MONT ALTO, Pa. — Twelve members of the Forestry Class of 1958 recently celebrated their 60th reunion at the Mont Alto campus. Besides reconnecting with each other and the campus, their time together also resulted in a group gift of $34,233 that, thanks to a University match, transformed into a $102,669 Open Doors Scholarship to support Mont Alto students who are facing financial hardships and are at risk of not completing their degrees.
The seed of the idea came after learning about Penn State’s current fundraising campaign, “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” from Campus Development Director Randall Ackerman. He explained that Open Doors Scholarships created with a minimum gift of $30,000 would be matched 2:1 by the University through June 30, 2018, increasing the value of the gift three-fold.
“A small group of classmates were talking during our reunion when Jack Zimmerman suggested the scholarship idea,” said Ralph Heilig, who has coordinated the class reunions for the past 12 years.
"The other alumni agreed. The word was passed around to the remaining class members. We quickly came up with $30,000 and it was then suggested that we push for the additional $3,334 required to obtain a $100,000 scholarship,” he said.
Heilig is proud to mention that, at their request, the University allowed the group to establish the scholarship not as just a “graduating class” but as a “graduating class of foresters.”
“As far as we know, no other group from the same graduating class has done this,” he said. “So, we think we’re the first and hopefully it will start something.”
Members of the class and others who donated to the scholarship include: Rolph Anderson; Ralph Heilig and Marie Wolson; Maurice (Bill) and Irene Hobaugh; Richard and Dorothy Hunter; Ralph and Gisela Peace; Lou and Bobbi Shain; Paul Shogren; George Siehl; Bob Slagle; Chuck and Carol Strauss; Pat Werner, wife of the late Richard Werner; John Zimmerman; and Penn State Mont Alto faculty members Craig Houghton and Elizabeth Brantley.
“I think it would be accurate to say that the Forestry Class of 1958 is the most engaged alumni group I have ever seen,” said Penn State Mont Alto Chancellor Francis K. Achampong. “Now they have taken their engagement to another level by infusing it with philanthropy to enhance student access to a Penn State education."
Heilig describes the group as having “esprit de corps” — the common spirit existing in the members of a group and inspiring enthusiasm, devotion and strong regard for the honor of the group.
Those ingredients and more continue to bring members of the Class of 1958 together, including their pride in Penn State and common interest and experiences as foresters, appreciation for their early training at the Mont Alto Campus, and respect for each other and their former faculty members.
The class began with about 100 members in September 1954. At that time, life at Mont Alto focused on a rigorous curriculum with little social life or off-campus entertainment.
“We were required to carry 20.5 credits, going to class 40 hours per week, for two semesters. Almost every student spent three or four hours on Sunday afternoons outdoors boning up on tree and shrub identification — all for a two-credit course,” said Heilig.
With the help of a devoted faculty, about 80 freshmen completed the year and about 60 members went on to continue their studies at Penn State's University Park campus.
According to Heilig, after their 1958 graduation, the group held its first reunion in State College, coordinated by the late Robert (Bob) LaBar. One reunion led to another, with the late Ken Swartz taking on the responsibility of leading class reunions every five years. For their 50-year mark, Heilig and Chuck Strauss, along with George Siehl, an original member of the class who finished his bachelor's degree at Indiana University and later reconnected with the group, coordinated the 50th reunion and continued the tradition on into 2018.
“To my knowledge, no other class in the history of Penn State nor the State Forest Academy at Mont Alto has achieved the degree of camaraderie that has existed in our class,” said Heilig. “I doubt if any class can match the sheer number of reunions over a period of 60 years.”
“It was such a common bonding experience, being here — no one but the forestry graduates,” said Siehl. “They began to appreciate what the institution had done for them — especially their faculty.”
“Faculty members such as ours were not the norm,” said Heilig. “Every faculty member gave freely of his time, helping students overcome academic deficiencies. They were sincerely interested in helping anyone who wanted help. Small wonder many students became lifelong friends of men like Wilbur Ward, Rex Melton, Harold Jarrett, Hank Bairel, Jim Hillson, Bill Pfieffer, and others. The ‘gang of 11’ faculty members were more than instructors; they helped mold our lives.”
“We are proud of our forestry lineage and those who have led the way,” said Strauss.
He points out that throughout the years, the Class of 1958, along with other families and friends, have put forth symbols of their pride in Penn State Mont Alto through the establishment of Founders Trees in the Penn State Mont Alto Arboretum. These symbols recognize former faculty members, classmates and professional leaders, including: Ron Bartoo, Bob Bommer, Ed Kocjancic, Dwight Lewis, Rex Melton, Bob Rumpf, Kerry Schell, Ken Swartz, Wib Ward, Zelda Ward, and others, according to Strauss.
“I think forestry is the main ‘why’ Mont Alto is here,” said Siehl. “Without forestry, the odds are there would not be a campus here.”
“It is a special place and graduates came away appreciating it as they crossed over the Mont Alto bridge toward their futures,” he added.
This gift will advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.