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.

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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.

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