Penn College centennial celebrates unique approach to education


The seeds of what would eventually become Pennsylvania College of Technology were sown by a group of forward-thinking educators who launched adult classes in an industrial-arts shop in the then-new Williamsport High School (now Klump Academic Center) a century ago.

I’m not sure if those responsible envisioned how those modest beginnings in 1914 would generate a chain of events leading to the creation of Williamsport Technical Institute (1941-65), Williamsport Area Community College (1965-89) and Penn College (1989-present), but their innovative approach in retraining disabled World War I veterans for new roles in a transformed society provided the framework for similar efforts that have distinguished our institution ever since.

In January, we officially begin our Centennial Celebration, a yearlong procession of events and activities commemorating the commitment of the founders, students, faculty, administrators, employees, alumni and community members who have played a vital role in the ongoing evolution of this institution, Pennsylvania’s premier technical college.

While we have much to celebrate, we would do a disservice to those who have gone before if we suddenly stopped striving to refine and cultivate our mission and vision. Accordingly, as we spend a year honoring the stalwarts who have helped us become what we are, we continue to work toward achieving a new vision as “a national leader in applied technology education.”

From the beginning, our students have benefited from hands-on, real-world experience in skilled and technical career fields. Now, as then, we respond rapidly to workforce and community needs, developing and delivering programs that enable students to obtain high-quality, family-sustaining jobs, even when external challenges threaten to derail our efforts.

We have always embraced new opportunities, from developing the nationally acclaimed “Williamsport Plan” to put those affected by the Great Depression back to work, to pursuing an affiliation with Penn State University when the loss of our community college sponsorship loomed.

Among the Centennial-related events taking place in January is a visit to campus by actor John Ratzenberger, who is perhaps best known for his portrayal of letter carrier Cliff Clavin on the highly acclaimed TV series “Cheers.” Thanks to syndication, Cliff and bar buddy Norm Peterson remain iconic characters to this day.

John is also the only actor to voice a character for all of Pixar Animation Studios’ beloved feature films, playing everything from Hamm the Pig in the three “Toy Story” movies, to Mack in “Cars” and “Cars 2,” to the Abominable Snowman in “Monsters, Inc.” and “Monsters University.”

But the reason we saw John as the perfect fit for a speaker to help kick off our Centennial was his role as producer and host of the Travel Channel series “Made in America.” Its nearly 100 episodes profiling American manufacturers, American work ethic and how things are made spawned similar shows like “Dirty Jobs,” “Deadliest Catch” and “Ice Road Truckers,” among others.

Before his acting career took hold, John worked as a house framer. John’s father was a truck driver, and his mother was a factory worker in their native Bridgeport, Conn. Those blue-collar beginnings in hands-on jobs helped pave the way for “Made in America,” of which John has said: “I learned from dozens of factory owners that the upcoming retirement of millions of skilled workers threatens the collapse of our manufacturing economy. Why? Because there are too few young people being trained with real-world skills to take their places.”

At Penn College, we offer education and training in the same real-world skills that John has championed in “Made in America.” We have recognized since our own roots took hold a century ago that a hands-on, learn-by-doing approach leads to solid jobs in manufacturing, construction and a host of other career fields vital to America’s continued prosperity.

John will meet with the media and speak to Penn College students on the afternoon of Jan. 23 and then offer a keynote address “The Need for Skilled Workers and Their Shortage in the Workplace/The Future of Applied Technology” in a private event that evening at the Community Arts Center.

Also in January, in addition to employee and student kickoff events, we will host the East Coast premiere of the exhibit “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Samara: A Mid-Century Dream Home” in The Gallery at Penn College.

Centennial-related events are planned on campus throughout the year. Open House (March 29 and Oct. 26) will feature exhibits open to the general public from 2-4 p.m. The first-ever Williamsport Area Community College reunion will be offered during Homecoming festivities Oct. 10-11. I encourage you to participate in as many of these events as you can.

As Penn College embarks on its second hundred years, we vow to continue doing our part in preparing students for jobs that meet the needs of the nation. While I can only imagine what a 2114 workforce will look like, I trust this institution will continue to play a significant role in the training and education of its workers.

Gilmour is president of Pennsylvania College of Technology.