Love of art and love of ag: Penn State alum combines passions in Arboretum gift

Susan Burlingame
August 01, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A self-described “child of the environmental movement of the '70s,” Diane Cressman Blanton says the first Earth Day is “emblazoned on her mind.” The 1979 Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences alumna and retired president of Network Energy of Ohio grew up in what she called “a decidedly Penn State family” and fully expected to spend her career in a large corporation, making direct use of her agriculture degree.

That was not to be the case.

“It wasn’t for lack of trying,” said Blanton, who recently contributed $50,000 to fund a five-month art installation at The Arboretum at Penn State. “I interviewed extensively but didn’t get a single offer in the field I wanted to work in. I was interviewing at corporations that were starting to see environmental law changes but hadn’t really changed to incorporate them into their practices. I guess I was a little too early.”

With student loans to pay off and the need to support herself, Blanton took a job at a bank — a move that turned into a successful career in institutional investment management working for two Fortune 500 financial services firms, Mellon and PNC.

Years later, however, the unexpected loss of her husband, Jeffrey Blanton, a 1979 alumnus of Penn State’s architectural engineering program, changed everything.

Blanton found herself at the helm of Network Energy of Ohio, an environmental energy firm started by her husband years before. At first, Blanton managed Network Energy while continuing her work in institutional investment management, but she eventually left the corporate world to focus entirely on Network Energy. “That’s how I got back into environmental work and how I made my living until I early retired at 55,” Blanton said.

After retirement, Blanton added a love a travel and a love of art to her agricultural and environmental focus. She visited Europe and traveled the United States, reveling in art and in gardens — especially when the two were combined. She even went back to school to take classes in Italian and Renaissance art history. These experiences inspired two 2010 gifts to her alma mater — one to fund a global opportunity award and another to help Penn State establish its newly approved Arboretum at Penn State.

A recent exhibition at Penn State’s Palmer Museum gave Blanton the opportunity once again to combine her passions through philanthropy. “Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials” featured the work of several artists who created sculptures, 3D printed objects and more, using found plastic. Blanton commissioned artist Aurora Robson to create three sculptures for the Arboretum using discarded plastic from the University. This art installation, opened in early June, is on display in three locations in the Arboretum through Oct. 29.

“The installation ties agriculture to the arts,” said Blanton. “Aurora Robson’s work is just beautiful, but what really amazes me is that there’s a message in it. It’s not just the visual enjoyment but also making use of recycled plastic, which is a huge draw for me because of the environmental angle. The fact that plastics don’t decompose is getting more press lately. I hope this installation brings environmental awareness to more people.”  

Blanton’s generous gift to the Arboretum reflects her deep appreciation of art and her long-time enthusiasm for the Arboretum, noted Kim Steiner, professor of forest biology and director of The Arboretum at Penn State. “The beautiful Aurora Robson sculptures capture the imagination while subtly introducing even the casual observer to an important environmental issue. We’re so glad Diane saw in Ms. Robson’s art an opportunity to educate as well as inspire.”

While reflecting on her recent gift, Blanton said she is a proud Penn Stater. She serves as co-chair for the College of Agricultural Sciences’ volunteer development council, is an avid Penn State sports fan, and has made her alma mater a philanthropic priority.

“My Penn State education prepared me in so many ways for what was to come in my life,” she reflected. “It gave me well-roundedness and a global perspective as well as an academic foundation and a skill set to build on.

“A big part of my story is what I try to impart to my nieces and nephews,” she continued. “Life truly is a journey, and you need to take opportunities as they come along and take risks. Don’t be afraid when the path splits. There are so many times that happened to me. Penn State helped me navigate those times, and I’ll always be grateful.”

The Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences represents the foundation of Penn State University and its land-grant mission to serve the public good. To fulfill that mission for a new era of rapid change and global connections, the University has begun "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a fast-paced campaign focused on the three key imperatives: Open Doors, Create Transformative Experiences, and Impact the World. Through teaching, research and Extension, and because of generous alumni and friends, the College of Agricultural Sciences is able to offer scholarships to one in four students, create life-shaping opportunities, and make a difference in the world by fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more, visit

  • Arboretum donors

    On hand for the opening of the Robson exhibition at The Arboretum at Penn State were, from left, Erin Coe, Shari Edelson, Joyce Robinson, Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, Kim Steiner, Diane Blanton, Aurora Robson, Patrick Williams.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated September 20, 2019