The Histories of Penn State
Penn State Intercom......October 31, 2002

Part of the community

McKeesport campus grew with the
area and changed to serve its needs

McKeesport at a glance

Editor's note: Most people know the history of Penn State as that of a school chartered in 1855 at the request of the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society to apply scientific principles to farming. Since that time, Penn State has grown from that one campus at University Park to 24 locations statewide, and each of those other locations has its own history. Intercom is continuing to highlight those stories.

By Dottie Ikach
Penn State McKeesport

mckeesport_historyAn all-male student body. Crew cuts, or neatly trimmed hair styles with no hair below collars. Shirt pockets nestled with plastic liners that held an assortment of pens and pencils. T-shirts worn under long-sleeved plaid shirts, not as outerwear. And, ubiquitous slide rules proudly tucked through belts denoting personal identification as engineers.

That general description typified Penn State McKeesport students in 1957, the year the first classroom building opened at the campus' present location. A review of the 1957 Centaur Yearbook reveals page after page of male faces. Three female staff members represented the only feminine presence.

Before the establishment of a permanent campus in the area, the Pennsylvania State College offered technical courses as early as 1934 at sites in Pittsburgh and
McKeesport to train defense industry workers. When World War II ended, many returning veterans needed new training for peacetime. Once again, Penn State answered the call.

By 1948, as the various rented classroom facilities were outgrown, a stately Victorian mansion in nearby Dravosburg became the new location for The McKeesport Center of the Pennsylvania State College.

Ruth Baxter, Penn State McKeesport Advisory Board member and campus historian, began working as a staff assistant at the center in 1949 and retired from the University in 1984. She said the fortress-like red brick structure had a storied past. Coal baron J.C. Risher built the mansion before the turn of the century and it remained in the family for three generations. When the Risher family sold the home, it became the Queen Esther Home for Children and later served as a Methodist home for the elderly. The structure's appointments, including high ceilings, oak woodwork, staircase, and fireplaces in each room, created a unique setting for staff and students.

When the Westinghouse Corp. purchased the building in 1952, the center moved to the West Side School in McKeesport and began to offer associate degrees in technology in 1953.

In 1955 a group of area businessmen formed the Penn State McKeesport Advisory Board to begin a search for a permanent location for The McKeesport Center. They successfully arranged in 1956 for local Realtor William Buck to donate a 10-acre parcel of land adjacent to McKeesport's 250-acre Renziehausen Park.

The first classroom building opened in February 1957. Full-time, nontraditional students, mostly veterans, made up the majority of the student body. Enrollment of traditional students increased once the permanent campus was established.

Edward Mikula was a member of the first class to graduate from the new McKeesport Center in May 1957, having begun his Drafting-Design Technology (DDT) studies at the Risher mansion location.

"DDT and electrical engineering technology (EET) were the only two associate degrees offered then," Mikula said. Eight faculty members taught DDT and EET classes during the day. Noncredit continuing education classes were held in the evenings.

"We used to have slide rule contests to determine who could complete the most problems in the least amount of time," Mikula recalls. He said that the training he received prepared him well for a 38-year career at Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel.

Mikula represents the essence of philanthropist William Buck's dream to establish a Penn State campus in McKeesport. Buck's later gift of additional land provided an expanded site for the construction of several buildings, including a residence hall, to accommodate growth.

Buck's niece Stephanie Mallinger said her uncle felt that the future of
McKeesport lay with the youth.

"His concept was that if there were a Penn State campus for the young people, they could avail themselves of an education without having to go away to college," she said.

Buck was a self-made man who became a very successful Realtor. His father died in a tragic accident when Buck was only 11 years old, leaving his mother, younger sister and himself. He never married.

Mallinger related that her uncle had a deep sense of gratitude for what he had achieved personally.

"He felt that he had benefited from the community and wanted to give back to the community in this way," she said. Overall he donated a total of 52 acres, on which 10 buildings now stand.

Fulfilling William Buck's dream, Penn State McKeesport enjoys a long partnership with the Greater Pittsburgh region, playing a dynamic role in bringing the resources of a nationally prominent university to Southwestern Pennsylvania. When the campus began to offer the first two years of baccalaureate degree programs in 1959, enrollment of traditional students steadily increased, including increased numbers of female students.

In 1999 the University launched the Information Sciences and Technology baccalaureate degree program, the first bachelor's degree program that students could complete entirely at the
McKeesport campus. Since then, bachelor's degree programs in business and applied psychology have been added. Associate degree programs in business; science; and letters, arts and sciences also are available. Honors studies are integrated into many courses.

Continuing Education provides customized corporate training and professional development for adult learners as well as summer camps for youths. In addition, a number of student support programs are available.

A campus of the Commonwealth College, Penn State McKeesport plays host to students from 20 states and 11 countries. Approximately 20 percent live in campus housing. Students of color comprise 17 percent of the campus' increasingly diverse student body. In contrast to half a century ago, 38 percent of the students now are women.

McKeesport at a glance

* Curtiss E. Porter, campus executive officer

* 52-acre campus in McKeesport and White Oak

* Student enrollment of 934

* 40 full-time faculty McKeesport_today

* Student/faculty ratio of 18 to 1

* First two years of about 160 Penn State majors

* Complete three bachelor's and three associate degrees

* Professional development programs

* Four varsity sports

* Eighteen student clubs and organizations