The Origins of ‘Happy Valley’

Most of have heard at least one theory on the origins of our “Happy Valley” nickname. Did it arise during the Great Depression, an expression of area’s economic resiliency? Or perhaps it was the tongue-in-cheek lament of would-be 1960s activists, frustrated by a stubbornly docile pace of life. The Nittany Valley Society is pleased to present this thorough examination of the question, written nearly 15 years ago by long-time local Nadine Kofman, widow of Mayor Bill Welch.

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By Nadine Kofman

Happy Valley is a well-known place that isn’t on any local road map. It has been around for only 50 years, but it’s very well established.  Unlike most places, its population includes both residents and visitors. Geographically — depending on your perspective – it is Nittany Valley, Centre County or a Beaver Stadium football Saturday.

Looking at it from the viewpoint of the fellow who is credited with coining it, Happy Valley is a positive state of mind.

It was late 1949 or early 1950.  In their circa 1937 Plymouth sedan, Pat and Harriet O’Brien and children Patty and Danny were regularly spending weekday afternoons or Saturday mornings on the road – motoring around Centre County and beyond.

“We were just enamored with the lovely countryside, in contrast to the city,” says Harriet.  She and her husband, who were both natives of Pennsylvania’s hard-coal region, lived in Washington, D.C., after the war.   Harold James “Pat” O’Brien then taught briefly at Clearfield High School, after which – in order to allow him to finish his PhD in speech communication – the family relocated to Centre County.  Penn State hired him as a speech instructor and he later became the men’s debate team coach.

The second-hand Plymouth was their first post-World War II auto. Living in Boalsburg at the time, they needed one, to get back and forth.

“It was just a ritual to take a drive somewhere,” says Harriet   “We drove around the farmlands of Spring Mills, Centre Hall, Pleasant Gap, Belleville, Allensville.  Pat got to know the farmers.  He especially liked the Amish.”

They had moved, says Harriet, “from city life, to bucolic life” and found it peaceful and beautiful.

The O’Briens, like the rest of the country, had come through much, to reach a happier place and time.  “This whole generation went through a Depression and war, before they could land on their feet,” says Harriet.

Sgt. O’Brien had been a tank commander on Saipan, in the South Pacific.  He came home with war memories, shrapnel wounds and a purple heart.

In the late 1950s, at a conference on one of the Penn State campuses, he met Ross Lehman, another coal-cracker and wounded World War II veteran who also came home with a purple heart. A member of a bomber crew, he had lost a leg when his plane was shot down near Vienna, Austria.

“From then on,” says Harriet, “they saw each other all the time.”  Both were witty raconteurs and enjoyed breaking into song. “They loved to sing Penn State songs and other songs,” she says.

The two couples became close friends, and Ross and Katey Lehman heard, many times, Pat’s reference to this “happy valley” where he and his family had relocated.

That friendship, research shows, gave birth to Happy Valley, the geographical euphemism.

Ross, executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association, and writer/homemaker Katey wrote a Monday through Friday hearth & fireside column for the Centre Daily Times. A prominent CDT column, it was printed on page four, the editorial page, and just about everybody read it.

From spring of 1954 to autumn of 1980, their somewhat alternating “Open House” columns (Katey wrote most of them) shared warm and often wry snapshots of family life with musings on their small-town landscape. A Happy Valley reference therein was a perfect fit, and Katey fitted it into several of her columns.

In one such mention, her November 27, 1963, “letter” to her out-of-town husband, she wrote:

“My dear old hitch-hiker, your dog Sam, even though he loves Happy Valley, is apparently not completely housebroken.  Therefore, please hitch-hike home soon.  Sam listens to you better than he does to me. Please remember to look respectable but fairly pathetic when you’re hitching that ride home.  I’ve spent most of your money — except a little for soup and our Thanksgiving dinner.”

In a spring column – June 25, 1962 – she tells us, in a contemplative piece headlined “Happy Valley And Jet Age,” that Ross mistook a clap of thunder for the sound of an overhead jet. Questioning his hearing ability, Katey continues on and informs readers that, as a child,  “The first time I heard a jet breaking the sound barrier over Hort Woods, I knew very well that it wasn’t thunder, but having never heard it before, I had to think for a minute before I realized that even our happy little valley is subject to the jet age.”

No one knows how many readers Katey taught to say “Happy Valley.”  Other opportunities would come along.

“It was such a subtle thing – probably something said on the radio” – stimulating people to think, “‘That was cool,’ and it caught on like a leaky kitchen sink,” suggests Donna Clemson, former CDT reporter and retired Penn Stater magazine editor.  For a publication mentioning Happy Valley,  “There was a time when it couldn’t be used except in quotes (as though it weren’t a real place), and now it’s an acceptable term,” she says.

“It seems appropriate in so many ways,” Clemson adds.  “For kids going to college here, it’s kind of like going to Oz.” It’s a “magic time” in their lives. “You have to live in a happy valley to be in a magic time.”  For herself, as a Bellefonte resident, “I wouldn’t want to rear my children anywhere else. It’s beautiful here.  Why not call it Happy Valley?”

