Looking Back to Move Forward

By Chris Buchignani, March 2016

Why should we care about the past?

The potential answers to this question are many and varied, but certainly, in looking back to understand what came before, we can see something of ourselves reflected back at us, extracting value from the experience. It is not without peril. Genuine self-examination risks exposure to the truth about our flaws. Likewise, we must resist the allure of romance; if infatuation with a fictional ideal commands our full attention, we miss the view of all that is around us and ahead.

And yet a part of us cannot help but yearn to know. As human beings, we are natural storytellers, creatures of narrative. We seek knowledge of our past to better orient ourselves within our own stories – personal and communal. These journeys of exploration can yield many benefits, but ultimately, we undertake them because to do so is fundamental to our nature.

Four years ago, we founded The Nittany Valley Society as a “cultural conservancy” for the community, a means of sharing the stories and spirit of a very special place. Back then, one of our board members, Tom Shakely, wrote about our founding impulse, and in April 2014, he returned to the topic of our purpose for the first of these articles for Town&Gown. As challenging as it is fulfilling, this mission continues to evolve. As we move ahead with an eye toward amplifying our impact, it seems appropriate to again to return to the fundamental reasoning behind our work.

In college towns like ours, the relationship between past and present is closer to the surface in everyday life than most other places.

Today, the clarion of Old Main’s bell tower, an immediately recognizable sound seared into the memory of generations, no longer requires an actual bell. Powerful speakers, however, do blast a digital recreation of the real bell, long since permanently silenced, whose tolling across campus once marked each day’s passage. Here, the technology of the present resurrects the sounds of the past. The stately central administration building itself, among the most recognizable and “collegiate” of our symbols, sits just a couple blocks from the Millennium Science Complex, which looks more like the stuff of modern sci-fi than an image from the bucolic campus ideal.

Similarly, the Hotel State College, home of the Corner Room, retains all the charm of the simpler age in which it was built. As a symbol, it exemplifies the town as surely as Old Main does the college. The local skyline behind it, unchanged for decades, is now dominated by the construction of two new high-rise complexes, especially significant in their breaking a long-held resistance against the encroachment of “tall buildings.” This distinctive landmark will soon be literally overshadowed by towering monuments to emerging trends and changing attitudes.

But many established communities mingle old architecture with new. What distinguishes the Nittany Valley – and most similar college towns, I imagine – is its unique population, an ever-churning mixture of locals and alumni, with their long-held affection for the area, and students, who are only just falling in love with it. In a place whose very existence derives from thousands of young people undergoing one of our society’s most cherished rites of passage, there is a natural fascination with how those who preceded us experienced those same rituals in these same locations. The past lingers here, fraught with potential.

In his book “Is Penn State A Real University?” – the first publication released under our Nittany Valley Press imprint – former trustee Ben Novak muses:

The past, because it was lived, cannot really be destroyed. It can only be covered over, like a lush jungle that gets condensed into a pool of oil or a vein of coal, just waiting to be drilled or mined to have its energy released. But you have to dig for it, and you have to know how to use it. When we don’t know what is in the past, we cannot use it, and we cannot release its power.

Recently, when our vice president Kevin Horne addressed the Board of Trustees about shared governance at Penn State, he noted, “Memory of our past can improve the present and change the future.”

So there is power buried in the past, a positive energy that, once unleashed, can be harnessed to animate and inspire our best thinkers and doers. It can teach lessons, but also engender a sense of shared identity and foster stronger, more cohesive community relationships. Those who seek to preserve memory for future generations do so with the goal of improving lives; no small task.

The challenge is twofold. To start off, the work of historical preservation and reclamation is difficult and requires hours of effort, attention to detail, and not a small degree of luck to be successful. And yet, despite the obstacles, this first stage in the process is still the less daunting. Because once all of the information has been collected, the knowledge harvested, then the real work, the most valuable aspect of what we do, comes in bringing it to people in a way that affects their lives in a meaningful way. This is the challenge of making what no longer exists, and is therefore unknown and often unfamiliar, accessible and relevant.

The Nittany Valley Society’s mission statement describes our purpose as fostering “a spirit of community across time for Penn Staters, Central Pennsylvanians, and friends through a knowledge of our past, an appreciation for our present, and an affection for our spirit as a living treasury for our future.” We all long for a sense of our own story, and we draw strength from understanding the ways in which others share a common background. We care about the past because of its power to enrich our spirit.

The magic of the Nittany Valley, that is, the spirit of this culture we aim to conserve, is potent and inspires important work by many groups that often share compatible motivation and goals – the Centre County Historical Society, Lion Ambassadors, and the Mount Nittany Conservancy, just to name a few. This will begin a multi-part series that examines local efforts – by The Nittany Valley Society and others – to refresh the stories of our past so that the knowledge and experiences of those who came before us can make a tangible impact on the present.

Next month, we will examine the first official history of Penn State, and how (and why) we worked to get it published 80 years after it was written.