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A win-win relationship
By Keith Frederick   - 11/03/2009

Altoona Mirror

More Info on This Book: Penn State Altoona

With Penn State Altoona celebrating its 70th year this semester, a pair of Penn State Altoona diehards have put together a book remembering the school's evolution from community learning center to full college.

PSU Altoona Chancellor and professor of biobehavioral health and women's studies Lori Bechtel-Wherry and interim associate dean and professor of English Ken Womack have collaborated on the book "Penn State Altoona," released Oct. 12.

The book uses 180 photographs, explained with extended captions, to chronicle the history of the school, from its early days as a small branch campus built on the remains of a defunct amusement park to its recent decade as a four-year college.

The book was originally Womack's idea, the authors said in a recent interview in the chancellor's office.

"It was Ken's brainchild," Bechtel-Wherry said. "He said, 'We really should tell the story in conjunction with the anniversary. We oughta do a book.' It just seemed like the right thing to do."

"What happens when you have institutions like this is as they grow older and older, they stop telling their story sometimes," Womack said. "If you don't get that down on paper and record it, it doesn't take too long before you lose the folks that have the memories."

But there was another reason for the book, Bechtel-Wherry said.

"The other reason was that Ken and I share a love for this place like probably no others - though people would get in line to argue that point," she said. "I've spent 24 of my 25 years at Penn State here ... and I love this place. And Ken feels the same way."

The book went from conception to completion in approximately six months and was released to coincide with Penn State Altoona's 70th anniversary celebration.

"Normally, we probably would've taken a year or two to get down into the trenches and write it that way, but we had to have it ready by (the 70th anniversary event)," Womack said.

The process of writing the book offered some challenges, they said.

"In terms of the information itself, fortunately we had a good bit of the period covered well into the '50s or '60s, so we were OK as far as that goes," Womack said. "It was the pictures - coming up with the illustrations - that was a whole other story."

"There was a team effort, with people bringing us literally boxes of pictures and things for us to look through," Bechtel-Wherry added. "The hardest thing, really, was to winnow it down from there, because you want to put everything in, but you can't."

The pair knew there were certain benchmarks of the campus that needed prominence in the book.

"As you can tell from the book's size (just 127 pages), they have a limited amount of space they give you anyway, so we had to be sure we covered all the highlights," Womack said.

Some of the seminal moments included are the 1939 founding of the school, the 1947 purchasing of the former Ivyside Recreation Park amusement park, the 1949 start of the school on that property, the building of certain campus buildings and the 1997 accreditation of the school as a four-year college.

But Bechtel-Wherry, one of the inaugural division heads in '97 before becoming chancellor in 2004, pointed out that just as important were the people who made the campus what it is today.

"There have been so many involved in telling Penn State Altoona's history, involved in creating that history," she said. "Certainly, we wanted to look at every CEO and dean and campus leader, but beyond that you had people like Anna May Very, who worked here for 48 years ... That's somebody whose picture needs to be in there."

Whatever the photos and information, the authors agree that the most important lesson the book teaches is that the city of Altoona has always been a key part of the Penn State Altoona campus.

"One of the great things that you notice is that, right until today, the town has been involved with the campus," Womack said. "There's a very important relationship there."

Bechtel-Wherry added: "One of the ways I like to say that, and I've said it a lot as we celebrate our 70th, is that, while Penn State Altoona and the Altoona campus has changed significantly in the 70 years we've been around, the one thing that's remained constant is the unwavering support of our community.

"That's the story, right there."

Buy It Now: Penn State Altoona $21.99

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