Coming Alive

By Tom Shakely, August 2012

The Nittany Valley Society is alive and breathing. It’s a startup nonprofit, led by Chris Buchignani and a board of directors of which I’m a member. Let me share a bit of what we’re about, and what we’re aiming to contribute.

Our Happy Valley has been hit hard over the past year in the wake of Jerry Sandusky’s depravity, and while we’re facing not simply crises of a practical nature but a crisis of conscience. Are we really who we have said we are? Can Success with Honor be true? Is Happy Valley more than the University? Who are we?

What We Are

We’re a community. We’re rooted in a real, tangible, physical place. And our history has depth, and is full of warmth and legend and even virtuous contradiction. The Nittany Valley Society is one expression of this place of ours — an expression of our feeling. It’s a means to share the spirit of the Nittany Valley, and while its existence didn’t come as a direct result of this dark night of the soul we’re suffering through, it’s perhaps more relevant now than ever.

Of course, our history and community is always relevant because these are the things that allow us to have feeling—to know State College isn’t simply a point on a map, but that it’s specifically a Happy Valley. It’s distinct. It contains sacred things. It has been witness to legend and legendary lives.

I elaborate on these ideas more thoroughly elsewhere. Our mission statement is another insight into our thinking:

The Nittany Valley Society fosters a spirit of community across time for Penn Staters, Central Pennsylvanians, and friends through a knowledge of our past, an appreciation for our present, and an affection for our spirit as a living treasury for our future. This finds expression through virtue, vigor, and soulfulness apparent in acts of honor, the cultivation of customs, and the Old State spirit.

In The Life of Greece, Will Durant speaks to us in a way that’s especially relevant to our present state and troubles: “The old is preserved in the new, and everything changes except the essence. History, like life, must be continuous or die. Character and institutions may be altered but slowly, and any serious interruption in their development throws them into national amnesia and insanity.”

This neatly illustrates our predicament, and why I’m excited to be a part of The Nittany Valley Society as one expression of our community’s spirit, and a recovery of who are are, in the same way “captures our spirit for our future.” We need this rootedness and grounding, or else we risk “amnesia and insanity.”

What We Want To Do

I think it’s safe to say we as a board are feeling our way along just like everyone else. Chris Buchignani has proven himself to be a tremendous leader, emphasizing from Day One that any worthwhile endeavor is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s easy to forget this in the rush to act.

We’re publishing things, for starters. Making history accessible is a prerequisite for people learning about the Nittany Valley, in the same way hiking up Mount Nittany is a prerequisite for having an experience of the valley.

We also want to help do whatever small bit we can to honor those worth honoring. Evan Pugh was a man who quite literally gave his life in pursuit of his vision for our University and our town, yet he’s practically forgotten as a footnote to our history. And he’s not alone. We can’t forget him or people like him and hope to have a future.

Down the line, The Nittany Valley Society will invite people to come together in physical ways to share time and conversation and perspective with one another. The digital revolution is wonderful, but to be human is perpetually revolutionary, and if we can contribute to living experiences we’ll be happy.


A few peremptories: We’re a social effort, and as a non-profit we’re not political or, even, ideological. We want to share and help newcomers and students partake in a bit of the specialness of the Nittany Valley in new ways, and old ones that might seem like they’re missing in the present moment. The University is a great expression of our spirit, but by no means the only expression — many are forgotten that need recalling.

A lot of life in the Nittany Valley is fleeting, not simply because people are born and die but also because students come and go. Whether the magnetism and magic of the Nittany Valley is felt and carried with them in life is the perennial challenge of those who know and love the place, and it’s the central challenge to which The Nittany Valley Society commits itself.