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Penn State Brandywine's "Funofficial" History is 40 Years of Good Humor

Penn State Brandywine is celebrating its 40th anniversary during the 2007-08 academic year, and with it the rich history of the campus. While many folks may know that the campus opened in a converted fish market and dry goods store in Chester back in 1967, or that the Tomezsko Classroom Building opened nearly a decade ago,  this article highlights some of the lighter—and often humorous—episodes in campus history that aren't so well known.

(1967) One Campus, No Books
In 1967, Penn State University President, Dr. Eric Walker, scheduled a visit to the Delaware County campus to meet with the campus' newly formed advisory board. Campus Director John Vairo was happy to have the University president and other dignitaries on campus for this meeting, but he was a bit embarrassed that the campus didn't have a library. Money was tight, but it seemed reasonable that the campus should have someplace for students to study and do research.

Vairo had heard that the Penn State New Kensington campus was building a library, and so he called the sister campus to inquire if they had any materials that Vairo could use to create a makeshift library in advance of Dr. Walker's visit. He found out that there were, in fact, some leftover shelves, and was told that the Penn State Brandywine campus could have them.

Vairo drove out to New Kensington and picked up the shelves. After the shelves were mounted in a room on campus, Vairo went to a Penn State University continuing education facility in Swarthmore operating at that time, and asked if they had books that he could put on the bookshelves. People who worked there pretty much gave him whatever they happened to have at the time—mostly books on electrical engineering—and would regularly drop off similar titles at Penn State Brandywine. Now, the big meeting was going to take place, and the campus had a few bookshelves, and perhaps a few dozen books. This was progress!

When Walker and the advisory board members got together, the meeting went fine. After the meeting, Walker shook a bunch of hands, and then he and Vairo struck up a conversation. During their talk, Walker, an engineer by trade, confided to Vairo, "I see you have a few books here. I wouldn't have understood these books when I was working on my Ph.D. Let's see about getting you some books that your students can really use."

After that, the University provided the Delaware County campus with hundreds of general interest books, and Walker even procured a piano for the campus.

"A lot of folks would complain that folks at University Park didn't care much about the (other) campuses, but in my experiences, that hasn't been true," he said. "Dr. Walker was a friend of the campus, and every president after his was a friend of the campus, as well."

(1974) Student Anger with Facilities Bubbles over
Penn State Brandywine was "moving on up" in 1969 when the campus moved to its current 100-acre location in Lima, but aside from the Main Building and three small modular units where classes were held, there was little else to get excited about. The campus did not have a library or a gymnasium in January of 1974, when students decided to take matters into their own hands, according to former Campus Director John Vairo.

"There was no building where students could go to study or do much of anything else, so in January of that year, they built their own," said Vairo, of a temporary structure assembled from thin steel poles and a plastic tarpaulin. "These kids were very honest. They insisted on having additional space, to which they were entitled. After gym classes, which were held outside, students used to get cleaned up with a hose in a janitor's closet in the Main Building. The modular units didn't even have water in them. They deserved better than we could give them at the time."

The "plastic bubble," as it was known, was used for several weeks by students as a place to study, eat lunch, or simply unwind. During a short demonstration on a cold February Day, campus maintenance workers razed the makeshift structure, and the great bubble protest ended quickly with little additional fanfare or impact. For his part, Vairo was not all that upset over the students' efforts—in fact, he was sort of proud. He had been fighting the good fight to get funding for the campus for many years.

"It was really hard not being able to provide the space they deserved and that they wanted. If this would help loosen the (state's or University's) purse strings a little, I felt as though I could stand beside them in support of their efforts," said Vairo.

While a campus can always use more classrooms, research labs, and various amenities, we are happy to report that running water in the buildings is no longer an issue at Penn State Brandywine.

(1976) A Big Kick and a Nice Save by JoePa
The year was 1976 and a young student from Jamaica who began fall semester a couple of weeks late, Courtney Bailey, was seeking a last-minute tryout for the Penn State Brandywine Soccer Team. Practice had been going on for three weeks, and an assistant coach was in the process of explaining how the roster was pretty much set, according to Coach Dan Doran.

"I happened to walk over and asked Courtney if he would kick a ball. There was a ball on the sideline just about mid-field and he hit it with his left foot toward the goal," Doran recalled. "The 50-yard kick fell about three feet short of the goal, and the coaching staff looked at each other with a gleam in their eyes. Courtney laughed and said, 'I am right footed.'"

