To treat acute spring fever, Penn State students have shown remarkable creativity through the years. Just as the weather warms and daffodils dot the campus, students have run through the streets in wacky costumes for the Phi Psi 500, raced canoes at a regatta, and enjoyed any number of outdoor concerts at Gentle Thursday and Movin’ On.
In its earliest days, when students were required to perform farm chores in addition to their studies, spring at Penn State meant plowing fields and planting crops. But with the arrival of coeds and a more diverse curriculum, traditions such as the annual May Day Festival came to mark the arrival of warm weather. As early as 1914, students were choosing a May Queen and young women—still a novelty on campus—would dance and wind ribbons around a tall May pole before a crowd of enthusiastic male students. Although that spring rite faded by the late 1950s, other traditions would soon replace it.
Blue-White Game and Weekend
Louise Sandmeyer ’67 remembers that Spring Week was a big deal in the mid-1960s. Fraternities and sororities would set up tents and booths near Beaver Stadium and present skits and songs. “We planned for Spring Week during most of winter term,” she said. Spring Week has changed through the years, sometimes mixing with Greek Week and sometimes shortened to a weekend. One tradition—carnival rides near Beaver Stadium—continues in conjunction with the annual Blue-White Game. This year’s Greek Week featured contests like chariot races, flag football, and a kickball tournament combined with philanthropy. The week culminated with the Greek community supporting the 11th annual AIDS Walk.
No one is exactly sure when the Blue-White Game started. Lou Prato, who wrote the Penn State Football Encyclopedia, believes the intra-squad scrimmage marking the end of spring practice started around 1951. One thing is certain: in the past 20 years it has become a much bigger event. Since 1994, the game has attracted more than 25,000 fans in all but one year and more than 50,000 on six occasions. This year saw a record attendance of more than 73,000 on a sunny day. The carnival, now in its fourth year, and other special events, like the Black Alumni Reunion, were held the same weekend as the game to make it “Blue-White Weekend.”
Phi Psi 500
Promoted as “a day of sharing,” Gentle Thursday was a 1960s-style “happening” on the Old Main and HUB lawns. A speech communications class came up with the idea of an event to stimulate peaceful social interaction in a time of political tensions. Thursday was chosen because it was a light class day for many students under the term system then in place. The mini version of Woodstock featured bands, face painting, flowers, and relaxing in the sun. John Datillo ’77 remembers the event as welcoming to everyone with an emphasis on sharing. “Having been raised in the 1960s, it was nice being at Penn State in the 1970s where some of that spirit was still alive at events like Gentle Thursday,” he said. As the 1960s spirit faded, so did Gentle Thursday. It was cancelled in 1981 due to problems with increased drug and alcohol use and concerns about the number of area high school students skipping school to attend the event.
Another event born in the late 1960s was the Phi Psi 500, a spring tradition that raised money for local non-profit organizations for more than 20 years. Organized by the brothers of Phi Kappa Psi, the event was a running race through the streets of downtown State College with stops at seven bars where participants chugged either beer or soft drinks. In addition to the serious runners, large groups of students entered the “Anything Goes” division. Dressed as Oompah Loompahs or carrying a large cardboard bus, the “Campus Looped,” they would parade for hours. Pete Waldron ’84 was a brother at Phi Kappa Psi during the race’s peak years, when up to 1,800 runners raised more than $25,000 for the Association of Retarded Citizens in a single year. “The Phi Psi 500 was the highlight of spring not only for our fraternity but for many students at Penn State,” he said. “Some considered it a spring ‘homecoming’ for young alumni.” By the late 1980s, State College Borough Council asked the fraternity to phase out alcohol because the event was, they said, “out of hand.” By 1992, the Phi Psi 500 was alcohol-free, raising $7,000 for charity. There’s no record of the race continuing beyond that year.
Sy Barash Regatta
With the catchy phrase “ya gotta regatta” and a warm spring day, it was never tough attracting large crowds for the canoe races, sunbathing, picnicking, and live music that were part of the regatta. Named for Sy Barash ’50, a State College businessman who died of cancer in 1974, the regatta was organized by Beta Sigma Beta (where Barash had been a brother) and raised money for the American Cancer Society. At the time, it was billed as the largest philanthropy run by a single fraternity. The regatta was first held at Penn State’s Stone Valley Recreation Area until it outgrew that location and moved to Bald Eagle State Park. High water levels at the state park in 1993 and 1994 forced the regatta—by then mostly a concert—to relocate to the fields next to the landlocked Beaver Stadium. Poor weather and low attendance for several years running, prompted the fraternity to put the event on hiatus following the 1995 regatta.
The free day of music known as Movin’ On started in 1974 and continues more than three decades later. Held on a late spring Saturday on the HUB Lawn, the all-day concert has featured such well-known artists as Fall Out Boy, Jewel, and Run DMC throughout the years.