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A Team Effort: Renaissance Honorees Tom and Sara Songer have served their community – together

by on September 27, 2018 10:24 AM

The concept of teamwork is important to Tom and Sara Songer. Both are quick to credit others with helping them achieve success, and frequently cite the value of people working together, whether they are talking about their marriage, their family, or their professional lives.

So it seems fitting that, as this year’s Renaissance Fund Honorees, the Songers are being recognized as a team – one of only seven couples to be honored simultaneously since 1977.

The couple met while working at The Terrace Room in the HUB at Penn State, where Sara was a nursing student and Tom was pursuing his civil engineering degree.

“I think I caught his eye because I could carry 12 plates on a hotel tray, whereas everybody else could only carry about six,” Sara says with a laugh.

In this setting, the two started working together as a team, covering each other’s shifts when necessary. It was during one of these shifts that Sara first took an unwitting stand toward women’s equality.

“I was covering for Tom – he had a class, and they had him scheduled to work the steam counter, so I started taking the stuff out and putting it in the steam counter, and the supervisor came over and said, ‘You can’t do that! Women can’t work the steam counter; only men work the steam counter!’ I had been working since I was 16 and I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to; it never occurred to me. I said, ‘Why?’ And that changed that,” she says.

The couple married in 1968, paying for their wedding rings with money raised by selling soda in Beaver Stadium.

“We found out that the best place to go was the west side because that’s where the students were. You were allowed to bring booze in the stadium then, and they all wanted Coke to go with their rum,” Sara says. “So I’d fill up a rack while Tom was selling a rack in the stands. We worked as a team even then; people didn’t normally do that.”

Holding a job throughout their college years was a given, in keeping with the way both were raised – Tom as the son of a lumberman in Brookville, and Sara as the daughter of a Bedford businessman.

“The values we were taught as young people – starting working at a young age, being responsible and accountable for your actions – those are the values that have stayed with us throughout our life, and values that we instilled in our children, Tommy and Aaron,” Tom says. “Both of our sons and their wives are Penn State grads. We all believe in Penn State and the high-quality education that we received from Penn State helped prepare us for life.”

Tom completed his B.S. in civil engineering in 1970, and Sara earned her B.S. in nursing in 1972. Tom began his career with Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, while Sara did her clinical training at Allegheny General Hospital.

Even as the couple began to raise their young family, Sara continued to work and to advance her nursing education, which was somewhat unusual for the times. She credits the help of family and good babysitters for allowing her to pursue her career.

“My kids were raised by committee,” she says. “It was a constant balancing act.”

The couple returned to State College when Sara was offered a job teaching obstetric and gynecologic nursing for Penn State.

“Tom told me to take the job because he thought all faculty jobs came with football tickets,” she jokes.

Tom started working for a small engineering firm, eventually breaking out on his own to purchase a local engineering consulting business, Uni-Tec, with partner Frank Welsh in 1976, despite a lack of business experience.

“We really didn’t have any business skills,” Tom says. “We believed that if we ran our business according to the golden rule and did the right thing, we would be successful, and really that’s proven to be true. In addition, we always had a very good staff, many of whom were Penn State graduates, that enabled our firm to design high-quality developments for our clients.” 

The business grew from three employees to more than 50 employees in just six years, and it was during this time that Tom discovered a passion for land development. His first venture into ownership and development came when he joined forces with Cal Zimmerman to develop Cato Park in Ferguson Township. Uni-Tec moved into the new office park, eventually breaking into three separate businesses – PennTerra Engineering, Uni-Tec Consulting Engineers, and CMT Labs. Tom maintained ownership of PennTerra.

“We probably could have sold our company to some big consulting firm and financially we could have done a lot better, but that’s not what we’re about,” he says. “We wanted to give others the same opportunity that we had.” 

Tom went on to become involved in the design and development of many of State College’s high-profile developments, including Chestnut Ridge, Good Hope Farms, Stonebridge, Saybrook, Haymarket, Aspen Heights, Stearns Crossing, Thompson Woods, Spring Creek Estates, Buchanan Centre, and many more. He is grateful to local developers like Gordon Kissinger, J. Alvin Hawbaker, and Glenn O. Hawbaker.

