by Mary Conner-Righter
How does the seeming randomness of life’s choices bring us to places where our heart longs to live? The story I am sharing unfolds through family lore passed on from now-deceased loved ones, a bit of historical checking, and my own inferencing to connect the missing pieces. Through this story, I hope to stir the reader’s thoughts about how the connecting pieces of their own lives brought them to this neighborhood.
To begin, I’ll need to tell you about my father and mother. In 1937, my dad Mervin “Barney” B. Conner, Jr. of York, PA completed his freshman year at Penn State’s Mont Alto campus (a requirement for forestry majors) and moved on to Penn State’s main campus in State College to complete the remainder of his four-year degree. He became a brother in Tau Phi Delta, the national professional forestry fraternity . . . also known as ‘Treehouse’ . . . at 238 East Fairmount Avenue. (The current fraternity house is located at 427 East Fairmount Avenue.) In roughly the same time frame, my mother, Margaret Repine from Charleroi, PA, was pursuing a 4-year degree in Business Education at Grove City College in Grove City, PA.
At college, my mom became good friends (eventually lifelong friends) with a woman nicknamed ‘Billie’ from York, PA. Billie was dating a guy named Don back in York. Don had a single-guy friend and Billie wanted Margaret to come home with her and meet Don’s friend. The summer after her sophomore year, Margaret visited York and was introduced to Barney. The following fall, Barney and Don came to Grove City for Homecoming Weekend. My mother remembers this visit as the time when she and Barney fell in love.
My mother came to State College from Grove City on several occasions to visit my dad and attend Tau Phi Delta socials. She remembers that she took a bus from Grove City (about 150 miles northwest of State College) to Tyrone, where my father picked her up in a friend’s borrowed car. While in State College, she stayed at a women’s boarding house across the street from the fraternity on East Fairmount Avenue.
Penn State required a one-year participation in ROTC for male students. However, my father completed a full four years of ROTC, receiving tuition support. After graduation in the spring of 1940, he found that many employment applications in the forestry industry asked, “Do you have a military obligation?” His “yes” responses were a detriment to his employment. Because of this, he decided to fulfill his service obligation and then look for a job. In April 1940 he was assigned to the 316th Infantry at Fort Meade, MD. Soon after, he was sent to Fort Knox, KY, where he attended Tank School and was promoted to lieutenant in the 81st Armored Regiment. Meanwhile, my mother had been teaching at Charleroi High School after her graduation from Grove City College. The time for marriage seemed right: my father, as an officer, would have access to family housing.
My parents were married on November 7, 1940, in my mother’s hometown of Charleroi, PA, and spent their wedding night at the Nittany Lion Inn on their way back to Louisville, KY. One year and one month later, on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and America entered the war. My parents, with a newborn son in tow – my brother, James or ‘Skeet’, as he was nicknamed – lived at various bases in the west and southwest while my father trained to be a glider pilot in the Army Air Corps. When he was shipped overseas in 1943, my mother returned to Charleroi, where my sister, Barbara, was born in 1944. It would be over a year before Barbara would meet our dad.
During the war, my father flew glider missions as part of the 439th Troop Carrier Group, 92nd Troop Carrier Squadron: D-Day +1 in Normandy, southern France near Lemuy, and the Rhine Crossing at Wesel. In addition to several campaign medals, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster and a Purple Heart. When the war ended in 1945, my parents and my brother and sister settled in York, PA. My father joined the York office of the Traveler’s Insurance Agency. I’ve always wondered why he didn’t pursue his forestry interests. My sister supposes that he was eager to accept a job after the war to support his family.
I joined my family in 1958. Three years later my father died of melanoma. My mother remarried in 1965 and very little about my father was shared as time passed. In my imagination, my father became a figure of mystery.
Fast forward to my young adulthood. I attended Juniata College, where I met my husband-to-be, Mark, in 1976. After graduation, Mark went to Vermont Law School and I went back to York to teach. In 1982, we married and lived in South Royalton, VT, for his last year of law school. Through our Juniata connections, we found ourselves back in Pennsylvania, living in Bellefonte while Mark clerked for Judge Brown for two years.
In 1985, we moved to State College and bought our 1933 Henszey-built house at 605 East Fairmount Avenue (now addressed as 600 Holly Court). It was my mother who remembered the fraternity house where she had visited my dad, and that was how I discovered that our house was on the same street where my father had lived at Tau Phi Delta all those years ago. I was amazed and in awe of such a lovely, and perhaps meaningful, coincidence.
Little by little, I began to seek more traces of my father’s life. Through the Internet, I found the World War II Glider Pilots Association and attended two reunions, where I met several of his glider pilot buddies. One of his good friends whom my dad had kept in touch with for a few years after the war, told me I had the same sparkle in my eyes as Barney. Wow! That really floored me! Recently, my sister and I visited the Penn State Mont Alto campus where a librarian showed us archival yearbooks from the Forestry School during the time our dad was there. Professors in Forestry, Craig Houghton and Elizabeth Brantley, treated us to lunch, gave us a tour of campus, and sent us home with some cool Forestry School swag.
I believe my heart found The Highlands as a home for a reason: to make a connection to my father and to the place he called his home for a few years. I walk past the old fraternity house and think of him. I can almost feel his presence and imagine him from this distant time walking down the porch steps, off to class. I look across the street and think of my mother. I know they walked together along these same streets where I now live. My heart has deepened its roots in The Highlands over the years for many other reasons: location near town and campus, raising a family, and near and dear neighbors to name a few. I feel grateful to have had my life’s path lead me to this place.
Mary Conner-Righter was born and raised in York, PA. She has lived at 600 Holly Court since 1985. Her two daughters grew up there, graduated from Penn State, and now live in great places to visit: Philadelphia and Washington state. Mary is a reading specialist at Rebersburg Elementary School. She enjoys riding her bike to yoga, walking to Schlow Library and Pattee, and hiking in Rothrock State Park in the winter. Her email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Resources for additional reading:
Bezilla, M. (1985) Penn State: An Illustrated History. University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press. Retrieved from: https://libraries.psu.edu/about/collections/penn-state-university-park-campus-historycollection/penn-state-illustrated
Hocking, Dr. J. M., Editor (2003). Centennial Voices: The Spirit of Mont Alto: A Continuing Story 1903-2003. Mont Alto: Pennsylvania State University.
Lowden, J. L. (1992). Silent Wings at War: Combat Gliders in World War II. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Miller, C. (2001). Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism. Washington: Island Press/Shearwater Books.
Thomas, E. H. (1985). A History of The Pennsylvania State Forest School, 1903-1929. Mont Alto, PA: Pennsylvania State Forest Academy/School Founders Society