disaster victims, although it would certainly make the Zamboni driver’s job more interesting.

What a nice story — the beautiful American Indian Princess Nit-A-Nee falls in love with a French-American trapper. But, the princess’s upset father puts an end to the romance and the two are permanently separated when — in an almost Shakespearian move — the father tosses his daughter’s love interest into Penn’s Cave.

Except none of this is true.

The story is a bit of folklore told by the first-ever official Pennsylvania Folklorist Henry W. Shoemaker.

Except the story isn’t even folklore.

There is evidence that Shoemaker did not collect this story — or many of the other tales that he wrote about — from area residents or Native Americans. He just made it up.

“It’s manufactured folklore,” said Mike Bezilla, author of Penn State: An Illustrated History. “It isn’t even representative of the culture or the stories of Native Americans who lived in the area.”

The No Sin Zone?
Another rumor indicates that, as a way to combat prostitution, either the state or local governments created laws or zoning ordinances to restrict the number of women who live in the same building on campus. According to Esposito, that type of legislation doesn’t exist.

The Stone House — home to Kappa Alpha Theta and the first sorority house on campus.

“There is no such law in Pennsylvania that dictates the number of unmarried women living together in a single building as a brothel,” said Esposito.

The borough makes no distinction between a fraternity house and a sorority house in its codes, either.

In fact, there were sorority houses on campus. The first was Kappa Alpha Theta in 1930. It is perhaps unfortunate for the Greek community — but fortunate for people who love campus legends — that the initials of the first sorority on campus were K-A-T, an acronym anomaly that wasn’t lost to the students at the time, who began to refer to the sorority house as the KAT house. And — voila — another legend was born.

Facing high maintenance costs on aging buildings, most sororities moved to more modern spaces in new residence halls when they became available.

Planning Hammond
The Hammond building, which stretches along College Avenue, is home to the College of Engineering. You might expect a building full of engineers to know their way around a blueprint, but, according to a tale that’s often told about Hammond, the building was planned to be a skyscraper. The construction crews read the plans the wrong way and built it horizontally, not vertically.

There’s no truth to that, though. According to Lee Stout, University archivist emeritus, said a more popular rumor about the building is that the gigantic Hammond was supposed to be a bunch of little Hammonds.

“More common is the idea that it was to be three buildings, then slapped together, which is why halls don’t line up, and idea you can’t get from one end to the other without shifting floors, or going outside,” said Stout.

Guess what? That one appears to be correct. According to Bezilla, original plans showed that the building was supposed to be three separate structures, but, in a cost-cutting move, officials decided to merge — slapped is such an ugly term — the units together.

Leaders and Legends
So, why do students tell so many folk tales? According to Piled Higher and Deeper, a book on campus legends by Simon Bronner, Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore, Penn State Harrisburg, these legends are integral to campus life.

He writes: “Folklore, an expression of student life and culture, tells what goes on both inside and outside the classroom among the students. It is a cultural and historical commentary on the classroom and college life. It outlines the responsibility and demeanor expected by students of one another. It maps the dangers that lie ahead and attitudes left behind in adolescence.”

Horizons and opportunities for nursing research

Sitting in a room full of nurses last week, I found myself listening to a group of people who spoke passionately about making a difference in people’s lives. These nurses, along with other health researchers, were trying to figure out how they could better collaborate across the commonwealth and how their research results could be applied in the real world — in places like clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes.

I was attending the Horizons and Opportunities Conference that the Center for Nursing Research and the Social Science Research Institute organized for Penn State health researchers. It was fascinating to learn about some of the health research currently being conducted on Penn State campuses, as well as the research that Penn Staters are eager to pursue.

Janice Penrod, the director of the Center for Nursing Research, for instance, is researching end-of-life care and how to help family caregivers through this process. Additionally, she’s working on a project studying end-of-life care for prisoners. Roger Anderson, a professor public health sciences, spoke about an effort currently underway to involve the community in health research, which will help the Clinical and Translational Science Institute. (The CTSI was instrumental in helping organize this conference.) He explained that a community advisory board has been established and they are in the process of identifying the health topics most important to the communities the group is studying.

I also learned that our College of Nursing has a simulation lab. The lab exists to give nursing students hands-on experience in a clinical context with training mannequins, before entering an active clinic. However, I have much more to learn about the sim lab as well as all of the work the Center for Nursing Research is doing and will accomplish. I’m looking forward to it, and grateful for the opportunity to meet so many passionate, caring researchers from 12 different Penn State campuses in one place.

Be sure to check back here on the blog and on Penn State News to learn more about nursing research!

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