By Tom Shakely
Evan Pugh was Penn State’s first president.
It’s great if you happen to know of Evan Pugh. In fact, it’s likely that knowing about him already puts you in the minority among students and alumni. But just knowing this bit of raw information isn’t worth much in and of itself. It’s available to anyone curious enough to wonder and with access to Wikipedia. Why care?
As Penn Staters, we’ll be celebrating Founder’s Day on February 22. It’s a special time on the calendar set aside to honor and remember the men and women who built Dear Old State. Today, we often act as if Penn State’s prestige flows from its numbers—the number of students enrolled globally, the number of living alumni, the number of academic colleges and majors, etc. Evan Pugh’s Penn State wasn’t defined by staggering numbers, but rather by people, as Erwin Runkle’s first official history of the University records:
“Despite the [Civil] war, the school grew in numbers; 142 were enrolled in 1863, and 146 in 1864. Thirty-eight to forty counties of the State were represented. Two graduate students appeared in 1862, and in the following year, the number reached eleven.”
Our founder wasn’t the overseer of a vast corporate institute, but of a startup—so to speak—focused on a few dozen individuals. As president, Evan Pugh’s job was to know the particularities of student life—their family situation, their political loyalties during a time of conflict, their educational pursuits, their ambitions and skills. How many administrators, even in Penn State’s Office of Student Affairs, have similarly intimate human knowledge about our current students?
Today, what feels like a small army of faculty and staff are required to manage the modern Penn State. At its beginning, however, the school required an individual of extraordinary vision and singular purpose to chart its destiny.
And Evan Pugh himself was a remarkable man. Born on February 28, 1828 in Chester County, Pennsylvania, his father was a farmer-blacksmith. But his father died when he was only 12 years old, and he was raised by his grandfather. In time, young Evan hungered for knowledge and wisdom rather than money, which led him to eschew the inheritance of his father’s farm. Instead, he went off to study at some of the finest universities in England, France, and Germany. His research earned him membership in the Royal Society of Science and the American Philosophical Society. His achievements burnished his reputation as a man of character that led to his invitation to the founding presidency of a young, experimental “Farmer’s High School” that in time would become the Penn State of history.
Indeed, Evan Pugh’s vision and devotion to the early Penn State was remarkable in its own time, but perhaps is even more remarkable in our own. Perhaps best exemplified by the carousel of football coaches since 2011, we seem to be exiting an era when one arrived in the Nittany Valley to make Penn State their life, not simply their job. Pugh, a man whose ability and professional qualifications meant he could choose his own career path, gave himself fully over to the fledgling cause of Penn State, internalizing the dream of higher education for the commoner in the “splendid isolation” of this place. He writes to Professor Wilson, Penn State’s Vice President, on September 18, 1863:
“I am resolved to stay with our College, while God gives me strength to perform my duties there, whatever may be the pecuniary inducements or prospects of honor elsewhere. It is my duty and my destiny to do so, and I shall seek honors in the path of duty and of destiny…”
But Evan Pugh didn’t build Penn State’s early foundations alone. He was joined by Rebecca Valentine, the Bellefonte native who captured his imagination from the time he first arrived to live in Mount Nittany’s shadow. Runkle doesn’t record nearly enough about the woman who is easily the most fascinating among our founders:
Evan Pugh met Rebecca Valentine on a trip to Bellefonte in 1861, while on a visit to an iron master to compare methods of smelting iron. Their love grew over the course of a three-year engagement that began almost immediately after they met, and they were married on February 4, 1864. As a native of Central Pennsylvania, Rebecca was distinct in speaking for the Nittany Valley’s soul and character to a man who grew up outside of Philadelphia and earned his doctorate in Germany. But as significant as Evan’s devotion to Penn State was in its first, formative years, and as much love as Evan and Rebecca shared during their courtship, their marriage was short-lived. Evan took ill and passed away at 36, only months after they wed. Runkle records:
“Mrs. Pugh, a woman of culture, refinement, and of rare sweetness and purity of soul, kept faithful tryst of the poignant romance so ruthlessly shattered until her own death on July 7, 1921—fifty-seven years of widowed, worshipful, romantic devotion.” At the time of founder Evan Pugh’s death, J.B. Lakes of Rothamstead Station, England, wrote to Rebecca: “I felt certain that if he lived he would be the founder of a great college.”
Though they could not have known it at the time, Evan Pugh was, in fact, the founder of a great college, among the greatest and most resilient ever known. However briefly the bold, bright beacon of his influence flashed across the firmament of our Valley, such was its potency that traces linger even today. This Founder’s Day, every Penn Stater who comes to know the story of Evan and Rebecca Pugh should celebrate this man and woman in a special way.
In 2015, Penn State published this short video on the enduring love shared by Evan and Rebecca: