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George Washington Atherton: Penn State's Lincoln

by on July 10, 2011 10:00 AM

Editor's note: Today we begin a series of stories on the development of North Atherton Street with a look at the man for whom the thoroughfare is named, the seventh president of Pennsylvania State College, George W. Atherton. The series will continue next weekend as we follow the street's expansion in conjunction with the building of the Lakes-to-Sea Highway (U.S. Route 322) and the explosion of growth that followed the more recent construction of Interstate 99.

If Evan Pugh, Penn State's first president, was the school's George Washington, George Washington Atherton was its Abraham Lincoln. Roger Williams made that assessment in his article "Celebrating Penn State's Two Founding Presidents" in AlumnInsider in February 2009.

"Like Washington, Pugh was our great founding president," Williams wrote, "while like Lincoln, Atherton was the great reconciliator."

Neither man found much of a structure to build on.

In our story on Pugh, we cited historian Jo Chesworth's account in "Story of the Century: The Borough of State College, 1896-1996" of the founder's arrival in October 1859.

"Entering the wooden shanty that was the school dining hall and kitchen, he was warmly greeted by the four professors and, as he recorded it, '110 unruly, unkempt boys, some as young as fifteen.' "

Atherton's impression 23 years later could not have been much better.

"(T)he town must have looked pretty gloomy to the transplanted New Englander and Yale graduate who had just spent twelve years on the faculty at Rutgers," Chesworth wrote. "Here there were no sidewalks, no sewers, no church, no school, and no physician. Hogs had the run of the town and wallowed in muddy streets after a rain. Social life was almost nonexistent."

Nevertheless, Atherton proclaimed the view from the cupola atop the school's main building "the most beautiful landscape in America."

Penn State had yet to take its position at the center of that "beautiful landscape," however, as Vivian Doty Hench wrote in "The History of State College 1896-1946."

"When George W. Atherton took over his presidential duties in 1882, there were only 87 students enrolled, five of whom were in the graduating class. The struggle to build up the social and educational reputation of the school in collegiate circles; the organization and reorganization of department after department; the plea for appropriations and gifts to build buildings and attract the best in personnel is not only the College's history, but also the story of the last 25 years of Dr. Atherton's life."

Atherton was 45 when he took over the presidency of what had been, until Pugh changed its name, The Farmers' High School.

He was born in Massachusetts, and after his father died when George was only 12, the boy worked in a cotton mill and on a farm to earn enough to help support his widowed mother and to pay his way at Philips Exeter, according to his biography in the Eberly Family Special Collections Library at Penn State.

Atherton entered Yale but withdrew to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War. He rose to the rank of captain in the 10th Connecticut Volunteer Regiment before failing health forced his discharge. He returned to Yale, graduated in 1863 and taught for several years at Albany Boys' Academy in New York and at St. John's College in Maryland. He then became a member of the first faculty of the University of Illinois, which he left to become professor of political science at Rutgers. In New Jersey, he also took a law degree and ran unsuccessfully for Congress.

By the time he arrived in Centre County, Atherton had a reputation for being a strong advocate of land-grant higher education.

"He had made one of the first studies of land-grant colleges in 1873, in response to gathering criticism about the institutions, and presented his findings to the National Education Association," Williams wrote in his alumni magazine story. "He also began to work off and on with Sen. (Justin Smith) Morrill (of Vermont) in drafting new legislation designed to require more federal funding of land-grant colleges."

Atherton – like his predecessors in the 20th and 21st centuries – worked feverishly to obtain state financial support for the school, as well.

According to his Penn State biography: "Atherton worked with state officers and legislators to alter the 'well nigh incredible, but sedulously fostered idea ... that the College had no more right to legislative appropriations than had other institutions.' With dignity and patience, he clarified facts which had been deliberately distorted by others, and slowly replaced the public's prevailing ignorance and misinformation with a more factual awareness of the College's purpose and potential."

As Williams wrote: "Atherton took a failing school and transformed it into a viable institution of great promise. By 1906, Penn State had more than 700 students and was ranked in the nation's top 10 in engineering enrollments. Athletics, literary societies, and student clubs came into being. The college was organized into schools and departments, and a number of new buildings graced the campus – Old Botany, the Armory, Schwab Auditorium, and Carnegie Library."