The team flourished that year with Bailey as its star player and leading scorer and made it the Commonwealth Campus League championship game, where it was locked in a tough battle with the team from the Mont Alto campus. The seconds were ticking away, and it wasn't looking good for the Penn State Brandywine squad.

"The score was tied going into the last five minutes of the game and they were pressuring our goalie, Scott Resnick, who played an outstanding game," said Doran. "At one point our goalie came out to the 12 yard line to retrieve a ball and was knocked down. As I looked up I saw one of their forwards unleashing a kick that was headed for the net. I thought the game was over—our goalie was still on the ground with several of our defensive players, and the ball was now about three feet from the center of the goal. Out of nowhere one of the fullbacks who had collided with another player on the goal line popped his head up and deflected the ball out to the side. What a save!"

As the clock wound down to two minutes remaining in the game, the Mont Alto defense was stifling. Unable to mount any kind of offensive attack, Penn State Brandywine sent the ball back to its center halfback, none other than Courtney Bailey, who promptly drilled a 35-yard rocket into the net for the game winner.

A phone conversation preceding the big game added to the special day. Doran had called the athletics department at University Park a few days earlier to see if the soccer team could attend the Penn State football game after their 10 a.m. game at the big campus. He was caught by surprised when none other than Joe Paterno answered the phone.

"We chatted for a minute and I asked him if there were any tickets for the football game. Mr. Paterno was very nice and asked me how many I needed and I related that I needed 24 tickets, to which Joe replied, 'I gotta hear this one,'" Doran recalled. "I told my story of a campus soccer team making their first championship playoff and 24 players never having visited State College. Joe asked me how many coaches we had and I related that we had two but the coaches did not need to go to the game. He paused for a minute, I could hear him talking to someone else, then returned to the phone and said that there would be 26 tickets waiting at the will call window. He wished us well in our game and then ended the conversation."

After the pulse-pounding victory over Mont Alto, the Penn State Brandywine Soccer Team proudly watched the football game, and their stature as Commonwealth Champions was announced over the loud speaker at halftime.

"A few years later and again in 2005 I saw Mr. Paterno. We shook hands and all I said was '26 soccer tickets,' and Joe beamed a big smile and chuckled," said Doran.

 (1979) The Tree House Incident—Rolling into Trouble
If the Big C Roller Rink stories defined the Delaware County Campus during its Chester years, The Tree House Incident emerged as the quintessential bit of lore from the earlier days at Lima.

The day the Tree House (it's always capitalized reverentially when we old-timers speak of it) was discovered and—almost simultaneously—the largest keg party on campus was aborted, is a landmark memory.

Details do vary, however, in the versions of the story as told by the principals: John Vairo, Ed Linder, and Rick Shaffer, then Linder's assistant and today director of enrollment management at Penn State Altoona. There is consensus that it was a Friday afternoon in late spring of 1979.

As Vairo recalls, Shaffer, while walking on campus, spotted an unusual structure at some distance through the many trees surrounding the campus. Cutting through what could loosely be called "paths," Shaffer came upon the Tree House about thirty-five feet above the ground, in a small clearing of the thick woods. He notified Linder, who, in turn, notified Vairo, and the three formed the initial investigation team.
Vairo recalls: "This was no ordinary tree house like the kind kids build in backyards. It was large. Plywood was used for the walls and the ceiling, and the roof had shingles."

To reach the Tree House, one had to climb up a dangling rope about twenty feet or so before going the rest of the way using wooden rungs nailed into the tree. The rope could be retracted so unwelcome visitors would not be able to reach the rungs. Edward Gehringer, an academic counselor on Linder's staff, did the climbing honors first. Once inside, he was dazzled. The living space was carpeted, wall-to-wall. It contained a Coleman stove and a set of cups and dishes. There were fresh eggs in a carton, and other foods stored on shelves. It obviously was a space designed and constructed by someone with carpentry skills.

The staff called the State Police to investigate.

"What else could we do? We didn't have a lot of options," Vairo said. "It was an unauthorized structure on University property, and it could be an attractive nuisance people could get hurt trying to get into it."

