Jean Craighead George, a 1941 Penn State alumna, accomplished a great deal over her long life, but many most fondly remember not George herself, but the amazing stories she told and characters she created. A prolific children’s author of more than 100 books, two of her books in particular — “My Side of the Mountain” and “Julie of the Wolves” — show up on many an elementary school reading list.
When local educator Jeni Kocher Zerphy read George’s memoir, “A Tarantula in My Purse,” and learned of George’s Penn State background, she was sure she’d find a nod to George’s success somewhere on campus. When Zerphy discovered that wasn’t the case, she decided to do something about it.
This spring, Zerphy began a GoFundMe campaign to raise the funds needed to honor George with a commemorative bench in the children’s garden at The Arboretum at Penn State. With a great amount of support from the George family — including George’s children, Luke George, Twig George and Craig George — and the local community of parents and teachers, Zerphy found that she would have enough funds to erect the commemorative bench by July, just in time to celebrate what would have been George’s 100th birthday.
“Most people are familiar with Jean Craighead George, even if they don’t realize it,” Zerphy said. “When people say they are not familiar with that author, I ask, what about ‘My Side of the Mountain’ or ‘Julie of the Wolves’? Usually, their eyes light up followed by some variation of, ‘oh, yes I loved that book or those books.’ ”
Most people continue to be in awe that she was a prolific author, writing over 100 books for children, Zerphy said.
“When I shared that she was a PSU alumna and there wasn’t anything to honor her on campus, they felt there should be, too. That’s why phase one of this campaign was successful,” Zerphy said.
George’s children attended the bench unveiling as part of their centennial travels in honor of their mother, where they met with Zerphy and several of her past and present students.
“The bench is a wonderful place for Mom’s readers to ‘be with Jean’ and share their thoughts,” Craig said. “There isn’t another place like it. I can’t thank Jeni enough for her tenacity in getting this project done. ... We still get fan mail from Mom’s readers and are amazed at how her work continues to reach the hearts, minds and wonder of young readers. Now they have a special place to go.”
For Luke, who had never met Zerphy or visited the Arboretum, Zerphy’s effort was heartwarming.
“After visiting the garden and meeting Jeni, I have a better understanding of why she was so passionate about establishing a bench in Mom’s name in the garden. It was the perfect tribute; Mom loved Penn State, nature and children,” he said.
As part of the GoFundMe project, Zerphy also raised funds to add a collection of George’s works to the Little Library within the children’s garden.
Twig called it “the perfect setting for a bench dedicated to Mom,” and thinks her mother would have loved the honor.
“When we visited, (Jeni) invited some of her students to meet us,” Twig said. “We all read the books aloud on the bench and watched the kids climb on the rocks and, of course, splash in the pools. I watched as one student leaned over and helped a younger one read.”
Now, Zerphy sets her sights on future projects related to George. She currently has a GoFundMe campaign set up with the intention of commissioning a sculpture of one of George’s animal friends, to be situated near the commemorative bench. So far, Zerphy believes the most likely animal choice will be a talking crow named Crowbar. The cost will be around $2,300. Then, Zerphy looks to even higher goals.
“I’d love to see phase three be a community connection with Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center and Penn State’s College of Education, including programming at both the arboretum and Shaver’s Creek. That’s my dream,” she said.
For community members interested in donating to the current GoFundMe campaign, they can find the donation page at www.gofundme.com/f/jean-craighead-george. Zerphy also encourages like-minded individuals interested in furthering her mission to reach out, whether they have ideas for other ways to recognize George’s work and ties to Penn State or they have the necessary connections to begin organizing community programming based off George’s books. Zerphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.