The long, amazing and interesting life of a hero and teacher ended Monday morning when Harlan “Rip” Hoffa died at Mount Nittany Medical Center.
He was 91.
For some, he might have just been known as an art education professor, a guy with white hair and a full mustache. A professor emeritus of art education, he retired from Penn State as associate dean of research and graduate studies in the College of Arts and Architecture.
But there was so much more.
According to his younger brother, Bill, Hoffa was missing and presumed dead while serving in Belgium during World War II. For three months, there was no telling where he was or what had happened to him after the Battle of the Bulge.
“He was captured three times. He escaped three times,” Bill Hoffa said.
That was when he was 19, one of almost every member of his high school class who volunteered for the war. They trained him for engineering, but when America needed foot soldiers, he became an infantryman.
“They came up to my foxhole and put a rifle in my ear, and that was it,” Harlan Hoffa told the Centre Daily Times in 2004, calling his survival “Dumb luck. Absolutely dumb luck.”
It was a long hard three months, and when it was over, he survived but was only 110 pounds. He started the war at 180 pounds.
But when he came home, it wasn’t something he talked about much. He went to college on the G.I. Bill, picking up his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Wayne State University before coming to Penn State for his doctoral work. He got his doctorate in education as a Nittany Lion in 1959.
“He was very modest about (his service),” his brother said. “That was just his character. He did what he could.”
Harlan Hoffa married his high school sweetheart. He had two kids. He married again, losing his wife, Suzanne, three years ago. The two established a doctoral dissertation award at Penn State to recognize exceptional work in art education.
“I had the pleasure of talking to him every year and interviewing him for a film,” said Christine Thompson, Penn State professor of art education. “He had so much enthusiasm. (He and his wife) were so generous and supportive of both the program and graduate research and art education nationwide.”
But some part of him was always in those European woods where he was captured or escaped and escaped and escaped before he found freedom in March 1945.
“I get into bed at night, and I think of that cold outside,” Harlan Hoffa said in 2004.
Services have not yet been announced.