Penn State Fayette celebrates 40 years
Bells will ring on Saturday for Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus.
As part of the 40th anniversary celebration of the local campus, a carillon tower with 19 bells — poured in France and married with electronic technology in the U.S. — will be dedicated in song.
A musical program will be included in the 5 p.m. dedication ceremony and the songs of the bells will continue on a daily basis.
Gregory Gray, chancellor of the school, said a number of selections will be played at noon each day, including “Amazing Grace,” a song requested by one of the donors.
The carillon, purchased from the VanBergen Co., is controlled by a keyboard in the BioMedical Technology Building and can play just about any song.
“It’s a very sophisticated musical instrument,” said Gray.
Gray said branch campuses often “struggle for identity,” and he sees the bell tower as another unifying force for the school, located along Route 119 between Connellsville and Uniontown.
The $180,000 instrument is being paid for by donors who have given $10,000 each to buy a bell.
The donors’ names are engraved on their bells, and the names of benefactors will also be included on plaques around the tower’s base.
The dedication Saturday coincides with Penn State Days in which campuses across the Commonwealth hold an open house.
The Fayette branch, established in 1965, is actually a few years older than the current campus.
Edwin C. Balis, who heads up the steering committee planning the commemoration, is an alumnus of Penn State and the Fayette branch, but never took a class at the campus.
When he attended Penn State Fayette in 1966 and 1967, classes were taught in buildings scattered throughout downtown Uniontown. He said none of the temporary classrooms were at ground level, that students went either upstairs or downstairs.
“We called it Basement University,” he said.
Some of the classes were located in the former Central Elementary School. This was a step back to the future since Penn State offered courses in the facility prior to World War II, and it was later used for a time as a branch campus for Waynesburg College.
Balis, a native of Donora, said he wound up at the Fayette branch almost by accident. He figured that the drive from his home down Route 51 was safer in the winter than the drive down Route 48 to the PSU McKessport branch.
Still, Balis said there was camaraderie among the approximately 200 students who attended classes in Uniontown and he expects to see old friends at the 40th anniversary celebration.
English professor Dennis Brestensky is the last of the seven original faculty members hired in 1965 still teaching at the campus.
He said that the founding CEO of the school, the late Hugh Barclay, told him that the only thing he could offer was the opportunity to get in on something special on the ground floor.
“I’ve gone from the ground floor to the bell tower,” Brestensky said.
When Brestensky moved with the school to the new campus, the Eberly Building, built in 1968, was the only structure standing. Situated on 200 acres of the former Garner Farm, Bretensky acknowledged the setting was somewhat desolate. At the same time, he said it was exciting to move from makeshift quarters to a brand-new building.
The campus was windy, Bretensky also remembers.
It still is, but the wind’s velocity is broken up by landscaped mounds, trees — and 11 buildings.
Gray noted that when he gives returning alumni from the early years a tour of the campus, there is a common reaction.
“Their jaws just drop,” he said.
In the eight years since he’s been campus CEO, Gray has seen the construction of a Biomedical Technology building and a Community Center that includes a cafeteria, a fitness center, an auditorium, a 1,200-seat gymnasium and other amenities.
But the project Gray found most interesting was the complete makeover of the original Eberly Building that included the establishment of a corporate training center.
In conditions not unlike those faced by the founders of the school 40 years ago, faculty and administrators were housed in trailers for months during the renovation
Gray said he has a lot of respect for the civic leaders who looked at an open field 40 years ago and had the vision to see “that this could be something.”
“It’s easy to come here after 20 years and make it better,” Gray said.
The biggest campus benefactor was the late Robert Eberly, who donated millions for buildings and scholarships. Joe Hardy, the founder of 84 Lumber, philanthropist, and Fayette County commissioner, more recently donated $1 million for the auditorium.
But Gray also emphasized that the campus has received support from many others. “We’ve been blessed with a lot people,” he said.
A lot has changed on the campus besides brick and mortar.
In the beginning, the school offered just associate degrees; it now has five bachelor-degree programs. The number of students has increased from 200 to approximately 1,000, with some staying at the campus for their entire college careers.
Brestensky said the leadership offered by juniors and seniors has also transformed the campus.
The Fayette students are the perennial winners in the annual Penn State system THON competition to raise funds for children with cancer.
There is also a group of younger students on campus these days. Thanks to Pennsylvania Act 720 legislation, 50 to 60 high school juniors and seniors are taking college courses.
At the same time, the campus retains its base of non-traditional adult students.
Through Brestensky’s efforts, both an annual Shakespeare festival and the staging of one of the Bard’s works by a student group, the Lion Players, are well-established traditions.
A more recent innovation is an honors program that allows students to examine non-traditional subjects including Jack the Ripper two years ago, the Beatles last year and, coming in the spring, the Civil War.
Beyond the bell tower
Penn State recently reorganized its branch campuses giving them “a bit more autonomy within the university,” Gray said.
At the same time, Gray said the Fayette campus will be able to tap into Penn State’s resources. He also expects more cooperation between campuses.
Gray said there would be more flexibility with decisions made locally on “what your community needs.”
Examples he cites are plans under consideration for a mechanical engineering technology program. An MBA program is another future possibility.
Meanwhile, one new program that is already slated represents another return to the school’s past.
“We’re bringing in the mining degree,” said Gray.
The associate-degree program in mining technology was once the biggest major on campus. But an industry slump in the early 1980s led to the degree being discontinued.
There was a lost generation of coal miners, with a high percentage of the work force now in their 50s and approaching retirement.
As a result, there is a need to train new coal miners and the Eberly Campus is positioning itself to fill the need.
The school has continued to keep the area’s rich heritage of coal mining alive with the Coal and Coke Center on campus, founded by Brestensky and retired English professors Evelyn Hovanec and Al Skomra.
Gray said there is at least one new building in the school’s future. There is talk of the need to expand the allied health program beyond its nursing base, or the possibility of establishing a tourism and hospitality program.
The branch that started unofficially as a basement university now has more than 8,500 alumni, including Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, astronaut Robert Cenker, and Joseph Sbaffoini, the director of the Bureau of Mine Safely in the state Department of Environmental Protection, who orchestrated the rescue of the trapped Quecreek Nine miners in Someset County more than two years ago.
Upward of 200 of the former students are expected to take part in the festivities Saturday.
The public is welcome to the open house that starts at 9 a.m. In addition to stations manned by faculty and students across the campus, there will be other activities for adults and children. The Cubs Den child-care center on campus will also be open.
At about noon, the open house will segue into a barbecue. At 4 p.m., there will be a giving-tree ceremony honoring donors, followed at 5 p.m. by the tower dedication.
A reservation- only dinner is also scheduled at 5:30 p.m. for the Community Center.