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Chris Rosenblum: Joe Humphreys Duck Pond Project aims to give new life to stream

Members of the Spring Creek Chapter of Trout Unlimited and a four-man Penn State work crew helped fly fishing legend Joe Humphreys on Friday clean up Thompson Run in College Township.
Members of the Spring Creek Chapter of Trout Unlimited and a four-man Penn State work crew helped fly fishing legend Joe Humphreys on Friday clean up Thompson Run in College Township. Photo provided

His childhood friend was sick and neglected. When Joe Humphreys found out, how could he not help?

He threw himself into finding a cure, and it led to a full recovery — as well as another act of friendship almost 40 years later.

On a chilly Friday morning complete with snow flurries, Humphreys returned to Thompson Run, a College Township trout stream he often fished while growing up in State College. The legendary 87-year-old fly fisherman and conservationist wasn’t alone.

Joining him were a four-man Penn State work crew and 11 members of the Spring Creek Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the club Humphreys founded. The volunteers included six veterans with SCCTU’s Veterans Service Partnership mentoring and assistance program.

Everyone pitched in to clear two truckloads of timber and invasive brush from the dike and spillway that separate Thompson Run from the Penn State-owned Duck Pond. The cleanup marked the first phase of the Joe Humphreys Duck Pond Project, a partnership between SCCTU and Penn State honoring the man whose leadership saved a stream from ruin.

Back in the early 1970s, Thompson Run was a mess, far from the trout-rich waters of Humphreys’ youth.

Fed by Thompson Springs, the stream originally ran down a sluiceway past Centre Furnace beside the Duck Pond. Rebuilding Benner Pike in the 1950s diverted Thompson Run into the pond, a settling basin for Penn State and State College stormwater runoff.

The result was an environmental disaster.

Stagnant, polluted pond water fouled the once-cool flow that provided ideal trout habitat. Temperatures downstream in Slab Cabin Run and Spring Creek rose to distressing levels. Stretches where Humphreys used to hook one fat fish after another grew barren.

“It really hurt Spring Creek for a few years,” Humphreys recalled. “There weren’t enough trout to cook in a pan all the way down to Benner Spring. I was so incensed. I said, ‘Spring Creek deserves better.’ ”

In 1975, he proposed a Thompson Run restoration project to the newly formed SCCTU, then set out to make it happen. The timing was right: Penn State had decided to install a filter system in the pond and no longer dump sewage there.

Humphreys conceived a plan for building a dike that would channel the stream so Thompson Spring water could bypass the pond. After going to Harrisburg for the necessary permits and securing university approval, he needed another crucial component — assistance.

Local funding for the $30,000 project was unavailable, and SCCTU had little money. But Humphreys would not be deterred.

He persuaded Dan Hawbaker with Glenn O. Hawbaker Inc. construction company to donate the dike construction while dredging the pond for the university. Others also responded to Humphreys’ charm.

Local businesses supplied the pipe that cut through the pond’s dam, the concrete for the spillway, stone fill and reinforcing wire and lumber. The university’s Office of Physical Plant provided a backhoe and operator. Muscle in the muck came from SCCTU members Paul Blankenhorn, Todd Bowersox, Dave Coe, Max Hartswick, Will Hepfer, Dave Holmes, Merrill Katz, George Kelly, Vance McCullough, Ed Rakowksi, Bill Reinincer, Elton Tait and Regan Williams.

By the fall of 1977, Humphreys’ vision was complete. Thompson Run and Spring Creek were on their way to better health.

Today, in large part because of a project SCCTU considers one of its most important, Spring Creek remains an improbable gem: a world-class trout stream in the midst of urban development.

Lately, however, the Thompson Run dike had been showing its age, weakened by tree roots, clogged by brush and in need of another rescue. Humphreys noticed.

Talking with SCCTU board member Jim Lanning this winter, he expressed a simple wish.

“As we’re saying goodbye, he said, ‘Jim, before I die, I would really like to finish the Duck Pond.’ It was kind of wistful,” Lanning said. “I said, ‘Joe, I’ll do my best for you.’ ”

Lanning kept his word.

Retired from a law enforcement career in Southern California, he knew firsthand the value of inter-agency collaboration. To obtain permission for a cleanup project, he drew on contacts within the Penn State administration, setting his proposal in motion. It took a while for the bureaucratic wheels to move, but eventually the green light came back.

In February, Lanning arranged a meeting at the Duck Pond with Larry Fennessey, a Penn State stormwater utility engineer and expert on the pond, and Jeff Dice, the Penn State grounds maintenance supervisor.

But first, Lanning, SCCTU President Bob Vierck, chapter officer Mario Carrello and chapter project manager Joe Boston took Humphreys out to breakfast. At the table, they informed him of the project idea and the pond meeting.

“Joe’s eyes lit up,” Lanning said. “We have a picture of that: Joe’s eyes lighting up. Joe’s a happy man, and off we go to the Duck Pond that day.”

Lanning, who served in the Air Force, was happy to help another veteran, a Navy man. But it meant even more to fulfill the dream of a revered figure within fly-fishing circles, to reward a kind soul who has devoted his life to teaching the sport — including for the Veterans Service Partnership program — and raising awareness of riparian conservation.

“He is a genuine giver; it doesn’t matter what,” Lanning said.

Friday’s work cleared the dike, dam and spillway areas in preparation for a May 15 ceremony to dedicate a new granite monument to Humphreys, SCCTU and their partners for the original Thompson Run project. Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission Executive Director John Arway is expected to attend.

The monument’s bronze plaque actually was made long ago, but for one reason or another, it remained in storage until last year. One day, as Humphreys envisions, the stone carved by Lemont stonemason Phil Hawk will be part of an accessible park where visitors on walks can stop and enjoy the serenity of Thompson Run cascading down the spillway.

Mostly, Humphreys wants to see “beautiful cold water” continue to flow into his beloved Thompson Run and Spring Creek.

“It thrills me,” he said of Friday’s cleanup and future restoration plans. “Spring Creek, to me, was more influential in my life than just about anything because I fished here every day. It was a classroom, and I learned so much and I had just so much enjoyment.”

Lanning said the morning, captured by a film crew making a documentary about Humphreys, proved as successful as everyone hoped.

“When you do good things for good people,” Lanning said, “you’re doing good.”

Columnist Chris Rosenblum writes about local people and events. He can be reached at