Special Reports

Alumni see changes, but more of the same

UNIVERSITY PARK — Binge drinking. Party-school status. Town and gown tensions. These are not new issues in Happy Valley.

And as much as people talk about them, there is no single answer to a solution. Over the years, has it changed? Is it worse? It depends on who you ask.

“Actually, I think right now there’s probably less partying than there was when I was here,” said Jeff Lewis, a 1985 mechanical engineering graduate. “We had kegs all over the place.”

Lewis, who lives in Reading and has season football tickets, came to the Blue-White scrimmage Saturday with his parents. In the background, they smiled and nodded, yes — they remember it being more rowdy then, too.

Lewis says it appears the added attention to the drinking issue comes from “a bigger effort to crack down,” and solutions, in his mind, need to start before people get to college.

“I think it starts with the parents in the home, to be honest,” he said. “Schools are not the right place to provide that kind of education.”

Young parents Chuck and Sara Kimble plan on doing just that. Chuck Kimble was the Nittany Lion mascot in 2000 and 2002, and later married Sara, who was Miss Penn State 2001. They have two kids, 8 months and 3 years. In town with their Nittany Lion family, the Kimbles have already begun thinking about what they’ll tell their young ones about college drinking.

“I’m just going to be truthful with them and give them the facts, tell the stories that I’ve heard,” Sara Kimble said. She and her husband both say they have plenty of stories to tell.

“I know that (University Park Allocation Committee) spends a decent amount of money every year to bring in political figures,” Chuck Kimble said. “Is it really important to spend up all the allocation committee’s fund on politics, when most of the kids honestly don’t vote anyway? Or would it make more sense to spend that money, which the parents are paying anyway, to something that applies a little bit more to the actual student, such as drinking. I think there is definitely enough students that have had very negative experiences that have to do with drinking.”

As the Kimbles talked, students playing wiffleball with a beer can nearly smashed into a nearby parked car.

“See, now, all the education in the world isn’t going to do much with certain people, until one of his friends is affected,” Chuck Kimble said, pointing to a stumbling drunk.

“I think the biggest thing that disheartens me is when we come back and we see a select group that get really drunk,” he said. “One of the most damaging things to the university is when we see a group of students that are really out of control. The alumni look at that and think, ‘Wow these kids are obnoxious.’ ”

Of course, the best example isn’t always set at the tailgate scene.

Mark Brackenbury got his graduate degree from Penn State and now lives in Killingworth, Conn.

“I honestly don’t know how to go about it,” he said, of making changes to the culture. “I mean we all come back here and tailgate and drink, so we’re not probably sending the best message either.”

Steve Kipp, a 1978 graduate, traveled from Yardley for the game. Maybe more people should make the trip for reasons besides football, he suggested.

“Alumni can maybe get involved with things on campus, like workshops, or whatever the case may be, and if they’re inclined to get directly involved with students that may also help,” he said. “I think binge drinking is a problem, certainly, but it’s nothing new. It’s been around for a long time. When I was here, which, believe it or not, that was after alcohol was invented, it was a problem.”

But the further back in time you go, feelings change.

Alcohol was a talked-about problem when Myron Medwid graduated in 1964 with an engineering degree.

“You had some of it then, but I think it was fairly moderate at that time,” Medwid said. “I can only tell you what I’ve read, but from what I understand it’s a party school now. It’s a little discouraging to hear that, but then again, I heard some of that in ’64 too.”

Around the same time, Ben Bronstein was a student here. Now a Ferguson Township resident, the 1961 graduate said he actually lived in the same fraternity house where allegations of hazing recently made headlines.

“First of all, when I was here, you couldn’t buy booze in State College bars,” he said. “There was no state store in town. You had to go to Bellefonte to get booze — and we did. We had what we called ‘milk run Friday’ to get booze. Bumper to bumper traffic to get stuff to bring in.”

But the culture was different, he said. People didn’t drink to get drunk. Bingeing was unheard of, he said.

“You didn’t set out to get blitzed,” he said. “It was either an accident, or rare that you intentionally tried to do it. ... Plus we didn’t have the money to spend, we didn’t have credit cards.”

As a resident now, Bronstein says he’s been impressed with the efforts that are being made to curb excessive drinking.

Even though State Patty’s Day this year was record-breaking for police, Bronstein was happy with how the bars and fraternities acted.

More of that would be nice, he said.

“I don’t understand why they have these half-priced happys,” he said. “If the bars just charged the regular price, people would be drinking half of what they drink.”

Bonnie Keister was in school here in 1992, when she remembers a crackdown on fraternity parties.

“But I don’t think the drinking problem is any different now, and I don’t think it’s any different from anywhere else,” said the Bloomsburg resident.

“They just had their big block party weekend and the town tried to enact all these laws, rules and regulations, and people had to get permits to have the parties,” she said of her hometown. “We were out that night, and it didn’t really seem to deter anything.”

Brackenbury has had three decades of perspective on the issue.

“There was a lot of drinking here when I went, but it seemed to pick up over the years,” said the 1982 graduate. “Our daughter went here also, she graduated in ’98, and we saw as we came here through the years that things seemed to get wilder and wilder as time went by, even within that timespan from 1994 to 1998.”

But with all the opinions, there seems to be one consensus: Education. That is the reason students come to Penn State. Right?

“I’m amazed that we have kids this smart — I couldn’t get in here today, I don’t think,” Bronstein said. “So, we have kids this smart, who are dumb enough to go out and get blitzed like that.”

Sara Ganim can be reached at 231-4616. Amanda Sokolski is a Penn State journalism student.