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Penn State Urban Legends

by on May 03, 2011 3:45 PM

Like most communities of a certain size, Penn State has its share — more so, perhaps — of myths that have become part of the popular culture. Some are based, however loosely, on actual facts and, as more believe in them, have taken on an (alternate) reality of their own. 

Here’s a look at some of Penn State’s more enduring urban legends.

Free ride from CATA 

Most Penn Staters have heard the two most popular versions of the CATA bus legend — a student receives free tuition if hit by a CATA bus or, if their roommate is actually killed by a CATA bus, automatic straight A’s and a 4.0 grade point average. Upon investigation, however, it’s probably not wise to push anyone onto the street in an attempt to boost your GPA. 

A more recent variation is that if a student is hit by a CATA bus and survives, he or she is given a free ride — a literal free ride on the bus, not a scholarship — although a roommate with a questionable grade status may be hoping against a recovery. 

But according to Bill Mahon, vice president of university relations, students get straight A’s by working hard in their classes and performing well on exams. 

Who would have thought? 

And as far as the free ride of the other sort, CATA’s only affiliation with Penn State is its contract to provide Loop and Link services to the university and, thus, is in no position to provide free tuition. 

Two's company, five's a brothel

If you're in the Greek system, you probably have heard that sororities, unlike fraternities, do not have houses because it is against state law for more than five women to live in a house together. Such an arrangement, it is said, would be considered a brothel. If you're in a sorority, you probably also think the law is outdated, sexist and should be repealed. That point of view has one thing going for it: The law in question does not exist. 

Penn State actually had sorority houses prior to the 1950s. Sororities were first housed in on-campus "cottages" that were previously used for faculty housing. These cottages could house only 12 women comfortably, and the sororities outgrew them. Sororities chose to remain on campus, however. South and Pollock halls offered more space and had suites available for chapter activities. 

Town leaders have often acknowledged that local zoning laws do not specifically prohibit sorority houses, but other regulations prohibit more than three unrelated people from living in one house in residential areas. 

State College has three main zoning areas: residential, commercial and university. Most fraternities, of course, house more than three unrelated people, but they are either located in commercial zones or they were founded before the regulation took effect.

Ted Bundy murdered a student in Pattee Library 

“The stacks” in Pattee Library are creepy enough without knowing that a murder took place there in the 1960s. This much is true. The legend is that the murder was committed by notorious serial killer Ted Bundy. 

In late November 1969, Besty Aardsma, a Penn State graduate student, was in the level two stacks of Pattee when she was stabbed by an unknown assailant. She was found lying on the floor and, because her red dress disguised what little blood there was, she was thought to have suffered a seizure. She was then taken to Ritenour Health Center, where were she was pronounced dead. Only after an autopsy was the death ruled a homicide and an investigation launched. 

It is not known where the rumor of Bundy’s involvement came, but supposedly Bundy discovered that his real father lived in the Philadelphia area and visited him there in 1969. 

Rumors and speculations aside, Bundy's movements have been well documented. He was in California by Thanksgiving of '69. Fingerprints found at the murder scene do not match any in the National Crime Information Center database, where Bundy's would be on file. And the single, fatal wound Aardsma suffered did not fit Bundy's criminal profile. So while the case has not been solved, it is pretty safe to say that the Ted Bundy Penn State urban legend is not true.

What lies below?

Another partially fact-based urban legend deals with the system of tunnels at University Park. Many people know the tunnels exist, but not why they were built, how far they extend and what their purpose is. Thus the myths. 

The extent of the tunnels is a favorite. Some people say every building on campus is connected by tunnels that cross College Avenue and even lead to Beaver Stadium. 

Paul Ruskin, communications and public affairs coordinator for the Office of Physical Plant, says the tunnels are only half the story. What really interests him are the fallout shelters.

During the Cold War, almost every community in America, including Penn State, designed fallout shelters. In 1961, East Halls became one. The entire East Halls complex is connected by underground hallways, which, during the 1960s were stocked with in-case-of-attack supplies such as family radiation kits, survival crackers, radios and gas lanterns. The tunnels were never designed to be bomb shelters, but they did offer defense from radiation and allow occupants to prepare for a possible nuclear war. 

Other Penn State fallout shelters were established in the basements of Hammond, Electrical Engineering, Sacket, Chambers, Education and Psychology Unit #2, Foods Building, Earth Science Building and the West Campus Steam Plant.

Today, the tunnels under East Halls act as hallways that link buildings, but they are also used as electrical and telecomm conduits, for storage and as employee break rooms. The underground hallways are also occasionally used as holding areas for shipments of equipment such as student micro-fridges. 

Ruskin said mysterious tunnels are "just hallways which allow movement between buildings in the same way Disney employees move underneath the Epcot Center."

The sideways skyscraper 

Another not-so-tall Penn-State-tale has to do with what many consider to be one of the most unattractive buildings on campus: the Hammond Building. Hammond stretches 609 feet, nearly three blocks, along College Avenue, and a popular Penn State urban legend suggests that it was actually intended to rise vertically from its base.

As the myth goes, the Hammond Building was designed to be a skyscraper, and the hallways were actually intended to be elevator shafts. Because of a conflict between the architects and engineers, however, the building wound up lying on its side. 

Simon Bronner, a professor of American studies and folklore at Penn State Harrisburg, has spent a portion of his career analyzing campus folklore at Penn State and other universities. In his book, “Piled Higher and Deeper: The Folklore of Campus Life," Bronner reveals that he has seen the original plans for the so-called “sideways skyscraper.” Hammond was designed to be a horizontal, not vertical, building, Bronner says, debunking the popular myth.

The center of everything

 Many Penn Staters like to believe their university is the center of the universe (or at least Pennsylvania), and one oft-told story credits the sun dial on the Old Main Lawn with being the exact geographical center of the state. This, however, is not the case. 

The sun dial on the Old Main Lawn holds no geographic significance; it was simply a gift from the class of 1915. And how can you calculate the “exact center” of an irregularly shaped object such as the state of Pennsylvania? Some try, however, and insist that the center is, indeed, in Centre County. Some university cartographers place it near Bellefonte.

Penn State high 

Many accept that, as its original title would suggest, Penn State began as a high school. Acceptance does not make for accuracy. 

Named The Farmer's High School in 1855, the institution began as an agricultural college with the authority to grant baccalaureate degrees. The founders hoped to apply science to farming but were met with skepticism from farmers who did not trust a college curriculum that stressed traditional subjects. Thus, the college was named The Farmer's High School until 1862. 

Dana is a Penn State senior majoring in broadcast journalism and is a news intern. She can be reached at [email protected]
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