Other members of the Atherton family also contributed greatly to the educational and social life of the town that grew around the school. Atherton's wife, Frances "Fanny" Atherton was instrumental in establishing a Woman's Literary Club for State College, which eventually became The State College Woman's Club. Its members appointed her their honorary president, according to a history of the club posted at the Centre County Historical Society's website.

And the Athertons' son, Charles M. H. Atherton, also made his mark. As the history of the Penn State Glee Club notes:

"Charles M. H. Atherton brought stable leadership to the Club, beginning as director in 1893. Atherton, the son of Penn State President George Atherton, was himself a Penn State alumnus, having earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1892. Atherton was also a student athlete who excelled in both baseball and football, and he is credited with kicking the first recorded field goal by placement in any college game.

"Glee Club programs under Atherton were affable affairs, the second half of which often veered into revue and sketch comedy. Skits depicted student life with a mixture high jinks and Penn State college songs. A clever jab at a donnish professor could lead into a rousing chorus of 'Hail to Old State' or the Alma Mater.

The Athertons immersed themselves into every aspect of town and gown life.

"In the late 1890s, bicycling was a national fad, and few local people enjoyed it more than Dr. Atherton himself," Chesworth wrote.

"He, daughter Helen, and son Charlie often went 'wheeling,' as it was called, with Ladies' Cottage administrator Harriet McElwain and vice president James McKee and his family. The portly Dr. Atherton rode a sturdy Columbia 'wheel,' which had cost $100 from Garman's in Bellefonte, equivalent to close to $1000 in today's money. And he especially enjoyed wheeling over Centre Hall mountain. 'The exercise is ever so good,' said Miss McElwain, 'and when we reach the top we have an excellent coast down the other side. Excellent.' "

But eventually, Atherton's health again failed. Chesworth wrote: "In 1905, Dr. Atherton suffered a severe bronchial attack and on the advice of his physician spent the winter in California. When he returned in the spring, he was much improved but suffered a relapse after making a business trip to New York City. His last official act was to award diplomas at the 1906 commencement."

So important was he to its life, many residents wanted to rename the town itself "Atherton."

The Times, reprinted in Chesworth's history, reported that effort on Oct. 26, 1906, under the headline "SHALL OUR VILLAGE BE NAMED ATHERTON? An Opportunity for Our People to Pay a Fitting and Lasting Tribute to President Atherton and the Magnificent Work he Has Done for the State of Pennsylvania."

The Times story noted: "A popular move which has been generally discussed recently has within the last couple of days taken the form of a petition, already signed by a majority of our citizens, to the Court asking that the name Atherton be bestowed upon our beautiful town.

"The petition states 'That we have been long much disadvantage because the name State College is so easily and generally confused with The Pennsylvania State College.

"In order to allay any fears that may arise in regards to the effect of making this change, legal advice was obtained. ... The advice was to the effect that the expense should not exceed fifteen dollars, including all legal fees, and that the change cannot cause any legal complications or disturbance or other expense to any of the interests of the towns or its residents."

Students, especially, applauded the name-change idea.

"One of the most vigorous supporters of the Atherton name was The Lemon, [the underground student publication ... short-lived predecessor to longtime humor magazine Froth] whose editors jeeringly branded the town 'State Colic,' " Chesworth wrote. "The petition attracted 150 signatures before any serious objections were raised, and when they came they were chiefly economic.

"The bank complained that it would cost $250 to reprint all its stationery, and other businessmen chorused, 'Too much paperwork!' A counter-petition went the rounds, and the movement suddenly died, with only The Lemon refusing to give up, and using Atherton, Pa., as its dateline from then on."

It may be considered ironic by some that the local bank was primarily responsible for preventing State College from being renamed Atherton when today, more than two dozen financial institutions have branch offices on the street named for Penn State's "second founder."

And, as Hench wrote: "So vital a part was he of the very life and breath of the campus, that even upon his death in 1906, he did not leave it, but was buried near its center, beside Schwab auditorium."

You can watch a video on George W. Atherton, Penn State's "second founder" and seventh president, here.

Rich Kerstetter is managing editor of Follow him on Twitter at or get news updates via Facebook at Rich can be reached at [email protected] or at (814) 238-6201 Ext. 135.
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