Penn State

Anonymous donor gives $1 million to Penn State in tribute to food science legend Philip Keeney

Philip Keeney, a Penn State food science icon who helped shape countless ice cream flavors, was honored with a $1 million donation to PSU.
Philip Keeney, a Penn State food science icon who helped shape countless ice cream flavors, was honored with a $1 million donation to PSU. CDT photo

An intensely chocolatey ice cream cone has carried Philip Keeney’s legacy at Penn State for years. Now an anonymous donor has given $1 million to attach Keeney’s name to something that won’t melt away.

The Philip G. Keeney food science department head excellence fund will support programs and new initiatives in food science research, extension and teaching. That is exactly the kind of thing that Keeney has been behind since he came to Penn State as a doctoral student decades ago.

“It’s hard to overstate the impact that Phil Keeney has had on a couple of generations of this department’s faculty, staff, students and alumni, not to mention our food industry clientele,” said Robert Roberts, professor and head of food science. “The establishment of an excellence fund in his honor is a fitting tribute to his dedication and longtime service to food and dairy science programs in the College of Agricultural Sciences.”

Keeney is quiet about his importance to the program.

“I helped a little bit,” he said, sitting at a table in the Berkey Creamery, the temple where people come to worship the ice cream he helped make an institution. Instead, he credits “luck and timing.”

He was just finishing up his doctorate when the former professor in charge of that area announced an early retirement. At the time, Pennsylvania was a hub of ice cream production, with more than 100 places churning it out across the state.

“It was an important industry in Pennsylvania. That was part of our responsibility, part of the College of Agriculture,” Keeney said. “It was a lot of fun.”

The program looks at what makes foods, like ice cream, work from a scientific perspective. Why do strawberries make a good cone but kiwis, not so much? Why does this flavor work and that one fall flat in the frozen finished product?

His studies also included chocolate, which is why he was honored with a Creamery flavor named in his honor when he retired: Keeney Beany, a rich chocolate ice cream studded with chocolate chunks and scented with ground vanilla bean. Keeney retired 30 years ago, but the ice cream is still front and center in the Creamery case while other flavors have come and gone.

His impact can also be found in grocery stores everywhere.

That pint of Ben and Jerry’s in the freezer? There wouldn’t be any Cherry Garcia, any Chunky Monkey, any Americone Dream without Keeney, who directed the ice cream short course from 1955 to 1985. Keeney says Ben Cohen took that class in the 1970s. The company’s website is happy to acknowledge that the gourmet ice cream empire had its start with a $5 correspondence course from Penn State.

So he knows his scoops. What he doesn’t know is who donated the money for the fund.

“It was anonymous. I respect that,” he said. “I am humbled, to say the least.”

What it must mean, though, is that his work touched someone enough to make the donation, whether it was a business he helped, a student he taught or just someone who loved the simple experience of sharing a dish of Peachy Paterno with a friend on a hot summer day.

“That’s one of the beautiful things about university work,” Keeney said.