Large outdoor sculpture, "The University of Family" at PSWS by artist Oliver LaGrone, has graced a campus hillside for 40 years.

Sculptures have been part of campus history for 40 years

In May, 1976, African American artist Oliver LaGrone, Penn State's Artist-in-Residence at the time, created two sculptures for Penn State Worthington Scranton. Those pieces have been inspiring awe and curiosity for visitors and students alike for the past 40 years.

By: Kelly Frey

On a hilltop, on the upper part of Penn State Worthington Scranton’s campus, stands a unique and conversation-provoking sculpture.

First, you notice the green color, then you notice the sculpture itself – about 10 feet tall, and what appears to be a family – a mother, father and two children, standing and looking out toward the valley and mountains stretched out in front of them, with the father holding a unique object in his outstretched hand.

“What is that?”  is a question asked by both visitors, students and even some staff and faculty who do not know the history or the origin of the large piece. Many only know that it was installed in the early days of the campus’ existence, but not who created it or what it represents. 

The piece is actually the work of very well-known and revered 20th century African American poet and sculptor, Oliver LaGrone.

LaGrone, born Clarence Oliver LaGrone on December 9, 1906, was the Artist-in-Residence for the 19 Commonwealth campuses of Penn State University in 1975. In 1976, he donated two of the bronze sculptures he created to Penn State Worthington Scranton.  

One of those is the large statue-like outdoor sculpture on the hill. “The University of Family” depicts a family of four, with the father holding a geometric object recognized to be coal, a symbol of Scranton’s history. As the statue has aged over time, its original bronze has transformed to a beautiful greenish hue, the result of the weathering effects on the bronze. This effect, along with the ornate details on the life-size sculpture, makes it seem timeless as it stands proudly looking out over Penn State Worthington Scranton.

LaGrone’s other work for Worthington Scranton, is a smaller piece, “The Dancer,” and it has called the campus library home for all of these years, gracing various shelves and areas in the library’s foyer and main floor over the years. Today, it resides in the library’s Reference area, a more modernistic looking piece among the maps and globes and reference books detailing things of the past.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of LaGrone’s gifts to Penn State Worthingon Scranton -- gifts of art, culture and a sense of wonder that has endured over the past four decades, all while bearing witness to the thousands of students who have walked across campus and through the library. 

“The University as Family” was conceived from LaGrone’s first impressions of northeast Pennsylvania.  

“[For] the families—husbands, wives, daughters, and young sons—whose lives were spent building the community of Scranton out of the depths of the tunneled coal mines -- the university is seen as an extension of that unified community which serves the growth and opportunity of future generations,” said LaGrone, when speaking about the inspiration and meaning of his piece.

While the outdoor piece gets much more notice and attention, LaGrone’s smaller sculpture at Worthington Scranton, “The Dancer,” was actually the first sculpture to be commemorated to this campus.

The profits from the piece lead to the LaGrone Scholarship, an annual scholarship that was established in 1992 and has contributed over $80,000 to students in need, according to the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg. The scholarship was established in Harrisburg, and is still offered today. It is awarded based on a student’s motivation to “complete one’s education despite obstacles, as well as financial need and knowledge and skills gained from life.”

Recipients can use the money to pay for any college expense -- from tuition to room and board, transportation or even child support, while a parent is attending college.

One of the beneficial features of the scholarship is that it is broken down by semester. Students awarded this scholarship receive $5,000 over the course of four semesters, or $1,250 each semester. They also receive a mentor who is there to provide support and help to the student as they continue their educational career.

The scholarship continues thanks to the great support of contributors and donors, many of which are artists who donate their works and the proceeds from their works to fund the scholarship, and it has become a great way to commemorate LaGrone.

Along with the commemorative funding for the scholarship, LaGrone, and his work, has been honored and recognized in other ways as well.

Penn State Harrisburg created a cultural arts center located in the Olmstead building on campus. It features a mural collectively completed by students, faculty and staff that emphasizes black history. The mural includes numerous famous faces including Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Armstrong, and Muhammad Ali. The Oliver LaGrone Cultural Center also features rotating art exhibits that reflect cultural diversity, and includes a few of his sculptures, highlighting his talent.

According to his official biography at Cranbrook Art Academy, which LaGrone attended, he was born in McAlester, Oklahoma. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology and fine arts from the University of New Mexico, where he met his wife, Irmah Cooke. He also received the equivalent of a Masters of Arts in Special Education from Wayne State University in 1960.

By 1970, Penn State University invited Oliver to lecture in art education and African-American history. After two years, he was appointed special assistant to the vice president of undergraduate education, and in 1975, became artist-in-residence for all of the 21 branches (at that time) of the university system.

It was during this time, in 1976, that LaGrone worked on the sculptures that are now his signature collection pieces at Penn State Worthington Scranton.

LaGrone died at age 89 in October 1995, leaving an inspiring legacy through his artwork, writings, and scholarship, two of which have remained at Penn State Worthington Scranton for the past four decades, inspiring curiosity and wonder to campus visitors and students.