Not all of the Penn State students who picked up the term viewed it with a smile. Some were heard to use it sarcastically, as an isolated place away from the real world.  Between 1965 and 1973, the real world meant the draft; young men were being sent off to fight in Vietnam. Staying in school, kept them from it yet, “Happy Valley is a joke” was in the air.

But use of Happy Valley was spreading, as an affirmative.

Gil Aberg, retired PSU Public Information writer, moved to State College from Chicago in 1955. “I heard the expression shortly after I came here,” he says, positing that it was probably “from my first boss, Frank Neusbaum,” under whom Aberg wrote for the Penn State film school’s motion-picture studio.  It seemed to him that the usage was a “common currency. I thought it went back to forever,” he says.

Wendy Williams says he didn’t use the term, himself, during his early years as a local radio announcer, but did hear it used on the air.  “I don’t ever recall hearing that term when I was at WMAJ (1961 to 1966).  My earliest recollection would have been when I was at WRSC in the late 1960s.”

Fran Fisher, long-time radio voice for Penn State football, associates Happy Valley with the game. “I don’t ever remember hearing that before the Paterno era,” he says.  He didn’t use it on the air until 1966.  “I think the reason I started to use it was that everybody else was using it.”

According to Penn State Sports Information, the first televised football game at Beaver Stadium was on November 5, 1966.  That football year was JoPa’s first as head coach.

It was these national football broadcasts that put “Happy Valley” on the U.S. map, says retired Sports Information director Jim Tarman.  “It was the success in football, all those golden years, that triggered it,” he says.

“That’s when it got the wider recognition,” says CDT sports editor Ron Bracken.  “Back in those days (late 1960s, early 1970s), it was a big deal to get on TV.”

How did national broadcasters pick it up in the first place?

Art Stober, who produced award-winning 60-second, then 30-second videos about Penn State for football telecasts in the mid 1970s, guesses that TV broadcasters “just heard people using it and thought it was a very appropriate term.”

Panning around to show the stadium’s picturesque mountain setting, the tailgating parties – as network cameras are wont to do – the place “looked idyllic.  It was only natural to use the term.”

Former Sports Information director Dave Baker agrees with that.  “On an October broadcast day,” the cameras would show beautiful foliage amid a “serene” farming area.  For the TV audience, “It made a nice little story to start the game,” he says.

Here in Happy Valley, not everybody knows today where the name originated; there would have been far fewer seven years ago.

Jan Gibeling, who, with her husband, Howard, moved to State College from Connecticut in 1997, was curious.  “We heard the expression used so many times,” she says, but most people, when asked, “would say they didn’t know where it came from.”

Deciding in 2000 to audit a Penn State course on Pennsylvania history (History 12), she took the opportunity to answer her own question; she did a history paper on Happy Valley.  Her research sources included State College old-timers, as well as old CDTs. The latter yielded a couple of crucial Katey columns.

Katey had died in January of 1981. Talking to Ross, Gibeling was directed to Harriet O’Brien, because Pat, who retired in 1976 as Penn State associate dean emeritus of Liberal Arts for the Commonwealth Campuses, had died in 1997.

Gibeling concludes her history paper with:

“From an innocuous beginning, the expression ‘Happy Valley’ has gradually gained in popularity.  It is now used nationwide by major network sports announcers when broadcasting college sports, by weathermen when reporting the weather for our area, and by The Weather Channel, to name a few.

“As reported in the New York Times in an article dated July 22, 1981, when the federal government added State College to its classification of Federal Metropolitan Statistical Areas (as a result of the 1980 census), ‘many of the people who can live anywhere prefer the unhurried life of a college town.  Even traveling salesmen, tired of cities and suburbs, have been settling in what they call ‘the happy valley,’ where rolling farmland and villages are surrounded by forest-covered Appalachian ridges.”

As a submission for an audited course, the paper wasn’t given a grade, but “I had fun doing this,” Gibeling says, and she also developed an interest in doing research.

There was a third reward: she – though not her name – has gone down in history.  She got a mention in the Oral History Project interview which Ross gave before his death a year ago. The interview, conducted by Bill Jaffe, was part of a Community Academy of Lifelong Learning project, sponsored by the Centre County Historical Society.

For the record, Ross said he hadn’t recognized the Pat O’Brien-Katey Lehman legacy until “a woman” contacted him about it. “She said that the first mention of Happy Valley that she found in her research was in Katey’s column,” said Ross.

Unlike the Open House co-author, Pat O’Brien had an inkling of his role.

Patty O’Brien Mutzeck recalls her father telling her one day, in bemused tones, “’I think I may be the one responsible for this phrase’.”

To his mind, “happy valley” had to do with beauty and intangible positive qualities.  “‘We’re blessed here’,” Patty often heard him say.

“In those days,” she says, “life was filled with spirit and optimism and enthusiasm” and, she adds, “he was all that.”

“He liked words, language – the written word, the spoken word,” says Harriet, who is pleased her husband “came up with something everybody likes and uses.”  Although she hears from neighbors that the O’Brien coinage of “happy valley” makes the family famous, she prefers to think otherwise.

“After all,” says Harriet, “it’s just a little phrase that caught fire.”