When Ray Walker came to Penn State, it was a different place.
It was smaller, for one thing.
A lot of the buildings that define the campus weren’t there, and there were a lot fewer people.
It even had a different name, not yet gaining the U in PSU.
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It was a different school in a different time, closer to its 1855 birth than its 2016 place as one of the largest universities in the world and an economic engine for Pennsylvania.
Back then, it was just little Penn State College, and Ray Walker was just a kid from Bigler in Clearfield County.
Today, he is a respected businessman, and he’s also the oldest living Penn State alumnus.
Sit in his living room back in his hometown, only the second house he has ever called home in his life, and you know there is nothing typical about Walker.
He will be 104 on March 13, but he is barely slowed by his age, fitting in a quick chat about his life between meetings and lunches. He’s kind of retired, but even at rest, he has a restless energy, ready to move on to the next thing.
That might have started at Penn State. He didn’t wait until he graduated to start his career.
“I thought I wanted to be a doctor,” he said.
But back in 1931, Walker notes, there was an unusual requirement for the pre-med program. He needed to take German. The second time he failed it, he re-evaluated and decided to pursue business.
Business also decided to pursue him.
His father called him and told him he was going to have to come home, that his bank had crashed and all of their money was gone. He couldn’t afford to keep his son in school.
Walker wasn’t ready to come home. He looked around and saw fraternity houses and decided to try selling them potatoes and coal.
By the time he graduated in 1935, Walker wasn’t just paying his tuition. He was sending money home to help keep his family afloat.
And that was how Bradford Coal was born. Eventually, he went from selling it to college boys to digging it out of the ground, taking a local industry international. Walker was a major force in surface mining and sold coking coal to steel mills all over the world.
Penn State gave him something else. It helped him find the love of his life, and just like his major, it didn’t exactly go as planned.
“I had graduated, but I was asked to go to this dance at my fraternity, but I didn’t have a date,” he said.
He didn’t want to go to the campus event alone, so he asked his sister, who tried to set him up with one girl. That fell through because she had a boyfriend, but she also had a sister.
Louise Saupp married him in 1940, and together they had four children and started to teach them what they both believed were their most important lessons: work hard, and give back.
Walker has exercised that at his alma mater. He has given money to the university, but he’s also given time and even a violin that was priceless to a man whose father had hoped he would be a concert violinist.
Music and the arts have been a repeated theme in Walker’s philanthropy. It is something close to his heart.
In February, as Penn State’s men’s basketball team played Nebraska at the Bryce Jordan Center, Walker was there to conduct the pep band. He chuckled talking about stories he told the band about his own college days when he practiced with them.
“Now don’t put that one in the paper,” he said, although “racy” for the 1930s isn’t quite the same in 2016.
His son, Alan, is a Penn State alumnus, too, doing his graduate work as a Nittany Lion after getting his bachelor’s degree at Bucknell.
Alan Walker? If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he is the former Pennsylvania Secretary of Community and Economic Development.
“Penn State has always meant a lot to dad, and to us,” he said.
University President Eric Barron appreciates what Walker has done for the university over the years, but he also appreciates him just for the man he is.
“He’s just a character,” he said with a laugh. “He’s a delightful person.”
And that’s pretty much what Walker is hoping for.
Today, he has lost his love, with his Louise passing about ten years ago. He has ten grandchildren, and he’s at 22 great-grandchildren, though.
And he has 600,000 or so younger brothers and sisters at his alma mater.
“When I went there, it was just a cow college,” he said. “Look at it now.”