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 Fools’ 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.”

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