Within an hour of Shaffer's discovery, the entire Penn State administrative staff and a small band of State Police had gathered at the base of the Tree House tree. A few of the police climbed to check out the facilities, and the entire group discussed and debated what to do next.

Then the real fun started, and it became clear what to do next. Unaware of the Tree House investigation going on in another corner of the woods, a group of about eight male students were proceeding with their plans for a keg party to celebrate spring. Or Friday afternoon. Or whatever. It remains unclear whether any of the keggers knew about the Tree House. However, they did know about the clearing—they just didn't know that the clearing now contained campus officials and cops.

As the investigators discussed the Tree House, they heard boisterous laughter and a crunching sound approaching them. Down one of the paths, headed straight for the clearing, came barreling…well, a barrel. A quarter-keg of beer, being steered by two unsuspecting partygoers, and followed by their friends, laughing and singing. The keg rolled right into the group of campus officials and police and stopped at Vairo's feet.

"Try to imagine the look of surprise on those two faces as they encountered us," Linder said. "They were stunned—my heavens, so were we!—but they recovered fast enough to shout a warning to their friends and to take off on foot. I ran after them, Rick ran after them, and the police ran after them. We rounded up a few, and the others came meekly to where we were standing with the police."
The keggers denied any knowledge of the Tree House, and, indeed, probably would have been pretty impressed by it under other circumstances.

The students had to appear before the local district justice and pay fines of $150 apiece. Linder also reports with a chuckle that he kept the keg's coil, so the students also had to pay a stiff fee when they returned the keg to the beer distributor. That was a little mean, he admits. With another chuckle.

The search for the student who built the Tree House was brief—soon thereafter, the master builder came forward and admitted to the construction. He identified himself as the son of a general contractor who just needed a place to study and sleep on campus. His straightforward admission made it easy for Linder to dismiss the incident as a prank and not a criminal act, and no punitive actions were taken.

However, to take down the Tree House, Penn State had to hire a tree surgeon at considerable cost to dispose of the materials and the limbs, Vairo said.

We can't divulge the keggers' names—oh, all right, we don't remember their names, and we wouldn't divulge them if we could—but we'd sure love to hear from any readers who would today care to admit they were the hapless and under-aged souls who, on one warm Friday afternoon a long time ago, rolled a beer keg into a group of cops.

(1980) Gone Today, Gone Again Tomorrow
Even after the campus moved out of Chester and into its spiffy new building at the current site, screwy stuff happened.
The Delaware County Alumni Association periodically conducted phonathons to raise money for specific projects at the campus. Everyone agreed that the campus needed an entrance marker, a wall, a sign—something to identify it at the intersection of Route 352 and Yearsley Mill Road.

By 1980, the alumni had raised enough money to help construct an L-shaped brick wall with a center post at the intersection. The campus name was spelled out in aluminum letters, and on the post were two dandy cast aluminum seals—each about two feet in diameter and containing the official University seal artwork. They were shiny. They were elegant. They were removable. In fact, they screamed: Souvenir! They beckoned: Dorm Room Trophy! They pleaded: Take me!

Within days, they were, indeed, taken—pried or popped off in the dead of night, right from their sturdy brick moorings. Everywhere on campus there was dismay, and there was disappointment. New seals were ordered immediately, and this time, instead of being anchored to the wall by a sole lynchpin, there was glue! Spaceship-worthy, elephant lifting, world-class, you’ll-never-move-this-again glue. As soon as the new seals were in place, John Vairo called a town meeting of students, at which he announced: A) We were still looking for the perps who stole the original seals, B) the seals had been replaced, and C) what we came to call “The Challenge.” As Dean of Student Affairs Ed Linder and the rest of the staff cringed, Vairo told the assembled students: The new seals are mounted in such a way as to prevent anyone from ever removing them (so there!).

The first set of seals had disappeared overnight, most likely in the wee hours of the morning when there is little traffic on Route 352. The new, removal-proof, glue-anchored seals disappeared over the lunch hour, about an hour or so after the town meeting.
Ed Linder said many years later: “I wasn’t surprised when the second set of seals disappeared. We knew it was coming as soon as John claimed it was impossible to remove them. It was the broad daylight thing that really hurt.”

