Sunday, February 19, 2017

Famous Allegheny - Big Names from a Small School

Bentley Hall, Allegheny College

Nestled away at the top of the hill overlooking Meadville, Pennsylvania is Allegheny College which holds the title of 32nd oldest in the United States, having just celebrated it’s 200th birthday in 2015. The college came into being when Timothy Alden, a Harvard graduate, traveled to Meadville with hopes of founding an institution of higher education. He, along with other gentlemen of the town, took on the momentous effort of securing the school’s first trustees and petitioning the state for a charter for their institution. Alden would become the first president, as well as professor of Oriental Languages and Ecclesiastical History. The first freshman class was admitted on July 4, 1816, although at this point the college only really existed in name, as there was no set building for another four years.  Bentley Hall, the school’s oldest and most iconic building, was not built until 1820. By this time, a number of major contributions had been made to the school allowing the project to be possible, including a generous land grant by Samuel Lord Esq. (part of the original estate connected to the Baldwin-Reynolds House Museum). From these humble beginnings came a school that soon flourished and served to educate a number famous faces from the last two centuries.

Ida Tarbell

Ida Tarbell in her study
One of the most famous of these students is Ida Tarbell, renowned for her hard hitting, muckraking, journalism that brought about the fall of John D. Rockefeller’s monopoly through her work The History of the Standard Oil Company, published in 1904. She matriculated in 1876, and spent the next four years devoted to the study of the sciences and history. She graduated from Allegheny College in 1880- the only female member of her class. She began her national career at McClure’s Magazine in 1894. It was at McClure’s that she was first exposed to the style of writing that would later be characterized as her famous “muckraking”. To this day Tarbell is admired for the thoroughness of her work, and dedication to her craft, which earned her immense respect in the journalistic community during her lifetime. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000.

William McKinley

McKinley as a Civil War officer
William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States, briefly studied at Allegheny College. There is some debate over the dates he attended, being either 1859-1860 or 1860-1861. He was generally regarded as a good student, but didn’t return to school and enlisted in June 1861 after the outbreak of the Civil War. The College later awarded him an honorary Doctor of Law degree. Despite the short time he attended Allegheny, one of the greatest college legends, living on today, comes from his time at the school. It is said McKinley and his roommate led a cow to the top of the bell tower of Bentley Hall. Some even say attribute this incident to the reason his stay here was so short, claiming he was dismissed after this prank. However, no record exists of any such prank or punishment, just the persistent rumor of his college antics.

Clarence Darrow

Clarence Darrow
Clarence Darrow, the famed lawyer who faced William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Trial, also attended Allegheny College. Arguably one of the most famous trials in the history of the United States, Darrow defended John Scopes and his right to teach evolution in the classroom. Darrow had long since made his name as a lawyer willing to take on radical and unconventional cases, this one being was no exception. He attended Allegheny College in the 1870s but did not graduate from the school. 

Ben Burtt

Ben Burtt with R2-D2
Allegheny continues to educate national notables, including Ben Burrt a four-time academy award winner for his work in sound editing. He graduated from the college in 1970 after obtaining a degree in Physics. A favorite among students today, he won an Academy Award for his work on “Star Wars.” Other notable contributions to film include his work on “E.T.”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and even “WALL-E.” He received an honorary degree from the College in 2004 and made a trip back in 2014 to speak about his experiences with faculty and students.

Raymond P. Shafer

Gov. Shafer with Ronald Reagan
Finally, no Allegheny history would be complete without Pennsylvania Governor, Raymond P. Shafer.  Shafer excelled at Allegheny College, where he studied history and political science, was an avid athlete in basketball, soccer, and track and field, and was his class president all four years. Shafer later became student body president and a member of the Penn Beta chapter of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. He was a long time trustee of the college and would serve as college president from 1985-86. Shafer spent his life serving in the public interest as District Attorney and even served as Governor from 1967-1971.  He was awarded an honorary degree from Allegheny, and his legacy is honored through the naming of Shafer auditorium on campus.


“Clarence Darrow Digital Collection.” University of Minnesota – Law Library. 2016.
“Ida Tarbell.” National Women’s Hall of Fame. 2000.
Larson, Edward. Summer for the Gods. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
Long, Katelynn. “Ben Burtt Brings the Force to Him.” The Campus. 2014.
“Raymond P. Shafer: 1917-2006.” Allegheny Magazine.
Smith, Ernest. Allegheny – A Century of Education. Meadville: Allegheny College History Company.
“William McKinley.” The White House.
"William McKinley at Allegheny College.” Allegheny College. 

About the Author

Ariana Sabatini is a junior at Allegheny College studying History and English. She has grown up around history her entire life, and has deep connections to the Crawford County region and it’s colorful history. A native of Titusville Pennsylvania she has a strong background in the history of the oil region having come from a family that lived and worked in the oil industry. She is excited to be serve as an intern to the Crawford County Historical society this spring, and will be interning at Gettysburg this summer. She hopes to use her time with the historical society to broaden her knowledge of the area’s rich history, and share those findings with the public through her work on the Society’s social media pages.  

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