Thoughts from the Chancellor and Dean
June 5, 2018 was a historic day for our college as we formally acknowledged and celebrated the generosity of the Hite Family’s $1 million gift to rename and dedicate our LaunchBox as the Hite Family LaunchBox for Innovation. It was a memorable event to celebrate one of the larger gifts in our history. The Hite Family gift will be matched by the University, and the endowment funds generated will support our entrepreneurial endeavors in perpetuity.
During the dedication ceremony, Steve Sheetz discussed the importance of the gift and reflected on the history of involvement that our community has had for our college. He mentioned the vision of J.E. (Ted) Holtzinger, one of the founders of Penn State Altoona, and other community leaders who recognized the importance of providing access to—and affordability for—higher education in order to grow our economy and ensure that citizens had opportunities to improve their quality of life. The family connections of support for higher education in general, and Penn State Altoona in particular, run deep in our community. Steve touched briefly on our history, noting that the next generation of leaders continues to be inspired by J.E. (Ted) Holtzinger, who many consider as the founder of the Altoona Undergraduate Center. Steve stated, “It is now our turn to continue that support of Penn State Altoona.”
The history of Penn State Altoona is grounded in decades of support from our community members, alumni, donors, and others. In June 1929, 15 men at the Altoona Works of the Pennsylvania Railroad began taking evening courses at our local high school through Penn State Extension. At that time, the City of Altoona was a prosperous railroad town, and higher education was largely associated with economic affluence and viewed as a luxury versus a necessity. Most people in our community at that time did not attend college or even see the need to do so. A number of visionaries knew that access to higher education was the key to the city’s future and that education would produce higher wages, increased industrial development, and improved quality of life. A core group of local residents dreamed of bringing Penn State extension courses to Altoona. They launched a campaign to make it happen. In 1938 the enrollments increased to 175 and there was a need for more space. The group made a plea to Penn State President Ralph Hetzel to establish a junior college campus at Altoona. In spring of 1939 approval was given for a one-year freshman school, the Altoona Undergraduate Center.
An enterprising Citizens Committee launched a campaign to raise money to renovate the abandoned Webster Elementary school to house the new college. In two months more than $5,000 was raised, and renovations began at the Webster school on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 10th Street in downtown Altoona, which is just a few blocks from our current downtown campus. It accommodated 119 freshman students and nine faculty members during its first year of operation. It officially opened its doors on September 13, 1939 as the Altoona Undergraduate Center. After quickly outgrowing the Webster School, the Altoona Undergraduate Center moved to the nearby Madison School building. Then after moving to the site of an abandoned amusement park (our current Ivyside campus) in the late 1940s, Penn State Altoona enjoyed a rapid postwar growth spurt that culminated in 1997 with its newly minted charter as a four-year college of Penn State University. Thus began our college’s transformation into a flourishing teaching, research, and service institution of national acclaim.
Throughout our history, our college has benefited from dedicated faculty, staff, alumni, and community members who offered their steadfast support. For example, Robert E. Eiche, for whom the Eiche Library is named, served as the inaugural campus director from 1939 to 1968, steering our institution from its incipient days as the Altoona Undergraduate Center through its transformation into the Altoona Campus. Robert Smith, for whom the Robert L. Smith Building is named, was the first employee of the Altoona Undergraduate Center, which he joined in 1939 after graduating from Penn State College, as it was known at the time. Steven A. Adler, for whom our Adler Athletic Complex is named, served Penn State Altoona in various capacities for 26 years, perhaps most notably as dean of student affairs. There is something truly special about the involvement in and support of Penn State Altoona by so many individuals: our community, faculty, staff, administration, alumni, and benefactors.
From the beginning there was an inspired group of local citizens who built, financed, and nurtured our college through the Great Depression and related economic woes, an enrollment collapse during WWII (that was staved off by recruiting a robust and growing female class through its 1942-43 new War-Time Academic Program), and the ups and downs of the region’s rail industry. One thing remained unchanged, however: the strong community support for the junior college.
At Penn State Altoona, we have been focusing on entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial endeavors for the past eight years. We are proud of our “new” downtown campus which is the hub of these activities. Its development was made possible by the continued advocacy of community benefactors whose names grace the buildings and spaces. Likewise, dozens of our benefactors’ names appear on our buildings and spaces on our Ivyside Campus.
The renaming of our former LaunchBox as the Hite Family LaunchBox for Innovation is another example of the dedication of members of our community. Lee Hite, a decades-long member of our Advisory Board and its current Chair, his wife, Janie, and their family truly understand the importance of giving back to one’s community. All of us at Penn State Altoona and beyond are grateful for their gift that will benefit our students, college, and region for decades to come by sustaining our entrepreneurial activities.
While our college has changed significantly in our nearly 80-year history, there has been one constant factor in our success: the involvement of our local citizens, alumni, and benefactors who understand the inestimable role of higher education in creating successful communities and societies. Penn State Altoona will continue to prosper and evolve due to the dedicated support of so many people. On behalf of our college, I thank them…and you.