UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — "I'm basically a farmer at heart," said 1964 and 1965 Penn State alumnus and Boalsburg resident John Graham. "I was raised on a dairy farm in southern Lancaster County, and I always had an interest in tractors and machinery."
Seeing Graham's potential, a high school counselor suggested he study agricultural engineering at Penn State. Graham took the advice, earning both bachelor's and master's degrees in agricultural engineering. His education made him an attractive employment prospect for companies like Sperry New Holland, where he worked during summers, and Caterpillar (now CAT) Inc.
Graham remembers seeing the Caterpillar name on a bulletin board in the student union building. He signed up for an on-campus interview and was hired. "I was single at the time, so I packed up my '65 Ford and headed for Illinois."
Forty-four years, a wife, three kids and four grandchildren later, Graham retired from Caterpillar and returned to central Pennsylvania in 2014. "I retired three times," Graham quipped. "The third one was a take, and we decided to come back to the State College area because we liked it here so much."
It wasn't long before Graham and his wife, Carol, a retired music teacher, decided it was time to "pay back the University for giving me such a great start in life."
With a $30,000 gift matched 2:1 by the University, the Grahams established the John and Carol Graham Open Doors Scholarship in the College of Agricultural Sciences. With an additional $30,000 contribution, they named the office of the Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department chair in the soon-to-be-completed Agricultural Engineering Building at University Park. A ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the building's opening will be held June 8.
Both of the Grahams' gifts support A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence, the University's five-year, $1.6 billion fundraising campaign. For a limited time, the University is offering robust matching gift programs for those creating scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students, economic development initiatives, and early-career professorships.
"When we heard about the University's matching program, we decided it [creating a scholarship endowment] was the right thing to do since we're fortunate enough to be able to," said Graham, adding that his undergraduate tuition bill for four years amounted to only about $8,000. "I was able to work summers to raise most of the money I needed. When you see what students and parents have to pay for tuition nowadays, well, we just knew we had to help someone who can't afford to come here unless they have help."
"We're so grateful to the Grahams for their generosity and for their faith in the College of Agricultural Sciences," said Rick Roush, dean of the college. "It's wonderful to witness when alumni from decades ago choose to invest in our excellent programs and in the future leaders we are educating."
Graham said his gift to name the office in the Agricultural Engineering Building was made because he appreciated the education he received, and "it was high time to redo the building, which hadn't changed much since I was a student in the 1960s." Graham took a tour of the construction site and realized what a difference the new building would make.
"I thought, ‘Wow, this is really going to change things,' so when I heard there were rooms available for naming, I decided that was a good way to show my support."
The door of the department head's office will read: "A gift from John Graham -- '64, '65 MS Ag Engineering."
"We are very pleased that Mr. Graham has honored our department by naming the department head's office," said Paul Heinemann, head of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. "Our alums often reflect on how special their connection to the department and the University is, and John is a great example of the generous ways they give back. His gift provides resources that allow the department to continue its mission of advancing the engineering sciences, business, and technical management of biological and agricultural systems."
Since returning to central Pennsylvania, the Grahams have immersed themselves in all things Penn State and the many opportunities available in the area. They are season ticket holders to Penn State football, wrestling and hockey; they are on the committee for and frequent participants in programs offered by OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Penn State); and Carol is a member of the Nittany Valley Symphony Guild.
"We love being here, and we love being active," she said, adding that the couple also loves to travel, attend cultural events, and visit their children and grandchildren.
In addition to their philanthropic investment in the College of Agricultural Sciences, the couple supports the Penn State Center for the Performing Arts, the Blue Band, Shaver's Creek Environmental Center, and The Arboretum at Penn State. Still, they insist they're just happy to be able to support the programs and people they believe in.
"This isn't about us. It's about helping people," Graham said.
The Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences represents the foundation of Penn State University and its land-grant mission to serve the public good. To fulfill that mission for a new era of rapid change and global connections, the University has begun "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a fast-paced campaign focused on three key imperatives: Open Doors, Create Transformative Experiences, and Impact the World. Through teaching, research, and Extension, and because of generous alumni and friends, the College of Agricultural Sciences is able to offer scholarships to one in four students, create life-shaping opportunities, and make a difference in the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more, visit http://agsci.psu.edu/giving.