“Those were the gentlemen who were doing most of the development outside of the borough as I was starting into designing residential and non-residential developments, so they were really in many ways my mentors,” he says. "I think our community benefits from the vision that those men had in building high-quality developments. And they did it before we had all the rules and regulations we have today. They just did development the right way because they were men of high integrity. I learned a lot from them about how to design and create high-quality developments.”

At the end of 1997, Tom decided to downsize, selling PennTerra to an employee, John Sepp, and forming The Torron Group. Today, the company consists of four employees: Tom, Sara, office manager Cindy Woodring, and accounting manager Bobbi Jo Shannon, who works for the company remotely from Minnesota.

“Both of those people complement Sara and me; we all just want a small work environment,” Tom says. “They know their job, and they know how to do it. … We check each other. It’s really worked out well.”

“We have a great working relationship,” says Woodring, who has worked the Songers for more than 19 years “They are both amazing people. I couldn’t have found better people to work for. I feel honored just to be an employee of theirs. They love to give back to the community and I see it all the time, in small ways and in large ways.”

For Tom’s next major project, he will be partnering with Mark Morath, CEO of Hospitality Asset Management Company (HAMCO) to develop the Bellefonte Waterfront, from High Street to Lamb Street, including a hotel, storefronts, and condominiums.

“We feel very fortunate that the Bellefonte borough council and the industrial development authority chose to give us this opportunity,” he says. “If we are successful, Mark and I believe this will be the beginning of a renaissance for Bellefonte.”

While Tom was making his mark on the community, Sara was busy making her own mark through her extensive nursing career. She received her M.S. in nursing from Penn State in 1978, and worked at many levels at Centre Community Hospital and Mount Nittany Medical Center, from clinician to educator to administrator.

Before retiring from Mount Nittany Medical Center as a performance improvement nurse and clinical coordinator in 2011, she worked as a forensic examiner for victims of sexual assault, held several administrative and managerial positions, and taught many nursing classes across the state and the East Coast. Among many achievements, Sara credits her nursing team at Centre Community Hospital with first developing the informational printouts that now come standard with pharmacy prescriptions.

Although their career paths may seem vastly different, Tom sees some similarities in their chosen vocations.

“We both received a high-quality education from Penn State in civil engineering and nursing, which provided us with the opportunity to do good things for people in general – things to improve one’s quality of life and health in general,” he says.

Both Tom and Sara have been active volunteers throughout the years. Tom was involved in the Juniata Valley Council of the Boy Scouts of America, earning the rank of Life Scout, and has served on the board of many local organizations, including the Chamber of Business and Industry, Centre Foundation, Centre County United Way, Clearwater Conservancy, Centre Peace, Centre County Industrial Development Authority, and more. Sara has volunteered for the Women’s Resource Center, Center Volunteers in Medicine, the College of Nursing Dean’s Advisory and Development Council, and WPSU Board of Representatives.

They have also established scholarships at Penn State, including a nursing endowment in honor of Dr. Edna Treasure, Dr. Laurel Copp, and John "Jack" Branigan, individuals who played crucial roles in Sara’s nursing education; and a wrestling scholarship in Intercollegiate Athletics. Tom was the first wrestler from his high school in Brookville to win a District IX championship and wrestled for two years at Lycoming College before transferring to Penn State.

Mimi Barash Coppersmith, chairwoman of the Renaissance Fund selection committee and Town&Gown’s founder, says of the Songers: “I think that their individual interests are recognized in their total philanthropy. Sara’s interest has always been in the area of improving life for women, and Tom’s has been in the area of improving conditions for business in the community. Together, they have a massive record of service on and off campus. … They each, both separately and together, have been model citizens of the community.”

Tom is quick to acknowledge his wife’s role in their achievements: “For us, I give Sara full credit – I couldn’t have done what I did without her unwavering support. It’s been a team effort for our whole lives. But it’s not just about us, it’s about the community in which we live. Being able to be recognized by Penn State and the community and being able to support the Penn State Renaissance Scholarship Fund means a great deal to us.”

 

The Songers will be honored at a dinner on November 8. An endowed scholarship has been created in their name, and contributions toward the Tom and Sara Songer Renaissance Scholarship Fund are being accepted at giveto.psu.edu/renaissance.

Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.

 

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