By Tom Shakely, December 2013
I first met Ben Novak in early 2008 when he was visiting State College for a few weeks while living in semi-retirement in Bratislava, Slovakia. I was only 20 at the time, and had been introduced to him through mutual friends. Other than knowing he was a former Penn State trustee, I didn’t know much about him. Our first meeting lasted many hours, and after a week or so he decided to return to America to mentor a new generation of students. It’s impossible for me to convey how much knowing Ben Novak has changed my life—how much his Christianity has rooted me, how deeply his sense of America and civics have strengthened me, and how much his humor and wit have brought me happiness. I’m clumsily trying to say: he’s been a friend and mentor of the first order.
Our collaborations since that first meeting have been fruitful. His return to State College influenced new generations of students in the Nittany Valley, and his insights on the purpose of university and community continue to reverberate in his books, including last year’s Is Penn State a Real University?, The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution, and a forthcoming book on logic. His approach to environmentalism led to my rethinking of the role conservation can play to positively impact communities. We’ve both grown older—I’m now 26, and he hit 70 earlier this year. Despite our age difference (or perhaps because of it) we’ve developed a special relationship. He is at once grandfather, father, and brother to me, and our friendship continues to be one of the highlights of my life. I hope our time together continues for years to come.
At The Nittany Valley Society’s Willow Gathering in State College tomorrow I’ll be sharing the news that we’ve created the Novak Fellowship fund in honor of Ben Novak and his lifetime of service. I hope that the Novak Fellowship can perpetuate some of Ben’s vision for an authentic Penn State community by awarding an annual student-fellowship whose twin themes will be research and relationships:
Fellows research the Nittany Valley’s past with the aim of surfacing and sharing little-known aspects of the community’s shared history and the character of its people with new generations of students, townspeople, alumni, professors, and friends.
It’s a small honor, but honors are most meaningful when recipients are still alive to receive them, which is why I’m creating this fellowship now, so that the first fellows can have a relationship with the fellowship’s namesake. I’ll be aiming to build The Novak Fellowship Fund’s endowment principal to $10,000 over the course of the next year with a goal of the first fellowships starting by 2016 at the latest. If Ben has had an impact in your life like he has on mine, I hope you’ll consider contributing.