On a rainy Sunday afternoon, February 25, Linda dropped me at a nearby Marriott, where I picked up a rental car and drove north, headed for a week as “professional-in-residence” in the College of Communications at Penn State. I had the whole afternoon to drive 175 miles, so I took the scenic route: freeway to the Pennsylvania border, then two-lane highways of varied quality north. It had been a long time since I drove the ridges and valleys of the Appalachians, more specifically the Allegheny Mountains. Up and down and up and down, through some interesting and old towns, mostly small. A couple of wrong turns here and there, but was at the Nittany Lion Inn, the university’s historic hotel, by 4:45. Parked the car and would leave it in the same space for four days.
At 5:45 I met my host for the week, Prof. Ron Smith. We motored a couple of miles to a brewpub, and another prof, Steve Manuel, joined us. I did a little research on the faculty I would meet that week, and knew that Steve would have some stories. And he did. Entered the Marine Corps in 1969 as an enlisted man, firing from a helicopter gunship in Vietnam, and departed 28 years later as a major at the Pentagon. Quite a lot of action in between. Since leaving, he has gone on 60 USO tours as a photographer, in between teaching stints at Penn State, where he’s served for two decades. “Been shot at?” I asked. Indeed, he replied. It was quite a meal.
Up way early Monday morning, to the hotel gym, then breakfast with two more faculty, then into Ron’s advertising creative strategies class. Did a bit of consulting work, met Ron for lunch, then at 2:00 met the person responsible for the Penn State invitation. In October 2015 when I was teaching in Chicago I spent a couple of hours with a longtime American Airlines colleague. His daughter Margaret came out to the patio to say hello, Tom introduced her, said she was an advertising major at Penn State, adding, “Margaret, you should see if Rob can be invited to speak.” Almost 2½ years later, Margaret, her classmate Audrey, and I were yakking at a coffee shop in downtown State College. A fun chat. Headed back to campus, Ron found me an office, and I was set. Worked until 5:30, walked back to the hotel, changed into jeans, and headed back to town.
Earlier I had spotted a promising tavern, the Darkhorse, on an alley called Calder Way. Zipped in, sat down, and in no time was chatting with Nolan the bartender. Nice TtS piled on top of SMN (Small world, no?): he worked for five years as a counselor at a summer camp for special-needs kids on Big Trout Lake in Minnesota, two miles from my pal Tim McGlynn’s cabin. Also yakked with a couple of colorful locals, Alec and Eric. A nice time. Next and last stop was India Pavilion for dinner, then home.
Tuesday, same drill: on the fitness bike, breakfast (on my own), then to class: one before lunch and two after. In between, a delightful lunch with more faculty: Tara, Frank, and Denise. Back to the room, changed clothes, out the door for a beer, then a spicy Thai curry. Wednesday, again. Breakfast with a prof, then to his class and another. Lunch with grad students and Denise, brief meeting with the dean, Marie Hardin, worked a bit more and got prepped.
The main event of the visit was a keynote speech in the student center at 6:30. Denise, Ron, and I had an early dinner in the Nittany Lion Inn’s superb dining room (like Cornell, Penn State has a “hotel school,” and the inn is used extensively for hands-on lessons in hotel and restaurant management). The keynote went well – attendance was a bit sparse, but your scribe delivered a solid talk, and answered some great questions. After the talk, two people with airline connections introduced themselves: Debbie, a former Continental flight attendant, and Jillian, whose mom has worked on the ramp at LaGuardia for American and predecessor companies back to Piedmont Airlines. Walked back to the hotel, changed clothes, and had a nightcap beer.
Thursday morning, back to the gym, packed the suitcase, tossed it in the rental car, and headed to my office. After lunch and a detour for a milk shake at the Berkey Creamery on campus, I met a soon-to-graduate student, Mike, who was torn between a career in comms and one in the cockpit. We chatted for an hour, and after he left I felt much better about young people – Mike was hardworking, kind, humane, thoughtful. He’d make a good pilot. Last class ran 3:30 to 4:30. By then it was pelting rain. Walked briskly back to the car, fueled up, and headed home, this time on the freeway. It was, alas, one of the most awful drives in almost half-a-century behind the wheel. Sheets of rain nearly the whole way, fog on the ridgetops, and once on I-70 a parade of semis, many of which were in the uphill left lane. I was seriously glad to be home, even to clean up a couple of MacKenzie’s accidents on the basement carpet!
The visit to Penn State was superb, and I told host Ron that I would very much like to return in future years.