Reprinting of 1921 student handbook examines 'fascinating slice of life'

Note: This story originally appeared in AlumnInsider, the Penn State Alumni Association's monthly member e-newsletter.

Karin Wells finally fulfilled a promise to her father. Eight years after his death, she’s ensured everyone has a chance to learn more about his time at Penn State, thanks to an old student handbook.

When Well’s father, Carl Christensen, Class of 1927, enrolled at Penn State as a freshman in 1921, he received the standard Penn State handbook. It contained rules and advice for navigating his first year at college, including student yells, songs, customs, interesting facts and poems.

Christensen kept this handbook his entire life, talking about it and his time at Penn State often and fondly.

Two other contributing factors make the handbook unique for Christensen’s family: 1921 occurred during Prohibition and Christensen was the only one of his siblings to attend college, which Wells called “a fluke.”

The way it turned out, all of Christensen’s siblings were bigger and stronger, so the family didn’t think they had to attend college to make a living. But Christensen, his parents deemed, needed a college education. So off he went to Penn State, and at a time when college was out of reach for most young people of humble means. 

“He was very grateful for what he learned,” Wells said. “It was a big deal back then.”

Christensen, who was valedictorian of his high school, nudged his daughter to somehow make the book available to the public, figuring others would get the same kick out of it as he did over the years.

Now, that’s possible.

Wells has republished the 1921 handbook, and has added notes, pictures and other anecdotes that comprise a short intro. Also helpful is that the original handbook, just a few inches in length and width, has the text and pictures enlarged for easier reading.

“I thought it was a fascinating slice of life, and I wanted to put it out there,” Wells said. “It isn’t about making money, it’s just a little peek into one person’s life.”

Penn State began publishing student handbooks in the 1870s, with a new handbook issued each year. This continued until the mid-2000s, when the university replaced the small, pocket-sized publication with an informational website.

Wells’ book is available for purchase through iTunes. Also, the original handbook is available for free viewing on the first floor of Paterno Library on the University Park campus.

“It was his idea,” Wells said. “It's just fulfilling a promise. Penn State was a huge part of his life, that was such a gift to him.”

“It was his idea. It's just fulfilling a promise. Penn State was a huge part of his life, that was such a gift to him.”

                                                          -- Karin Wells

Christensen graduated as a chemical engineer in 1927­, needing to leave Penn State a few times to work and earn more money. He held more than 40 patents in his career and was a member of the American Chemical Society for 74 years.

According to Wells’ notes in the handbook, Christensen “worked in areas as diverse as food chemistry, fats and oils, and leather, developing the breakthrough chemistry which allowed for the production of microchips in computers.”

Wells said her father joked that attending classes wasn’t what presented challenges at Penn State; instead it was constantly abiding by the 32 “dratted rules” for freshmen.

“He really wanted to go back to Penn State for a reunion,” she said. “It was one of his goals.”

That never happened, but Christensen stayed very active throughout his life, even teaching an aerobics class for his fellow residents at the assisted living facility where he lived in New Hampshire. He also was very interested in technology, spending time on his computer and regularly searching Google.

Then in 2006, when he was just a few months shy of his 103rd birthday, Christensen passed away.

In the book, Wells wrote that her father felt that the invention of the Internet was as revolutionary as the invention of the wheel. He thought it would “eliminate secrets” and eventually create a more compassionate and unified world. One of his few regrets would be not living long enough to observe it happening.

Article related photo.“He was like the Energizer bunny, he just kept on going, he had such a long life,” Wells said. “He kept up on all his technical stuff and he was really into Penn State and this little handbook that he treasured. He kept it in his desk drawer and used to chuckle over it.”

In the introduction, Wells also details how her father discovered a talent for painting when he turned 100 and took it up with a passion. Not wasting any time, a year later he had a one-man show of his work. There are photos of Christensen throughout the years included in Wells’ introduction, including one of him holding a favorite painting of sunflowers.

Other noteworthy tidbits from the handbook include:

— Rule No. 17 on Page 41 stated that all freshmen were required to keep their hands out of their pockets at all times. Carl found this to be especially frustrating on cold mornings.
— Freshmen were required to always carry matches, and furnish them to upperclassmen upon demand.
— Using the front door of Old Main was forbidden.
— Carl worked as a waiter at Mac Hall.

1921 student handbook table of contents (2)
Image: Karin Wells


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Last Updated May 12, 2014