(1981) An Executive Bonking
It was official: University President John W. Oswald—a botanist—would help dedicate the Library/Learning Center on September 27, 1981. As with all visits from the Penn State president, this required some planning: everything from deciding who would pick up the President and Mrs. Oswald at the airport, to what special thank-you gift Campus Director John Vairo would present to the President at the end of the dedication ceremony.

The administration came up with the perfect gift—a handsomely framed print of Andrew Wyeth’s After Picking, which is a painting of a basketful of apples. Hey, it’s Wyeth—he’s a local lad. It’s for Oswald—he’s a botanist, he’s into plants, and by extension, one would think, fruits.

The last procedural decision, once the ceremony was over, was how to get Dr. Oswald and his entourage back to the Main Building for their departure for the airport. Vairo suggested that the platform party walk back to the Main Building through the campus apple orchard.
No, no, no, the staff argued: What if it rains? What if the walk is a little too long for the President? What if the bees are really aggressive? Nonsense, Vairo insisted: This is a beautiful campus, and I want him to see it. If it’s a nice day, we’re walking back through the apple orchard.

It was a beautiful day. The ceremony went well. Dr. Oswald seemed to genuinely like the print. The entourage of administrators and special guests walked back to the Main Building through the apple orchard. Everything fell into place. Except for one particular apple.
Evidently, it was the only apple to fall from one of the trees that day. And it bonked just one head. The bonking was audible from about twenty paces away, as was the “Ooooh!” uttered by Penn State’s botanist President, as he doubled over and grabbed his head.
Except for the surprise, there was no serious damage, although the President did rub that spot on his head for the rest of the walk to his car.

The campus staff who witnessed and/or heard the apple bonking later admitted to each other that, for the rest of the walk, their only job was to NOT LAUGH. Some admitted to conjuring up images of really bad natural disasters….childhood puppies that had passed on…anything awful, so they wouldn’t laugh. Nobody could look at Vairo, who did not appear to be enjoying the day to this point. Certainly, nobody could look at Oswald. Good heavens, it was hard to even look at After Picking!

(1989) An Unexpected Window of Opportunity
The year was 1989, and the administration at Penn State Brandywine was pleased that the new Athletic Center/Commons Building was ready to open. One Friday afternoon, as everyone was ready to go home and enjoy the weekend, a most unexpected fax was received, according to former campus Chancellor Ed Tomezsko. The fax came from Governor Ridge, and it involved his “Project Jump Start” initiative to stimulate the economy of the Commonwealth by funding “new” construction. The Commonwealth had funded recent building on campus, so there was little expectation that this latest correspondence would involve another campus project.

“The historical perspective for PSUDE said that buildings come on a ten-year cycle whether we wanted a building or not. With the new building just competed, it would be about 1996 or so, not 1989, before we were in line again,” said Tomezsko. “For this reason, the fax was tossed on the desk without even a look. As I got to my car to leave for the weekend, a little voice said ‘go back and look at the list.’ There in big bold letters on page three or four, was ‘a classroom building for Penn State Brandywine campus.’ I nearly fainted, but getting my wits about me, I called the Dean’s Office and we celebrated the good fortune.”

While the opportunity to get started on the classroom building early was most unexpected, the fine print proved daunting: The state authorization was for $2.4 million, with a required match of $1.2 million from local sources. The architectural plans were a bit ambitious for the funding, and so there was some cutting the building size and additional fundraising necessary, according to Tomezsko.

The building was to be a technology-enhanced building that would give the campus an edge on the competing universities. With most of the classrooms to be used for projections of video-conferences, computer data, and whatever multimedia one could imagine, the architect designed the classrooms so that no foreign sources of light would interfere with the screens. This meant that the windows, rather than being flat to the external wall, would be built perpendicular to the external wall. 

“If one looked at the outside wall you would see no windows.  It was a brilliant design, but it led to an historical event,” said Tomezsko. “When the design was presented to the Board of Trustees, they said that buildings need windows, and demanded that the building design include ‘obvious’ windows. This construction was the only building at Penn State ever rejected by the Board of Trustees, and it was back to the drawing board to put in flat windows on the outside surfaces of the walls. There are lots more funny stories related to this building but it did get built and it was for a while a technologically first-class building.”

Funky windows or not, the building was renamed “The Edward S. J. Tomezsko Classroom Building” in 2006 to recognize the campus leaders’ efforts in making the project a reality.