Penn State Intercom......October 10, 2002

Descendants of Atherton
and Buckhout discover
their roots at University Park

By Julie A. Brink
Public Information

atherton8Four women with a famous Penn State pedigree recently returned to University Park to reclaim a heritage that for most of their lives they knew little about.

Mary Frances Buckhout McVay, 92; Harriet Buckhout Ward, 87; and Helen Buckhout Howe, 85, are the grandchildren of President George Washington and Frances Washburn Atherton and of William A. and Mary Louise Harkness Buckhout.

Atherton was president of the University from 1882 to 1906 and is widely credited with reinvigorating the institution.

"When he arrived in 1882, this place was really on the verge of collapse with very few students, two recent legislative investigations of the school. It was in debt. There was no coherent curriculum, no popular standing in the state," according to Lee Stout, former University archivist.

A nationally recognized leader in the land-grant education movement, Atherton worked effectively with the legislature for change.

"He was able to successfully transform Penn State over 25 years into the beginnings of a modern, successful, land grant college," Stout said. "By time of his death, there were seven schools, a couple dozen majors, 700 to 800 students, 60 faculty and two dozen buildings, none of which had been there when he started."

The president is buried on the north side of Schwab Auditorium. His portrait and bust are exhibited on the first floor of Old Main.

Buckhout Laboratory is named after the women's paternal grandfather, an 1868 graduate and a professor of agriculture who taught botany, geology, horticulture, zoology and forestry.

The sisters are the children of Harriet Atherton and Albert T. Buckhout. Their parents met and courted at University Park. Albert Buckhout is an alumnus from the Class of 1900.

The women were born in South Hadley, Mass., where the Buckhout family grew to include eight children, according to Mary Ai Li McVay Kuntz, daughter of Mary Frances McVay. President Atherton was born in Boxford, Mass., in 1837.

Kuntz has spent the past four years researching her Penn State roots and she brought her mother and aunts to University Park to see what their heritage has meant to the University.

The Atherton and Buckhout names are familiar on campus and as street names in State College, but neither has the same prominence in Massachusetts. The three women were born after their famous grandfather's death. Time and geography intervened to nearly erase the Atherton story from their lives.

"Mama talked about her father and her family, but I don't remember much except Charles Atherton and Helen Atherton, who visited about once a year," McVay recalled. Charles and Helen were Harriet Atherton Buckhout's brother and sister.

It took a chance encounter in Texas, where Kuntz used to live, to set the story in motion. Kuntz met a woman with connections to the State College area who told her about Atherton's contributions. Spurred on, Kuntz, who had moved back to Massachusetts, started investigating her past. She found letters, diaries and papers, as well as books in the family library. "It literally blew me away," she said. "I had no idea he was so prominent in education."

Kuntz spent three summers at the University researching the family's past with Stout's help. "We have very extensive collection of President Atherton's correspondence files, diaries and a variety of other materials," Stout said. "We have about 20 cubic feet of papers. They've been used pretty frequently."

The research was enlightening. "We really got to know who we are -- where attitudes and traditions came from in the family," Kuntz said.

She learned that the Athertons were all very musical, singing, harmonizing, playing all sorts of instruments.

McVay recalled: "Uncle Charles and Aunt Helen were very musical. One of them would start something on the piano and the other would pick it up. They'd play four-handed piano."

That talent led to a job for Charles Atherton.

"Charlie was the organist at the Janhus Settlement Church in New York City (today it is the 73rd Street Presbyterian Church)," Kuntz said. "He played a variation of 'A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight' as the postlude. No one knew what it was and minister loved it."

The granddaughters paid homage to that family tradition harmonizing through an a cappella rendition of "Tie Me To Your Apron Strings" during an alumni luncheon in their honor.

While on campus, the Atherton relatives toured University House (now Hintz Family Alumni Center), which was the Atherton family home when he was president; and visited the Special Collections Library at Paterno Library where they viewed family photos in the archives.

"It was like visiting people we've never met," Ward said. The sisters found a photo of themselves taken about 75 years ago. In it, three round-faced toddlers in their best dresses embrace Harriet Atherton Buckhout, a young woman with an upswept hairdo and high-collared blouse. The older two have vague memories of sitting for the photo. "We had to get dressed up for it," McVay recalled.

The women toured Atherton Hall, Buckhout Lab and Greenhouses; and Pine Hall Cemetery, where other members of the Atherton family are buried, as well as other sites of family interest.

Atherton Hall, where the Schreyer Honor College administrative offices are now housed, is named for Frances Washburn Atherton. Frances Atherton Hall opened in 1938 to provide housing for the burgeoning number of female students on campus during the Depression. "My forebears would feel right at home," Ward said, while touring the building.

During the trip to Buckhout Lab, the women admired a portrait of their paternal grandfather and viewed his microscope, which is displayed on the second floor. They met, for the first time, a cousin, William Buckhout's great-grandson James Savage, who is a research assistant at Buckhout Lab.

John Skelly, professor of plant pathology, showed them a publication written by William Buckhout that he reads to his classes and told them he has Buckhout's adding machine in his office. "It still works," he said.

Coincidentally, Buckhout's pamphlet, written in 1903 and titled, "The Affects of Smoke on Vegetation," relates closely to what his great-grandson is doing today. "I work with air pollution's effects on the forest and it's very much what the pamphlet was talking about," Savage said.

One of the last stops on the tour was Atherton's tomb. Kuntz leaned down and straightened the flag on the grave while her aunt laid a spray of flowers on the monument.

All four women said the visit brought them closer to their ancestors.

"They were people reaching out to the future, wanting a better world, who really cared about how they lived, what their morals were, what they hoped for the future," Ward said.

They also were awed by the fruits of President Atherton's vision. "I was struck by the students, the alumni and community -- they have a good wholesome atmosphere," McVay said.

Julie A. Brink can be reached at