The Nittany Valley Society, as a cultural conservancy, seeks to share the unique stories of our home. The following excerpt comes from, “Conserving Mount Nittany: A Dynamic Environmentalism,” which for the first time tells the complete story of our community’s “extraordinary response to an ordinary mountain.” In this abridged passage, author Tom Shakely talks with Dr. Ben Novak about the founding of the Mount Nittany Conservancy. In April 2014, Novak was recognized by the Conservancy with its “Friend of the Mountain” lifetime achievement award.
TOM SHAKELY: Alright, so at this point it’s Homecoming 1983, and you’re treasurer of Lion’s Paw Alumni Association (LPAA) and in charge of animating the Mount Nittany Conservancy as an entirely new group for the preservation of the Mountain. What did this involve, both strategically and tactically?
BEN NOVAK: Wilhelm Kogelmann announced he was going to timber his 213 acres on Mount Nittany—at the time, we told people he was going to clear cut, because that sounded worse. We told him we didn’t want it cut, and he said in effect, “Well fine, then buy the land.”
I proposed that Mr. Kogelmann sell us 120 acres for $120,000, and then donate the other 93 acres. We would form the Mount Nittany Conservancy as a nonprofit, which would mean Mr. Kogelmann would get a healthy tax deduction that would make up for that $80,000 difference. He did the computations and said, “Yes, let’s do it. It’s a good deal.”
First, the Mount Nittany Conservancy required a way for conveying our vision for the Mountain—really an entire campaign plan for raising the $120,000 we needed to raise. And we needed to assemble a board of directors for the nonprofit corporation. This was not only required legally, but also for the purpose of appealing to the entire community with names that people would recognize and trust.
Our 1984 plan was called “The Magic of the Mountain: The Campaign to Save Mount Nittany,” and this introduced both the Mount Nittany Conservancy and our vision to the community.
I put together a board with folks like Bill Welch, editor of the Centre Daily Times; Bob Zimmerman, who owned WRSC and other radio and television stations; Mimi Coppersmith who ran a local advertising company, Joe Paterno; and several other leading personalities in the community who were eager to join.
TAS: All this sounds surprisingly simple for something of this scale. You had the support of LPAA for the campaign and the creation of the Mount Nittany Conservancy, you put together “The Magic of the Mountain” plan, and assembled this new board team. Was it difficult at any point getting the buy-in necessary to do these things?
BN: Well, yes. We ran into difficulties. During this period the president of LPAA who had been elected at Homecoming 1983 decided to resign in the spring of 1984. He didn’t believe we could raise the money and thought we would embarrass ourselves. So he sent in his letter of resignation.
The vice president was also skeptical that the money could be raised but, rather than resigning, remained incommunicado—he simply refused to answer telephone calls or letters. We were left with me as treasurer and Ross Lehman as secretary. Ross and I met for lunch and Ross says, “Ben, no one thinks we can raise the money. I sort of agree with them.”
It was in August 1984 that I met with Mr. Kogelmann to get the Agreement of Sale. The problem was that even though Willy agreed to it, we didn’t have any officers to sign it. You had to have a president and a secretary sign it. The president had resigned and the secretary wasn’t very interested at the moment.
I said to Mr. Kogelmann, “If you keep this agreement open, I’ll raise the money.” In other words, all we had between us was a verbal agreement and a handshake. I started “The Magic of the Mountain” campaign to raise the money. For the next four months I was terrified because we were creating all this publicity and raising all this money without anything in writing. I knew that at any time Willy could pull the rug out from under me by simply saying, “Gee, I’ve changed my mind.” It would have been tremendously embarrassing to have to send back all the donations. But Willy stayed the course. He stayed right there with me.
It might sound naïve these days, but I really believed there was this reservoir of goodwill and spirit throughout the Nittany Valley. I was banking on it in a fairly literal way, and the people sure came through.
We raised about $100,000 by January 1985, and so Mr. Kogelmann and I got together to get that Agreement of Sale written up and signed. Willy wanted things which I knew would get incredibly bad publicity. For instance, he wanted the right to continue to hunt on Mount Nittany for the rest of his life, and several other things, like a right-of-way.
I was just happy to say, “Fine, for the rest of your life.” Willy was in his 50s at the time, and a real Type-A personality. I figured, “Ah, he’ll have a heart attack before too long!”
Of course, Willy lived for nearly another thirty years—he died October 24, 2011. Let me emphasize that I was, of course, happy to see him live so long. I’m really glad he was able to enjoy the Mountain for so long, and was thrilled to see the Mount Nittany Conservancy honor him with its first-ever “Friend of the Mountain” award in 2010. He absolutely deserved it.
We got the agreement, and the Mount Nittany Conservancy was able to prove there really was a “magic” about Mount Nittany. We did get some really bad publicity from the things I had to give in on. But I knew we would be alright in the long run. Most of all, what pulled me through was the simple belief that all of us are only human and will pass away, but the Mount Nittany Conservancy is forever—when Willy and I and the others are gone, Mount Nittany will still be here centuries from now.
That’s really what we were working toward building, after all.