Creamery ice cream is too fatty for the FDA. A student will get free tuition for getting hit by a CATA bus. Hammond Building should have been a skyscraper. Ghosts haunt favorite campus spots. AlumnInsider takes a look at Penn State’s campus legends and myths, and tries to decipher fact or fiction.
Too Good to be True
On the list of guilty pleasures for most Penn Staters is Berkey Creamery ice cream—only available on campus. Astronomically high fat content, which doesn’t meet FDA standards, is cited as the reason Creamery ice cream isn’t sold away from campus. Or at least that’s the rumor.
“This is by far the biggest urban legend affecting the Creamery,” says Berkey Creamery Manager Tom Palchak. The FDA has established standards-of-identity for every food item in the United States, explains Palchak. Regarding ice cream, there are only minimum standards for composition and milk fat. No maximum standards for milk fat content exist. According to Palchak, Creamery ice cream isn’t sold off campus because of the competition it would create with companies in the dairy industry.
Close But No Cigar
Rumor has it that the armillary sphere—often mistakenly called a sundial—located on the Old Main lawn marks the exact spot of Pennsylvania’s geographic center. After all, University Park is located in Centre County. But … a gift of the senior class of 1915, the structure holds no geographic significance. The geographic center of the Commonwealth is indeed in Centre County, but latest calculations place it near Fisherman’s Paradise along Spring Creek, near Bellefonte, about eight miles from the Old Main lawn.
Hammond Building On Its Side?
Perhaps best known as the longest eyesore on campus, Hammond Building is at the center of another popular campus myth. Stretching for 609 feet and nearly three blocks along College Avenue, the popular folklore surrounding Hammond is that it was originally intended to be built vertically from its site. Legend has it that its long hallways were meant to serve rather as elevator shafts, but a conflict between architects and engineers resulted in it being constructed “on its side.”
“Architectural follies and architectural acts of revenge are frequent campus legends,” said Simon J. Bronner, Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore at Penn State Harrisburg and author of Piled Higher and Deeper: The Folklore of Campus Life. Penn State Harrisburg has such a legend about campus housing. “We had housing here—Meade Heights—that was drafty in the winter and boiling hot in the summer,” he explained. “The legend was that they were intended for Florida but, due to an administrator’s mistake, were built here.” Ironically, the legend persists even though the housing is gone, replaced by new residence halls.
Both Bronner and Penn State historian Michael Bezilla have investigated Hammond’s original plans in an effort to dispel this myth. Records confirm it was designed as a horizontal building and never intended to be a skyscraper.
115 Years and Still Standing
Constructed in 1896, the Obelisk located on the mall between Willard and Sackett buildings, has been an enduring symbol of the history and pride of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. But perhaps the Obelisk should not have endured quite so long after all. Legend has it the Obelisk will topple and fall if a virgin ever walks by it. Of course, the Obelisk remains intact today.
Bronner notes nearly every college campus has structures that will reportedly crumble or statues that will come to life should a virgin pass by. This form of campus folklore dates to when women, or “coeds” as they were called then, first arrived on college campuses in significant numbers, reports Bronner. In the late 1960s, a small group of women at Penn State staged a protest at the Obelisk, demanding that it crumble to show the sexist nature of the legend, which was generally applicable only to female students. Many students of today’s more liberated generations have never heard the legend of the Obelisk.
A popular Penn State legend is that the death of a roommate means automatic As for the surviving roommate. While optimistic, this legend is not true. University Vice President Bill Mahon was quoted in The Collegian a few years ago saying, “You get all As by doing well in your courses and performing well on tests. Nobody gets As for something that happens outside the classroom.”
Another myth offers students free tuition if hit by a CATA (Centre Area Transportation Authority) bus. This legend also proves false. Other than contracting with the University to provide the Campus Loop service, CATA is not affiliated with Penn State and does not have the authority to wave tuition.
Sorority Houses Banned by Law?
With fraternity houses dotting campus and town, the lack of sorority houses seems downright unfair. But a Pennsylvania law that defines a household of five or more unrelated women as a brothel offers a simple explanation for their absence, right? Wrong.
Pennsylvania has no such law. In fact, Penn State did have sorority houses on campus in the 1930s and 1940s when the number of women on campus increased and sororities at Penn State first began to form. Originally housed in the “cottages” on campus that previously served as faculty housing, sororities quickly outgrew their residences, which on average held just 12 women. The construction of South Halls and Pollock Halls offered more space for sororities, with entire floors devoted to members and suites available for chapter activities.
Local officials confirm that zoning laws do not prohibit sorority houses. However, local regulations do prohibit more than three unrelated people living in one house in areas zoned residential. Most fraternity houses are either in commercial zones or existed before the regulation took effect. While no laws—state or local—prohibit sororities from having houses, chapters have chosen to remain in residence halls.
It’s hard to miss Penn State President George Atherton’s gravesite alongside Schwab Auditorium on Pollock Road. His ghost’s presence, which is said to inhabit Schwab Auditorium and watch over thespians, may be a bit more subtle. Across the street, Atherton’s wife, Frances, is said to watch over Schwab and her husband’s grave from “Old Botany.”
Ghost stories are prevalent in campus folklore, reports Bronner. “They’re usually benevolent ghosts who watch out for students in fraternity houses or other buildings,” Bronner said. He explains that friendly ghosts serve the purpose of easing anxiety associated with making the transition from home to college. Similar to Atherton, many ghosts are associated with theatres, another place where anxiety, surrounding performing, exists.
Another frequently reported campus ghost is that of graduate student Betsy Aardsma, whose 1969 murder in the stacks of Pattee Library is real and unsolved. Stories about ghosts in the stacks have included feeling “a presence”, as well as “attacks by an invisible force” near the spot where Aardsma was killed.
Have a favorite campus legend that we didn’t include? We’d love to hear it, and we’ll even try to let you know if it’s fact or fiction. Send your stories to AlumnInsider@psu.edu. Be sure to include your graduation year and current residence (city, state), and we might include your letter in a future edition of AlumnInsider.
If you’re interested in learning more about campus myths the University maintains a site on Penn State Myths that covers everything from the source of the word “Nittany” to whether Penn State began as a high school.
This article was written by Catherine Vancura, a Penn State senior majoring in public relations. Vancura is interning with the Alumni Association's Strategic Communications team.