Campus' 50th Anniversary Gala celebrates both the past and the future

On Thursday, May 9, members of the greater Penn State Scranton family came together to celebrate the campus at its 50th Anniversary Gala.

By: Josh McAuliffe

For five decades, Penn State Scranton’s story has been one of nearly uninterrupted growth and progress.

Sometimes, though, it’s nice to pause for a moment of reflection.

On Thursday, May 9, members of the greater Penn State Scranton family came together to celebrate the campus at its 50th Anniversary Gala. The event took place at Fiorelli’s in Peckville, and was attended by about 165 campus faculty, staff, retirees, students, alumni and friends of the campus.

Penn State President Eric Barron, Ph.D., and Madlyn Hanes, Ph.D., vice president for commonwealth campuses, toasted the campus, while Penn State Scranton Chancellor Marwan A. Wafa, Ph.D., offered a forward-looking vision of the campus’ future.

The event also included remarks by Paul Perrone, assistant teaching professor in English, and Suzanne Sloane, the granddaughter of Robert Dawson, the campus’ first director and the man arguably most responsible for its existence.

As guests arrived at the event, they were greeted in the lobby by a tuxedo-clad Nittany Lion, who spent the hour posing for commemorative photos.

Inside the ballroom, guests enjoyed hors d’oeuvres, caught up with old friends and sampled the evening’s signature cocktail, the Blue Raspberry Lion. The drink was served luge-style down the large 50th Anniversary ice sculpture that sat prominently in the middle of the room.

Among the campus retirees on hand was Eileen Soranno, who spent more than two decades as a staff assistant in the communications and development offices.

“It’s so nice to see and reconnect with folks you’ve spent a good part of your life with but don’t get to see much of anymore,” said Soranno.

The campus’ first Student Government Association (SGA) president, Joe Kowalski, drove in from the Lehigh Valley for the event. He was thrilled to see two fellow alums from then-Penn State Worthington Scranton’s inaugural class of 1968-69.

“As soon as we saw each other, we recognized each other,” Kowalski said. “They came in from Michigan and New York. It’s great to see them.”

Following a performance of the Penn State alma mater by the campus’ Roc[k]tet vocal group, then dinner, the evening’s program began.

Barron kicked off his remarks by putting Penn State Scranton’s history in perspective by playfully nodding to TV hits of the era like “The Mod Squad” and “Get Smart.”

“There’s been a lot of changes since then, not the least of which is Penn State Worthington Scranton is now Penn State Scranton,” he said.

Of course, Barron said, the mission of the campus has remained remarkably consistent through the years in terms of its focus on supporting “the Commonwealth, the community and its students.” Commonwealth campuses like Scranton, he noted, are at the very core of Penn State’s  land grant institution status in terms of providing a first-rate education, cutting-edge research opportunities, charitable service, and access and affordability to the communities they serve.

From there, Barron rattled off several impressive statistics. The commonwealth campuses are now the first choice of 62 percent of Penn State students. And, 94 percent of Scranton’s students live in northeast Pennsylvania.

Of course, the campus is also the perfect fit for adult learners, and Barron singled out Jo Ann Durdan, a staff assistant in Penn State Scranton’s Center for Business Development and Community Outreach who just received her bachelor’s degree in corporate communications and was named the 2019 Chancellor’s Scholar.

And, he added, the campus has always provided great opportunities to first-generation college students.

“There’s no substitute for educational opportunity in this world,” Barron said.

In her talk, Hanes said it’s been a pleasure to watch the campus grow. She then listed some of the campus’ recent highlights, from the Hawk Student Success Center (donors and campus alumni David and Ann Hawk were sponsors of the gala and in attendance), to the new LaunchBox pre-incubator in South Scranton, to the purchase of the Grainger Building, future home of the campus’ mechanical engineering program.

“Penn State Scranton has really blossomed into a dynamic, four-year baccalaureate campus,” Hanes said.

Perrone, the campus’ longest-serving faculty member, was the ideal person to introduce Sloane, considering her grandfather hired him.

“Bob Dawson gave me the chance of a lifetime,” Perrone said.

Perrone has had the distinction of working under every one of the campus’ top administrators. All of them taught him something valuable, he said, singling out Wafa and Dr. James Gallagher, the campus’ chief executive officer from 1979 to 2000, and who was in attendance.

“He taught me many valuable lessons. One thing he said to me was, ‘There’s always another side of the story. Listen to it, and then make your decision,” said Perrone of Gallagher.

Upon arriving at the podium, Sloane led the crowd in a rousing rendition of the “We are… Penn State!” call-and-response chant.

“What a beautiful event. In 1985, I was here at Fiorelli’s for my prom,” cracked the Virginia resident, who attended the gala with her mom, Mary Lou Dawson, and sister, Carolanne O’Neil.

As a projector displayed a slide show of old photos, Sloane offered a warmhearted portrait of her grandfather, who, along with his wife, Beatrice, was the first of four generations of Dawsons to attend Penn State.

Dawson, she said, was well-known for his penchant for bow ties, his ever-present Tiparillo cigars and his unabashed love for Penn State. His commitment to the university manifested itself in his determination to raise the $300,000 needed to buy 45 acres of former Hudson Coal Co. land on the Dunmore-Throop border and turn it into a bustling Penn State campus that met the ever-changing needs of the Scranton area.

Sloane fondly remembers the day four decades ago when the Dawson Building was commemorated in her grandfather’s honor.

“I distinctly remember them pulling the strip off of the building. It was so exciting,” she said. “I think back to that day of the dedication, and wonder if he could ever envision this.”

Closing the program, Wafa said Penn State’s Scranton roots actually go back nearly 100 years, when the University – then a college -- started a technical school here for miners.

“From that humble beginning, we have grown, establishing our current campus in 1968, renamed to Penn State Worthington Scranton, and tonight, celebrating 50 years of Penn State in our region,” he said.

Today, Wafa said, Penn State Scranton has grown to encompass nine buildings, 13 bachelor’s degree programs, four associate degrees, a master’s degree and the first two years of more than 275 Penn State degrees.

However, he said, the campus has a responsibility to continue evolving. That means a commitment to improving campus facilities, be it the addition of the Grainger Building or the upcoming renovation of the campus library/nursing building. Making a lighthearted yet serious sales pitch to potential donors, Wafa noted all of those projects come with “a naming opportunity.”

Meanwhile, Wafa said, the campus has also put a premium on diversity through new staff positions and the successful Diversity Circles program. And, Penn State Scranton is asserting itself even more in the broader community via LaunchBox and new partnerships with local businesses and nonprofits.

 “The future success of our region depends on our effectiveness as a university,” he said.

Afterwards, as attendees hit the dance floor, Gallagher offered some parting words that perfectly reflected Wafa’s goals.

“A campus like this always has to be adaptive and responsive and astute to the educational needs of the area it serves,” he said. “It really makes me proud the way the campus has progressed through the years. Each generation builds upon the next.”