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This Week's Other Grim Anniversary

by on September 14, 2016 5:00 AM

When I read about guns on campus I think of what happened on the HUB lawn 20 years ago this week.

When a friend in New York asks me how the murder of my colleague Ron Bettig and the sexual assaults on children committed by Jerry Sandusky could happen in the “safe haven” of State College, I think of what happened that drizzly Sept. 17.

When I show my journalism classes photos of distraught students in the HUB after the 9/11 attacks, I think of similar photos that were taken in the HUB five years earlier.

I was the features editor at the Centre Daily Times in 1996. I’d been on the job less than a year. I’d barely settled into the day’s work when I heard on the “squawk box” – the police scanner – about a shooting on the Penn State campus.

Our reporters hadn’t come in yet. “I think I should go over there,” I said to the paper’s executive editor. “Go,” he said.

When I got to campus I saw a blanket covering the body of Melanie Spalla, an undergraduate from Altoona. I heard that Nicholas Mensah, a student from Ghana, had been seriously wounded. I heard about the bullet that penetrated student Kerry Butler’s backpack.

And I learned of how a student named Brendon Malovrh reacted when he heard the gunshots and saw the wisps of smoke rising from the trees at the upper corner of the HUB lawn.

Malovrh charged in and wrested the rifle from the hands of the shooter. The shooter lunged at him with a hunting knife. Malovrh jumped back. The shooter, slashing wildly, stabbed herself in the thigh. Malovrh then stanched her wound with the belt of his trench coat until the police could take over.

Before Malovrh showed up, the shooter had loaded four more rounds in her rifle.

Later, I heard about the other heroes: Holly Garlitz, the student who pulled Nicholas Mensah to safety behind a tree; Dan Browne, the student who called 911; Janette Moore, the nursing staff assistant who ran for medical supplies; and student Cory Kline, who lay down beside Mensah, held his hand and talked to him while nursing instructors Sharon Falkenstern and Becky Beatty worked to keep Mensah alive until the ambulance arrived.

(Brendon Malovrh and Holly Garlitz each received Carnegie Hero Fund awards.)

Then there was the shooter: 19 years old, not a Penn State student. She had walked to campus from her apartment in Toftrees that morning, stopping en route to buy a newspaper and an orange juice. She supposedly spread out a tarp or a jacket under the tree on the HUB lawn and read the paper. Then she opened fire.

She told police she didn’t know why she did it. (After she began serving a 30-60 year prison sentence she wrote a letter to the Centre Daily Times saying, “If by trading my own life I could undo my actions, I would in an instant.")

Out-of-town reporters poured into State College throughout the day: Violence in America was common, but campus violence was rare. Indeed, Melanie Spalla was the first murder victim at Penn State since Betsy Aardsma was stabbed by an unknown assailant in Pattee Library in 1969. There hasn’t been another campus murder here since Sept. 17, 1996.

Still, there are no safe havens, as this week of grim anniversaries – 15 years for the 9/11 attacks, 20 years for the HUB lawn shootings – not to mention two armed robberies downtown and a traffic fatality on North Atherton Street, reminds us.

“This is not supposed to happen here,” a spokesperson told the CDT when the victims of the HUB lawn shootings arrived at Centre Community Hospital. “Not in Happy Valley.”

That’s what people said when Jerry Sandusky was indicted. It’s what people always say when horrific tragedies strike communities that think of themselves as islands of tranquility.

It’s not pleasant to remember or be reminded of such terrible events, but we honor the victims and the heroes when we do. Remembering also prods us to think about the kind of world we want to live in. As one Penn State senior put it back in 1996, “You shouldn’t have to be scared walking to class at 9:30 in the morning.”


My memories of 1996 have been aided by re-reading the stories published in the CDT and the Daily Collegian. If you’d like to contribute your own recollections of that grim day to a living memory archive, go to HUB 321 between noon and 2 p.m. on Friday.

Also on Friday from noon to 2, the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences is holding a Constitution Day event called “Between the First and Second Amendments” in HUB 232.

The concurrent sessions kick off a series of campus events being planned around the theme, “Talking Together About Guns.”


A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled ÔÇťAmong the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," was published this fall by the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place in the Commentary-Non Daily category of the Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter 2017 Spotlight contest. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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