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By James F. Lee
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Washington Post

It's the football that makes it famous, of course. Driving into State College, Pa., from U.S. 322, I caught a glimpse of Beaver Stadium, Penn State University's 107,000-seat football temple, through the early fall trees. For just a second it revealed itself, dominating the landscape, its very size proclaiming what really counts in the Nittany Valley.

But as I found on a recent weekend visit, there's a lot more to this borough of 39,000 in appropriately named Centre Country, right in the middle of Pennsylvania, than just football. I'm sure even Coach Joe Paterno would agree.

Start with Berkey Creamery on the Penn State campus, home to arguably the best (and richest) ice cream on the planet. The creamery started as a laboratory for Penn State agriculture students. It still serves that function, but happily, it now serves the public as well. I opted for Peachy Paterno. (Side note: The legendary coach is everywhere. His statue stands outside the stadium; he's on murals, on bobblehead dolls in the university bookstore and on T-shirts. There's even a Paterno Library on campus.)

Taking advantage of the warm fall afternoon, I sat at a table in the courtyard, where student Lauren Dibarba was enjoying a cup of pumpkin pie ice cream between classes. "They give you so much that you always think you're never going to finish it," she said of the creamery's offerings, "but somehow you always do."

I finished mine, no problem, and decided to walk off some of the calories. I made my way across campus to downtown, a vibrant, tree-lined 10 blocks between College and Beaver avenues, packed with shops, bookstores and bars. I walked up South Allen Street to Webster's Bookstore & Cafe, where you can get coffee and a pastry while browsing the collection of vinyl and plenty of used books. I toyed with the thought of buying a Kinks album, but I hadn't come to town to buy things for myself.

That evening, I took advantage of the ample free entertainment always available in State College. At the Schlow Centre Regional Library on South Allen Street, the Penn State Opera Company was presenting students performing scenes from various operas. Afterward, I raced back to campus to catch the Penn State jazz ensemble's fall concert at Esber Recital Hall. I didn't get back to my hotel room until after 10 p.m.

The next morning I made my way to the Diner, a popular restaurant on College Avenue, home of the "grilled sticky," a sticky bun grilled in butter that you can order with ice cream on the side. I opted for more traditional eggs and toast. As I ate my breakfast at the counter, a young woman sitting nearby asked me, "What do you think of a woman who's happy just because her boyfriend let her wear a skirt today?"

I was a little taken aback but offered an opinion. The waitress behind the counter added hers, and then another young woman came in and gave her view. By the end, we'd all agreed that the young woman should break up with her boyfriend. It wasn't what I'd expected to find in State College, but then, I was finding lots of things I hadn't expected.

Leaving the Diner, I embarked on the quest that had brought me to town and headed to Growing Tree Toys, a small, independently owned store crammed with colorful toys for children of all ages. Wednesday is my granddaughter's birthday, and I'd been directed to State College as a place where I'd find unique shops and independent boutiques with more unusual items than those the ubiquitous chain stores carry. Caitlin Peck, a 21-year-old sales clerk, patiently pulled toys from the shelves as I mulled over my choices and consulted a list my daughter had given me.

I finally made my selection and still had some time before I had to leave. So I headed to Penn State's Palmer Museum of Art, which houses an impressive collection of ceramics and baroque and American art. Two exhibits were drawn from the museum's own collections: old master drawings from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, and a display of Andy Warhol Polaroid photographs, the latter a gift from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

My last stop before hitting the road was one of Penn State's newest attractions: the arboretum and the H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens. The initial plantings in the gardens had just been put in in July, and only a small portion of the grounds have been developed so far, but it already looked beautiful. The orange-yellow gaillardias and the intense purple berries of callicarpa, or early amethyst, were highlights among the vibrant fall plants. Eventually, the arboretum will encompass more than 300 acres.

Mike and Mary McGinnis of Colorado had been sent to the arboretum by their daughter, a student at the university. "She told us it's really pretty and we would enjoy it," Mike said. Joe Plummer, a Penn State horticulturalist, was watering plants nearby. He nodded his head. "It's a hidden secret," he said.

He was referring to the arboretum. But I took it to mean the whole town.