Saturday, November 15, 2008

University Park Campus, The Pennsylvania State University

Well, since my first contribution to the Grave Yard Rabbit is just after the spooky season of Halloween, the (seemingly never-ending) presidential election season, and the patriotic day to remember our Veterans, I thought it would be best fitting to write about the seventh president of the Pennsylvania State University.

George Washington Atherton (1837-1906) was a veteran of the Civil War (Company K, Tenth Connecticut Volunteers), and served as president of the Pennsylvania State University from the fall of 1882 until his death in July 1906. He was well educated, and was quite capable as president of Penn State, adding several more degree programs and buildings to the then tiny campus before his death. Atherton is remembered as one of the most influential presidents of the university.
So, that ties Atherton to the themes of presidential matters, and military veterans, but why is he tied to the spooks of Halloween? Well, his unusual burial location lends itself to a ghostly tale told every year as the new batch of freshmen arrives on campus.

President Atherton is buried on the Penn State campus, on the side of Schwab Auditorium (a building he supposedly haunts) and just yards away from the “mall” of trees leading to the massive Pattee (Pah-tee) Library. It is located along the main road through campus, Pollock, and is pretty centrally located. The gravesite has been designed as a place that enables students to rest (there is a bench that is at the grave, but not so close as to insist that anyone who uses it must be there paying their respects), and perhaps as a place to meet up with friends (but, truthfully, I’ve never heard anyone say, “Hey! Meet me at Atherton’s grave!"). It is a landmark that everyone on campus comes to know by the end of their college careers.

Although the ghost of President Atherton is said to haunt the stage in Schwab Auditorium, that isn’t the famous Atherton ghost story. Directly across the road from Atherton’s final resting spot is an odd looking building known as “Old Botany.” The legend says that a set of windows on the building resemble a pair of eyes, and it is through those window-eyes that the ghost of Frances Washburn Atherton keeps watch over her husband’s grave. The ghost is said to make noises, turn lights on and off, and open doors. People have reported seeing the figure of a woman in the windows when the building is closed.

Ghost stories aside, Frances (1836-1913) is well remembered in her own right. She ran her house and raised her children in the typical way of a wife and mother of the late 1800s. On top of those responsibilities, she educated her own children and those of Penn State faculty members in her home, as well as managing all of the hostess duties of the wife of a college president. In 1938 a women’s dormitory was built on the campus and named in her honor. The dormitory is no longer strictly for women, but it is tied to another ghost story on campus:

On November 28, 1969 a beautiful, young, hard-working student with a lot of promise named Betsy left her Atherton Hall dorm room to do research in Pattee Library. It was Thanksgiving weekend, but she wasn’t alone. A group of dedicated students had stayed on campus and some were at the library that day. Betsy went into “the stacks” – an admittedly ill-lit creepy part of the library (if only for the endless tall rows of books and lack of windows, accessed by tiny winding staircases that could induce a claustrophobic attack) - apparently looking for a book. It is there that she was attacked, stabbed by an assailant that has never been found with a knife that has never been recovered. By most accounts, it is by pure luck that the murderer got away, and Betsy died at the library.
It has been a Penn State legend for many years that Betsy’s ghost haunts the stacks, and it is a story that breaks my heart.

I’ll leave this post with a picture from my next assignment, a cemetery in Lemont, Centre County, PA that has at least one occupant showing their Penn State pride…

Just Some Notes:
*I spent my fair share of time at Penn State, and I still find it odd that President Atherton is buried on campus. I am curious as to where his wife is buried. If I find it, I’ll post about it!
*I’m not one to really believe ghost stories – I just think that they are an interesting way to encourage people to investigate history. I think the reality of the tragedy can be overlooked when people are busy trying to give each other a quick scare, and I find the whole “ghost of Betsy” story to be especially tragic, since she still has living relatives and friends that miss her and mourn her loss.
*If I’m wrong, and ghosts do exist, you’ll be able to find my ghost at a five-star resort.


Linda in Lancaster said...

Welcome to Graveyard Rabbits as the "Central PA's" representative. Love your PSU story . . . and great pix!
Looks like I may have crossed over into your "territory" a bit with my posting on Perry County! I do have family buried in Perry, Juniata, Snyder, Centre and Union Counties, so may once in a great while post a story or two about their grave sites. Feel free to come on down to Lancaster County, though!
I'm following your blog and looking forward to more of your stories!! We have an awesome area to cover, don't we?

Linda in Lancaster said...

We're playing tag again, and you're it!