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In Tough Times, Bold Moves Helped Chart State College's Future

on August 22, 2011 8:36 AM

Fancy this: In the early 20th century, State College was dirt poor.

No, really, quite literally: As late as 1916, the town's streets were still unpaved, gravelly at best and "muddy most of the time," as Penn State Professor Emeritus Ronald A. Smith said this month.

And you think we have public-education problems now? Well, OK -- we do. But fancy this, too:

In the early 1910s, State College voters twice voted down a bond-issue proposal to finance a new high school building. The first would've yielded $30,000, as Smith's research shows; it was knocked down in a 152-124 popular vote.

The second bond proposal, to yield $18,000, got a similar response.

So what did the intrepid local school-board members do?

Something that wouldn't be nearly so easy in Tom Corbett's Pennsylvania:

Board members simply doubled the property-tax rate to generate an extra $15,000 -- enough to construct the 1914 building on Fraser Street that became the original State College High School, or State High.

That structure remains there at the southeast corner of South Fraser Street and West Nittany Avenue. It's been expanded, adapted and repurposed multiple times in the intervening century, becoming one of the most heavily used facilities in the local school system.

History, repeated
These fascinating nuances of State College public-education history -- researched and shared publicly by Smith -- are worth our attention, perhaps more than ever.

It's tough right now to envy the local school board, saddled with a wretched onslaught of financial woes, budget constraints and public tensions. Just this year, members somberly voted to reduce the local schools' workforce and trim some programming.

Meanwhile, it remains entirely unclear when and how the board will -- or can -- finance a much-needed overhaul at the current State High campus -- on Westerly Parkway -- or hoped-for millions in improvements at the deteriorating Memorial Field.

You look at the numbers, the financial reality of it all, and the situation begins to feel hopeless.

But as revealed in the history that Smith found, we've been here before.

In tough times, bold action
Our predecessors charted a way forward not with hand-wringing, despair or hopelessness, but with visionary strokes, bold action and a clear willingness to rile the citizenry.

That's what stood out most to me on Aug. 10, when Smith, in Paterno Library, offered a presentation: "Memorial Field: From Farm Sinkhole to Classic Small City Stadium."

Prompted by school-board Vice President Jim Pawelczyk, Smith has been assembling a comprehensive history of Memorial Field, the Depression-era stadium at the northeast corner of West Nittany Avenue and South Fraser Street.

So far, his research has taken him from the late 1800s up through the 1940s. That's when the school board, after World War II, changed the property's name to Memorial Field.

Well before that, though, as with the once-resisted high school across the street, just getting the stadium built was an uphill battle.

It had been the location of a farmer's field, but "I don't imagine the farmer could grow a whole lot there because it flooded," Smith said.

Then as now, the acreage -- a low point then called the Hollow -- housed a natural sinkhole that drained rainwater from 45 surrounding acres.

But location is everything, and it was adjacent to the then-new high school in 1914. The school board bought the acreage in the mid-1910s for $3,015, quickly banning its former use as a garbage dump and turning it into a playground-and-baseball area instead.

A few years later, in 1919, the school board formalized a drainage agreement with State College borough. That agreement, still in effect, officially permits the borough to funnel rainwater from the surrounding 45 acres into the sinkhole.

By 1925, the local Chamber of Commerce was advancing a concept to develop the property -- still called the Hollow -- into a more formal sports facility. The idea gained momentum in the late '20s, but progress on athletic-field improvements slowed when the Depression hit in 1929, Smith discovered.

It wasn't until the mid-1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the jobs-creating Works Progress Administration, that major advancements on the facility materialized.

Priced at roughly $100,000, the mostly WPA-financed, bona fide stadium project included permanent lights and bleachers, a running track and a grassy athletic field. An estimated 20 percent of the limestone excavated at the site was used to build the new stadium's walls.

Workers on the effort earned between 50 and 80 cents an hour, as Smith's research shows.

Finally, the stadium opened for its first game on Sept. 24, 1937. State High's football team won a victory over Yeagertown that night -- before a full house of 2,700 fans. (The seating capacity has grown since then to about 4,000.)

Of course, the sinkhole remains active, and the stadium still floods occasionally -- all these decades later.

The gift of 'iconic things'
Smith -- an activist and preservationist whose work provided the background for this column -- believes "that you should save iconic things."

And stadiums "are the cathedrals of America," as he said Aug. 10.

Memorial Field "gives identity to the local community."

"If you think about State College, there are some icons here that are important," Smith said.

Memorial Field certainly is one.

In a broader, philosophical sense, so is the local public-education system at large -- a top-flight system defined historically by dramatic and sometimes-unpopular moves.

Here's hoping that history -- for better or worse -- holds some inspiration for our sitting leaders.

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