Why is Penn State called Happy Valley?

The area in Centre County Pennsylvania where State College is situated has become known as Happy Valley, but where did it get its nickname?
The Penn State Nittany Lions
The Penn State Nittany Lions / Dan Rainville / USA TODAY NETWORK

There may be no gameday experience in the entire country that rivals the whiteout game at  Beaver Stadium. So, for Penn State students out in central Pennsylvania, reveling in their newfound independence and adulthood around 100,000 of their closest friends, the question may sound rhetorical. 

However, there are a few traceable origin stories for how the 13-square mile plot of land in Centre County PA that makes up University Park and the surrounding State College area became known as Happy Valley. 

Origins of the “Happy Valley” nickname

The most widely accepted origin of the nickname dates back to the Great Depression. In the 1930s, the economy in the United States crumbled, but State College was insulated by the presence of the university and distance from large cities, so the depression didn’t hit the area nearly as hard. Without the struggles that the rest of America was facing, “Happy Valley” as it became known, likely was one of the happiest places in the country. 

Another widely spread theory is that the area got its name from the physical beauty and that it came about in the 1950s from a Penn State Ph.D. candidate, Pat O’Brien who retreated to Centre County following a stint as a tank commander in the South Pacific during World War II. 

O’Brien and his wife Harriet used the nickname with family and friends, two of whom were Ross and Katey Lehman who were column writers for the Centre Daily Times and both adopted the nickname in their writing. 

Though some adopted the nickname satirically through the 1960s and ‘70s to describe the unrealistically shelter existence of students hidden away amongst the mountains of central Pennsylvania, the athletic department adopted the phrase and its association with Penn State football gave “Happy Valley” its lasting positive connotation.

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