The Phi Psi 500 at State College was a tradition for Penn State students from 1969 to 1992. Photo via La Vie.
If you’re reading this in Happy Valley, you know it’s spring break. There are suddenly about 45,000 fewer humans around. In New York, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh it wouldn’t be noticed, but here it’s almost half the population. It’s like the Marvel Avengers come to life and Thanos snaps his fingers while wearing the Infinity Gauntlet. Blip – they are gone.
A rite of passage since the 1930s for students everywhere, spring break gives our Penn State students the opportunity to get away from our usual freezing temperatures and travel to warmer climes such as Daytona Beach, Panama City and South Padre Island in this country, and Cabo San Lucas and Cancún in Mexico. They might even participate in a small party during their stay.
However, there are Penn State students who use their spring break in different ways. Victoria François is Executive Director of the Alternative Spring Breaks program which is part of the larger Penn State Alternate Breaks series. These break activities are “designed to encourage personal growth, promote civic engagement, and enrich participants’ lives by immersing them in a new community around social justice issues.”
While their brothers have gone to sunny climes enjoying beaches, music and libations, currently Victoria and her companions are providing community service work in Allentown where they support the Valley Youth Center that helps young people lay the foundation for future growth and independence. And another group of Penn State students is in Jonesville, Va., where they support the Appalachian Service Project that performs essential home repairs for families in central Appalachia.
The rest of us, however, are still in Happy Valley, although we had a nice respite over the weekend when temperatures soared into the 60s. But if you’re feeling a little melancholic about don’t experience these temperatures every day and need a little wry humor describing why Pennsylvania is better than Florida a few years ago I wrote 24 Reasons Happy Valley Has It Everywhere in Orlando. Or if you’re looking for the perfect list of things to do while the students are gone, I’ve also written a Townie’s Ten Best Buckets List things you should consider doing.
But before you know it, this weekend will arrive, everyone will be back and we will continue the spring semester, some students for the last time in their lives. Then they will enter the world of work. Except that, between now and graduation, what extracurricular activities can they indulge in? Besides house parties and bar visits? THON has come and gone. Unauthorized State Patty’s Day is a thing of the past. Yes, real St. Patrick’s Day is a week from Thursday, and Movin’ On is a few weeks away. But what else happens between now and April 29, 2022, when the spring semester ends?
It reminds me of my senior year at Penn State – the spring of 1981 – and the options we had for excitement and involvement. Looking back, we had, in no particular order:
The Phi Psi 500: It was a one mile run (give or take!) on a Saturday which started at the Phi Psi fraternity house on Locust Lane, ran through the town center and then crossed five bars – Phyrst, Rego’s, Rathskeller, Shandygaff and the Brasserie. — before returning to the Phi Psi house. At each bar, the runner would run into the bar, pay a quarter for a beer (or soda), gulp it down and then keep running. The total number of entries was limited to 1,800 people. At the start of the race, serious runners were released in small groups at timed intervals, but later the groups were judged for their costumes and wild antics. Spectators lined the streets of downtown to watch the madness.
Let’s move: A rarity in that this event still exists and continues in essentially the same format today. In 1981, it was a two-day event on a Saturday and Sunday, featuring seven bands each day. It was reduced to a single day in 1984 after Penn State changed from a 10-week academic calendar system to a 15-week semester system, which meant the spring semester ended earlier. And the place has changed. In 1981, it was on the lawn of the HUB; now it’s north of Park Avenue on IM fields. Otherwise, it’s still a great outdoor music festival for students.
Regatta Sy Barash: The regatta was held on a Sunday in Stone Valley and six bands performed that year. It was named in memory of local businessman and philanthropist Sy Barash, former president of Beta Sigma Beta, who died of cancer in 1979. There were tug of war competitions and canoe races. Buses left the HUB every 20 minutes to transport students to the lake and back. The bonus was that it made us students aware of the great recreational resource available to us at and around Lake Perez.
The Briarwood Party: Another one day music festival held on a Saturday at the Briarwood apartment complex on the corner of Waupelani Drive and Whitehall Road. Similar to the transport system for the regatta, the ACTS provided an additional service to encourage students to take the bus to this popular event. Of course, if you lived in the Briarwood Apartments, you had a ringside seat!
Horizons: 1981 was the first year of this spring festival which offered a variety of speakers, forums, recreational activities, artistic events, music and information tables. Sponsored by several student government organizations, it ran for three days – Friday, Saturday and Sunday – and was so extensive that the list of programs took up an entire page in the Daily Collegian.
Sweet Thursday: A one-day event on the lawn of the HUB which took place on a Thursday, you guessed it. It wasn’t an event in 1981 as its last occurrence was the year before, but about 40 diehard fans sat on the lawn in the rain on a Thursday anyway and staged an impromptu version.
Greek week: This week-long series of competitions had been named “Spring Week” until the previous year, when it became apparent that most of the participants belonged to sororities and fraternities. Although still open to everyone, it was sponsored by IFC and Panhel and included The Trivia Bowl, Chariot Races, Skits, a Block Party, and a game called Assassin where the winner received the Golden Gun Award.
Residency weeks: Not to be outdone by the Greeks, each of the individual residences had their own “week” of activities, including their own outdoor concerts. Northern week was probably the most notorious due to their infamous Emperor of the Northern contest which included dozens of weird and quirky tasks for participants to complete – including “climbing” the mall and walking to the Walker Building and come back in a diving mask. and fins.
Among all of these widely known events, there were a few niche events that gave students additional ways to spend their free time. These included the Sigma Pi Open Golf Tournament on the Blue Course, Acacia Road Rally, Tau Epsilon Phi’s Night At the Races, Kappa Delta Rho Football Tournament, Delta Chi Marathon, Two Mile Races and 10k from the Penn State Marketing Association, the Undine Rodeo in Bellefonte, and last but not least, the PSU Dairy Expo which included a milking contest, calf dressing, and milk blowing contest for those who weren’t not interested in drinking beers in the Phi Psi 500!
Maybe there’s still a lot of student activity going on these days and I’m just taken out of the information loop, but it sure seems like we still had a few ways to enjoy our free time at the time. Perhaps the powers that be would consider bringing back the Phi Psi 500 now that the beer mile has official rules and regulations!