For hours on end, through the night, rain poured down in a steady stream on the stands and soaked the grass field until it squished beneath their feet. Small, shallow pools of mud began to form and as workers looked toward the dark sky, it seemed hopeless.
As Charles Hosler, then-assistant professor of meteorology, remembers it, the miserable weather was enough to bring tears of panic to some administrators' eyes. On the eve of the outdoor commencement ceremonies for Penn State's class of 1955 -- its centennial year -- Mother Nature was playing a calamitous and cruel joke.
The ceremony, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Saturday, June 11, at the new Beaver Field (now the site of the Nittany Lion Inn), was expected to not only accommodate nearly 35,000 visitors but also the 34th president of the United States -- Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Eisenhower, brother of Penn State's 11th president Milton S. Eisenhower (1950 to 1956), had accepted an invitation to give the commencement address to the 1,847 graduates of the class of 1955. The visit was a boost to Penn State's new-found status, for just two years earlier -- in a move designed to reflect its growing presence in the state and nation -- the University had changed its name from The Pennsylvania State College to The Pennsylvania State University. With the 11th largest full-time enrollment in the country and a research program of $6 million, Eisenhower's visit seemed to offer proof of Penn State's reputation as an educational powerhouse.
As with the most recent announcement of the May 10 commencement address to be given by President Bill Clinton, excitement among students and faculty in 1955 over the pending event ran high. But in 1955, patriotism was at its peak. Eisenhower -- a war hero and much-respected national figure -- was a symbol of American leadership and strength.
"He was an icon of sorts and people were still feeling the elation and patriotism of the victories of the second world war. There was tremendous anticipation that this would be a wonderful new era," Paul H. Cutler, Penn State professor of physics and a 1955 graduate, said. "People were absolutely thrilled that the president of the United States was coming and in particular, a person of Dwight Eisenhower's stature."
But as an unremitting flow of water continued to fall from the sky into the early morning hours on that gray spring day, University officials nervously wondered how they would turn away 30,000 people and shuffle 5,000 graduates and their closest relatives into Recreation Building.
"I was up all night with others drawing hourly weather maps," Hosler, now dean emeritus and senior vice president emeritus, said. "It had poured like the devil and I'd say it dumped about two inches of rain on the area. We had some pretty primitive methods back then for forecasting ... there was no radar and no satellites, so it was a little bit skill and a little bit luck."
Hosler recalls being summoned at 7 a.m. from his lab to provide Dwight Eisenhower with an update on the weather situation. Trudging through the early morning drizzle to Milton Eisenhower's residence on campus (now University House), Hosler held his weather maps tight under his slicker.
"I sat down in the breakfast nook with President (Dwight) Eisenhower and shared a grapefruit with him," Hosler said. "I laid out my weather maps and showed him what was going on. I told him that if they delayed commencement a little, that there would a an hour-and-a-half period where the rain would stop. Then it was going to rain like heck again."
Just as Hosler predicted, the skies cleared for a brief 90-minute period, commencement was held and the U.S. president addressed the packed stadium, focusing on the peaceful use of atomic energy.
"I can't recall the content of his speech, but I do recall that it was quite an event," William Campbell Jr., former editor of Intercom and a 1955 journalism graduate, said. "The Korean War had just officially ended (January), but there was still a draft in effect. I think we were all pretty much worrying about whether we would lose our deferment, we were all classified as students and not eligible."
Campbell's fears were real. He lost his deferment and just three months after graduating, was drafted into the Army.
Like Campbell (and thousands of other graduates across the country), Irene (Lipschitz) Cutler, a 1955 Penn State graduate in the College of Education and wife of Paul, doesn't recall her commencement speaker's words, but she does remember the general air of excitement.
"My whole family came from New Jersey because it was such a significant event," she said. "Eisenhower's military record was extremely important to a lot of people at that time. The country as a whole was caught up in a lot of things."
May 10 will mark only the second time a U.S. president has given the commencement address at Penn State.
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