ABINGTON, Pa. — From 1965 through 1967, 12 young men ventured out of South Philadelphia each day. They rode a trolley, then they descended into the subway, and at the last stop, they took the steps back up to Broad Street and hopped on a bus. Finally, they walked a half-mile down a suburban street without sidewalks in all kinds of weather. Their destination? Penn State Ogontz, now known as Penn State Abington.
“It took two hours each way to get there, but it was well worth it. It opened our eyes and gave us a view of a new world,” John Paone, class of 1969, said.
Their two years at Abington built lifelong bonds among the men, who celebrate their “love story,” as Paone calls it, at an annual pull-out-all-the-stops holiday party with multiple generations of their families.
“It got so big that we hosted it at one of the casinos, but we started at restaurants in South Philly, which is what we are doing again in 2023. We have entertainment and singers and dancers. The parties are a big deal with gifts, and Santa Claus makes an appearance,” he said.
Beyond the holiday bash, they meet frequently for casual lunches and dinners and they travel and celebrate weddings, bar mitzvahs and other landmark occasions with their families.
“I’m closer with my college friends than with a lot of other people. They are my extended family. We’ve all gone different ways, but we are always together,” Paone, who has served on the Abington campus advisory board for almost two decades, said.
Going to Abington was tremendous for us. We met people from different nationalities and cultures and the trees! In South Philly, the trees were telephone poles and grass grew between the cracks.
—John Paone , Penn State class of 1969
The men met thanks to their common drive for education, but their roots in the heart of South Philly sustained them through sometimes difficult adjustments of leaving the neighborhood, succeeding at Abington, and eventually moving to University Park to complete their degrees.
“We were out of our element, out of our neighborhood. We could have been on Mars. Going to Penn State was a different world in a strange land to us, but we bonded immediately,” Paone said.
“Prior to this we never left the neighborhood — Third to Broad to Washington to Oregon. Everything you wanted was in that neighborhood. We were very parochial. We dated women from the neighborhood and married girls from down the street,” he recalled fondly.
Most were sons of Italian immigrants who didn’t speak English and didn't have much formal education.
“On my first day, I walked into the student rec room where everyone congregated, and the bunch of guys from South Philly, we all looked the same. We wore leather jackets and pushed-back hair,” Paone said.
“Going to Abington was tremendous for us. We met people from different nationalities and cultures and the trees! In South Philly, the trees were telephone poles and grass grew between the cracks,” he said.
While attending classes at Abington alongside students from suburban school districts, Paone and his friends felt their K-12 education was lacking.
"There was a disparity there, but we caught up. The key was the dedicated faculty and staff. They understood that we were kids from city, and they paid attention to us and worked with us. They recognized early on that we needed more attention,” he said.
Paone and his friends “loved every minute” of their time at Abington, and they often reminisce about relaxing by the duck pond, participating in athletics, attending mixers (dances) on the weekends, with some of them meeting their future spouses on campus.
Their wives know the stories by heart, Paone said.
“One of the art professors brought in a nude model. Word got out, and kids were standing outside on ladders and chairs and on each others shoulders outside of the Springhouse to try to see something. There was also a gas station up the street with an inflatable dinosaur mascot. Someone stole it and put it into the duck pond,” he laughed.
These stories, he added, hold them together despite life's inevitable challenges.
“Our experience at Oz [Ogontz] and Penn State made us grow up. We got socialization and education, and our lives were positively affected,” he said, noting that some of their grandchildren attend Penn State.
Today, the boys from South Philly support Penn State Abington, which still welcomes a diverse pool of students, including those who are the first in their families to attend college and the children of immigrants alongside those from suburban and international schools.
Students today know about the group thanks to plaques in two classrooms: Room 209 Sutherland is dedicated to the “Boys from South Philly,” and a Woodland Building classroom honors the fathers who inspired them.
“In hindsight, we are grateful, and it’s why we give back. We were a bunch of kids out of South Philly who went to a magical little place called Oz. it was like a 'Brigadoon,'” Paone said.
About Penn State Abington
Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st-century public higher education within a world-class research university. With more than 3,100 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 25 majors, accelerated master's degrees, undergraduate research, the Schreyer Honors College, NCAA Division III athletics and more.