The ‘Magic of Simplicity’ at the Nittany Lion Shrine

By Chris Buchignani, September 6, 2013

The Nittany Lion Shrine was reopened this week after a summer of renovation. Kevin Horne, member of the Board of Directors of The Nittany Valley Society and Managing Editor of Onward State, shares his perspective on the iconic symbol of the campus:

I grew up only an hour away in Williamsport, so this campus was no stranger to me when I enrolled at Penn State three years ago. Consequently, neither was the Lion Shrine. (Proof: Flat Stanley and myself, circa 1999. I was a lot cooler back then, as you can see.) I didn’t realize it then of course, but there was something magical about the simplicity of the whole thing. When Heinz Warneke sculpted the Shrine 73 years ago, I don’t think he could have imagined the landmark — some might even call it sacred ground — that it would become. Indeed, you would hard pressed to find ANY Penn Stater who hasn’t snapped a photo with their arm around the thing.

It was, in a phrase, a true “symbol of our best.” It wasn’t much, of course — just a statue on top of an eroding mountain of mulch — but isn’t there an endearing quality about something like that? Isn’t that sort of modesty something Penn Staters have always held close to the heart, much like the basic blue uniforms our football team will run out of the tunnel wearing on Saturday?

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I still get chills when I walk by the Lion Shrine. I would map out my nightly runs accordingly so I’d be able to pass the shrine with no one else around, looking stately as ever under the single spotlight. It was an emotion I couldn’t control, not because of how it looked or the landscape surrounding it, but because of what it symbolizes to generations of Penn Staters. A student today could talk to a student who graduated 50 years ago and the Lion Shrine is one symbol they share in common. In today’s thirst for modernity, that timelessness is difficult to find.

I walked over the new Lion Shrine yesterday morning and I just couldn’t shake the pit in my stomach no matter how hard I tried. Don’t get me wrong — the place looks fine. Aside from the base of the statue, which clashes with the actual Shrine and sticks out like a sore thumb, it’s an aesthetic improvement for certain. It’s also important to have a ramp for handicap access. But I don’t think it will ever be the same for me. The area just feels so scripted and manmade — almost like there should be a gift shop peddling Lion Shrine postcards and coffee mugs off to the side somewhere (don’t get any ideas, Old Main). It has lost the magic of simplicity. In this era of change, that magic is hard to come by.

I’m sure I’ll get over it. It is, after all, an impressive display. But I know that I’ll always miss that modest mountain of mulch. And I know that when my kids come to Penn State and I take their first Lion Shrine picture, something will be missing. At least to me, anyway.

Photo credit: Penn State University