My Festival Surprise
I’ve been involved with the Arts Festival since the early 1980s. As old as it makes me sound, if it’s happened at the Festival, I’ve probably seen or heard it. Consequently, I don’t surprise easily.
It takes a lot for a Sidewalk Sale artist to surprise me. For better or worse, I take our artists’ creativity, skill, and entrepreneurship for granted. They would not be at the Festival if they weren’t good at what they do. Yes, there is the occasional artist whose work doesn’t look like the images he submitted to our jury, but that’s hardly a surprise. Anyone who’s used an online dating site knows that what shows up in real life may have no relation to the image someone uses for advertising purposes. It’s not a good way to start a relationship, either professionally or personally.
Like their Sidewalk Sale counterparts, our performers rarely surprise me. Most performers are professionals and are great at what they do. When someone surprises me, it’s because a musician doesn’t know the old adage “You catch more flies with honey than you do vinegar.” Is the Festival really the place for divas to think that our parking regulations are for the “little people” but not for them? Or even worse, for a musician to expect me to fix a speeding ticket? I don’t think so.
But this summer I had a pleasant surprise unlike any Festival moment I’ve had—and I’ve had lots of moments. My colleague Courtney Hunt and I spent some time with a large group of Penn State alumni who met almost as soon as they came to what used to be called the “Main Campus” in 1973. The group has been having its own reunions since July 4, 1976 when its members got together at the wedding of their classmate Al Snyder.
After that first reunion in 1976, they started gathering over Labor Day weekends. In 1987, they started doing it at the Festival. They had their 30th reunion at the Festival this summer. They’ve been here almost as long as I have!
Sure, I have good friends that I met in college and we still get together every year or two—without waiting for our class reunion to roll around. And I have lots of friends who went to other schools who’re in the same boat. They have a few lifelong friends from college and they get together with those folks from time to time. The folks I met aren’t like that.
This is a LARGE group of people who met in their dorm or dining hall as freshmen. Not only have they been great friends for over forty years, they’ve been getting together yearly as a group ever since, without Penn State prompting them. I’m not sure what was in the air in those particular parts of Mifflin Hall—where the boys lived—and McElwain Hall—where the girls lived—but it was obviously something special.
They’re not all from the same town. They didn’t meet at band or church camp before they got to Penn State. They didn’t play the same sport. They’re not connected by majors—they represent a wide range of majors from engineering to special education. They weren’t all in the same club or fraternity, though some of them did spend an awful lot of time at Playland, the College Avenue pinball parlor, or at the Train Station, the long-gone-but-not-forgotten bar/restaurant. And unless it’s the biggest secret ever, their friendship isn’t the result of some sort of pre-digital computer dating experiment used by the Penn State housing office. It just happened.
Like any community, this one has its own customs and rituals. For example, they go by last names or nicknames. We couldn’t start taking photos until “Fang” arrived. I wish that I’d found out if he’d been named after comedienne Phyllis Diller’s long-suffering husband.
Just as the Festival doesn’t just happen, as if by magic, these Mifflin-McElwain reunions are the result of careful planning. The members of the group trade off the responsibility of organizing the reunion so that one person isn’t stuck with all the dirty work. Given the success of the annual gatherings, the organizers obviously know what they’re doing.
Distance is no obstacle to their reunions. The crew doesn’t just fall out of bed in Boalsburg and drive 15 minutes to the party. The person living nearest to State College lives about an hour and a half away. One person lives in Minneapolis and another in Iowa. In years past, they’ve come from as far away as London and Japan. Seriously!
Courtney and I could tell instantly that they really enjoy each other’s company. They practically finish each other’s sentences. There was lots of laughter, even during a mundane activity like posing for a group photo. They wear their love for each other and for Penn State on their sleeves. And they enjoy the Festival too—they’ve been coming back, buying art, and hearing great music for thirty years! We often talk about how the Festival serves as a venue for reunions; there couldn’t have been a better (or nicer) example of that than this group.
Sure, I saw some great art at the Festival. And I heard some great performers this year, too. No surprises there. But meeting the Mifflin-McElwain crew, that was a surprise. And a delightful one at that!