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State Patty’s Day: Reflection of Indiscretions

Two weeks ago at a Penn State Trustee meeting, a number of us who are of a “more advanced” age were discussing some of the traditions at Dear Old State. By chance, one of the very first columns I’d written for StateCollege.com discussed those times in light of State Patty’s Day. Back then State Patty’s Day was very controversial. Despite intense pressure from the administration it endures.

So today we resurrect that column from Feb. 25, 2010, and update the THON fundraising number (they raised $7.8 million that year). So here is that column, with some minor updates, and a look at a slice of Penn State history:

The uproar over State Patty’s Day has resulted in university and borough leaders condemning an entire day devoted to drinking as a sign that this generation of young people has somehow reached a new low.

Before there is any misunderstanding, this column is not a State Patty’s Day advocacy piece. Excessive drinking exacts a terrible toll on individuals and on society. In years past, there has been a spike in the amount of crime on State Patty’s Day, and some students have gotten into trouble and made mistakes.

But to believe that this event somehow signals a new depravity on the part of our students is to deny the history of Penn State and State College.

Truth be told, Penn State and State College have seen wilder days. Not that it excuses some of the things that are happening now, but a little perspective never hurt those who judge following generations.

A wise man once said that the hardest thing to do when you reach 60 is to remember what you were like when you were 20. It turns out that our previous generations were far from perfect.

State Patty’s Day is filling a void that was once filled by The Sy Barash Regatta, Gentle Thursday, The Briarwood Bash, The Sailor’s Ball (which included eating live goldfish) and another event that involved eating live salamanders (what would PETA  think of that?). All of these events occurred in the spring and involved—you guessed it—all-day drinking.

Another big spring event was The Phi Psi 500, a day-long race where runners ran a road course through downtown State College and into and out of six or seven bars. The course was around 1 mile in length, and in each bar the runners would chug a beer.

There was no borough ordinance banning open containers of alcohol, so the streets were lined with spectators drinking beers they brought from home. The sidewalks were four and five people deep as thousands of spectators turned out to watch the serious runners in the morning and then watch the “runners” wearing costumes who turned the race into a Mardi Gras-esque parade.

The charity event filled bars, restaurants and hotels in town during a slow time of the year. Ultimately, toward the mid-to-late 1980s, the powers that be felt the event that was inconsistent with the image they wanted for the town and for the university. 

But wait there’s more…

Until the mid-1980s it was permissible to have parties in the dorms—parties that included the consumption of alcohol. All a student had to do was register the party with the resident assistant and get the OK. Once the OK was given, students could roll kegs into the study lounge on a Friday or Saturday night, get a DJ and the party was on.

Golf parties were common as well—a golf party being one where 18 different dorm rooms each served a different drink. The goal for some was to play all 18 holes.

And yet there’s more…

Would you believe that hard-core, XXX-rated pornography used to be shown in the Forum on campus each weekend? (Obviously long before the internet).

At that time student groups would rent films from a distributor and show them on campus, charging a fee to raise money for their organizations. We saw plenty of films on campus from “Stripes,” to Monty Python to a black-and-white version of “Hamlet” that our mom dragged us to when I was 10.

Some enterprising student groups realized that there was money to be made by showing pornography and charging people to see it. They even ran ads for the XXX movies in The Collegian. The administration knew about it and did nothing for years.

But at least it was an alcohol-free event.

This is not to condone the behavior that occurred on past State Patty’s Days, or all the things that happened years ago. It simply raises them as evidence that Penn State and State College have had a long, complicated relationship managing the limits of collegiate fun and frivolity. This is in no way a new challenge, nor is it likely to ever go away.

The truth of the matter is that as a person gets older it is human nature for the memory to get hazy at the edges, particularly the less-flattering edges of youthful indiscretion. They tend to look at the successive generations as being ever less virtuous in their behavior than their generation.

But no generation ever held a monopoly on virtue, nor has any generation cornered the market on debauchery.

Having seen the Bryce Jordan Center [two weekends ago] as thousands upon thousands of students raised over $15 million for the fight against pediatric cancer, we should find it hard to condemn an entire group for what a small group of the whole may do on a day like State Patty’s Day.