A Memory of Helen Atherton Govier

by Gary Miller

When my wife, Karen, and I were first married in 1972, we rented an apartment on East Hamilton Avenue in the Highlands. It was a small apartment house, with two apartments on the first floor, another two upstairs, and a fifth in the basement. We rented a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor. Below us lived an elderly lady, Mrs. Govier, who loved to play the piano and sing hymns on an evening. She also enjoyed talking about the old days in State College, when the main entry point into town, she recalled, was by train.

Photo Credit: Used with permission from the Special Collections Library, Penn State University Libraries

I soon discovered that Mrs. Govier’s full name was Helen Atherton Govier and that she was the youngest daughter of George Atherton. She was just four years old when she and her four older siblings came to State College in 1882 as her father began what would become a 24-year tenure as Penn State President. Jo Chesworth’s book The Story of the Century includes Helen’s 1968 memory of arriving in town: “We came from New Brunswick, New Jersey, to the little mining village of Scotia via the Buffalo Run, Bellefonte, and Bald Eagle Railroad and were met there by Joseph Mitchell, whose wife Eliza was later postmaster here . . . the six of us, my mother and five children, piled into his two-horse carriage and rode the several miles to our house on campus.”

At that time, wrote Carol Sonenklar in her 2006 book, We Are an Articulate Voice: A History of Women at Penn State, “there were no sidewalks, sewers, churches, schools, or physicians” in State College. Young Helen and her siblings “had to dodge the hogs that ran free through the streets, which turned into pools of mud when it rained.”

Life was not always easy in those days. Helen recalled slipping on ice on the kitchen floor of the President’s house after a water pipe broke overnight. But it also could be fun. In The Story of the Century, she described sledding in the winter: “We would start just past the Buckhout house, in front of Shivery’s Fort, and slide down Pugh Street into College Avenue. And if the sliding was very good, we’d turn right and go almost as far as the Methodist Church.” (p. 38)

While her father was busy transforming Penn State from an agricultural college into a land grant university, the job of managing the household and raising the family fell to Helen’s mother, Frances Atherton, who had been a school teacher when the family lived in New Jersey. She taught her children—and those of Penn State faculty– at the President’s house, bringing in other teachers as needed. She also founded, along with 35 other faculty wives, the State College Women’s Club. Helen remained a lifelong member of the Club.

Helen developed her interest in music early. She and her sisters had a tradition of singing at the family dinner table, each taking a different part (Helen was an alto). Her mother taught her piano, starting her on a career in music. She eventually earned her Bachelor of Arts in music from Mount Holyoke College/Smith College and returned to State College as a music teacher. Music remained an interest throughout her life.

1911, she married Charles Govier, an electrical engineering professor at Penn State. Her father gave them a house at 518 South Atherton Street, where the couple lived until his death in 1962. Helen eventually sold the house, moving into the apartment on East Hamilton Avenue. She used the proceeds from the sale to endow the Atherton Memorial Music Award at Penn State in memory of her father.

Mrs. Govier remained active in the community throughout her life. One photo shows her marching for women’s suffrage in the 1920s. In the 1950s, she organized her father’s papers, documenting his 24 years of leadership at Penn State.

Helen Govier died in 1976, just shy of her 98th birthday. She and her husband are buried in Pine Hall Cemetery, as is her mother. Her father is buried on campus, next to Schwab Auditorium. One of her many lasting gifts to the community is still on display at Friedman Park. In 1894, the State College Women’s Club had donated to the community a three-tier drinking fountain that served both people and their animals. When College Avenue was paved early in the new century, there was no place for the old fountain, so Helen rescued it and put it at her home on South Atherton Street. When she sold the house, she arranged for the fountain to be relocated to Central Parklet–now Friedman Park—where it still stands, a quiet testimony to her lifelong commitment to the community.

Gary Miller is a member of the “Hearts in the Highlands” editorial board.