Penn State Intercom......September 13, 2001


'Guard here the spirit'

Penn State Abington began as
a private, upscale, girls' finishing school

Abington 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 special history. Throughout this academic year, Intercom plans to highlight those histories, as told by experts at each of those campus locations.

By Terrie Smith
Penn State Abington Abington_Co_C_1932

Picture a thin blue line as it serpentines its way through wooded hills, past a scenic duck pond, to culminate in formation at the circle embracing the large stone building that dominates the view.

Abington's campus, once known as Ogontz, has belonged to Penn State for more than 50 years now, but for more than three decades another school occupied these grounds, and its history is a part of ours.

In recent years there has been a revival of interest, not only by alumni of the once-renowned Ogontz School for Girls, but by the public in general.

The passing of time has added to the mystique held by that remarkable institution and the story is worth the telling.

Though the exclusive finishing school had its origins in Philadelphia as the Chestnut Street Female Seminary, by 1883 it had moved to the lavish estate of Jay Cooke in Elkins Park. A banker who financed the Union during the Civil War, Cooke had suffered financial reverses, and decided to lease his mansion to the school. ABINGTON_Springhouse

It was from Jay Cooke that the name "Ogontz" was derived. Cooke named his estate after an Indian chief who had impressed him with stories of wilderness life during his boyhood in Ohio. "Chief Ogontz" became the school's emblem and remained so throughout the years.

In 1902, Abby Sutherland arrived at "Jay Cooke's Ogontz" as an English teacher. The cum laude graduate of Radcliffe College was destined to become head mistress, president and owner of the Ogontz School for Young Ladies -- its strong guiding influence from 1913 untilit closed in 1950.

By 1916, the school's reputation among "families of good lineage and culture" had increased its enrollment to the point that it was outgrowing its facilities. With modernization in mind, Sutherland bought 54 acres of land in the "beautiful park section in the hills of Rydal." ABINGTON_Rydals1

When the school shifted quarters, only the main building, now known as Sutherland, had been completed. Several features of the old Ogontz estate were retained by Sutherland's architect, Horace Trumbauer. The palm court of the Jay Cooke mansion was copied, and became the solarium, where tea was served daily and such renowned literary personages as William Butler Yeats, Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay were to guest lecture.

The roster of students over the years is equally impressive with its names of wealth and influence -- Campbell, Heinz, Dupont, Gillette, Sperry -- occurring and often recurring as the second, third and even fourth generations of the same families sent their daughters from all parts of the United States to the posh private school. But by far the most famous enrollee never graduated. Amelia Earhart, adventurous and restless even then, attended the Ogontz School for a little more than a year. Her academic records remain at the campus.

In early times, most of the girls spent six years at the school, starting at the age of 12. Soon after the move, however, the Rydal School was added to accommodate children through the elementary grades. In 1932, as college preparatory students increased in number, Ogontz was chartered as a junior college. From that time, a girl could attend kindergarten through junior college, all at the same location.

Traditionally, the school emphasized instruction in the classics, arts and foreign languages, though changing times and practicality saw the addition of "domestic sciences" and "applicable skills."

Ogontz was the first private school for girls to have military drill as part of its curriculum. ABINGTON_Sutherland3

"No other form of exercise is at once so complete in its demands on attention, concentration and response to standards of posture, walking, consideration for others," Sutherland explained. Uniforms evolved with the years, but the drills remained a unique and dominant part of the school's character right up to its closing.

By 1950, the world had changed to the point where the need for a private girls' school with the primary goal of producing cultured young ladies was dubious. Sutherland chose to give the property, its library and all existing facilities, to Penn State as an outright gift.

"Guard here the spirit of the best in your dreams of education," she exclaimed at the presentation ceremony. Sutherland continued to live on the grounds until her death a decade later.

In 1995, Penn State Ogontz became Abington-Ogontz to better reflect its location and relationship to the community. With the restructuring of the former Commonwealth Educational System, the campus was made a Penn State college on July 1, 1997.

Today, Penn State Abington retains much of the charm of its past. With rolling hills and woodlands as a background, the campus' blend of historic old buildings and architecturally compatible new ones provides a tranquil setting for college life.

The small-college atmosphere is echoed by small classes, individualized attention and a comfortable student-faculty rapport. Some 3,200 students participate in a wide variety of activities from drama, dance, newspaper and literary magazine to service clubs, ethnic organizations and all types of intramural and intercollegiate sports.

Penn State Abington features a large library, modern laboratories and computer facilities, tennis courts and a spacious physical education building. Although there are no residence halls on campus, more than 150 students live in privately owned accommodations nearby .

Abington at a glance

* Karen Wiley Sandler, dean and CEO

* Leonard Mustazza, associate dean

* 45-acre campus in suburban Abington Township

* Student enrollment of about 3,250

* 90 full-time and 75 part-time faculty members

* Student/faculty ratio of 17:1

* First two years of about 160 Penn State majors

* Complete 10 bachelor's and two associate degrees

* Professional development programs available

* Nine varsity sports

* More than 20 student organizations