Devoted Partners, Dedicated Alums: Building a Penn State Legacy
For Thomas and Kathleen Kuhn, Penn State Harrisburg was and remains a vital part of their romance and their life devoted to country, education and community service.
Retired Brigadier General PA (ret) E. Thomas Kuhn, Pennsylvania Air National Guard, graduated from Penn State, University Park, in 1968 with a degree in landscape architecture. His connection with Penn State Harrisburg, then called “Capitol Campus,” began when he pursued his master’s degree in regional planning, which the Pittsburgh native obtained in 1972.
Kathleen, originally from Pennsylvania, pursued her bachelor of arts in elementary education from what became Penn State Harrisburg and ultimately received her master’s in education in 1976.
Their connection began thousands of miles across the country in California, where the Kuhns first met, when Tom was attending navigator training at Mather Air Force Base in California. Kathy was attending the University of California, Davis, near Sacramento, majoring in French and minoring in Latin.
“We were introduced by roommates who knew we were both from Pennsylvania and hoped we would hit it off,” Tom Kuhn said.
They did, and Tom and Kathy ultimately became engaged, “much to her mother’s chagrin,” Tom Kuhn recalls with a laugh. Kathy’s mother was first generation in this country and did not go to college, education was important to her and she was reluctant to see her daughter break off two years of study in California when Tom was ready to return to Pennsylvania.
“I was the baby,” said Kathy of her mother’s concern. But Kathy transferred to Penn State Capitol Campus from Davis in 1970. “You don’t conduct a 3,000-mile love affair without cell phones,” Tom remembered of that pre-cellular era. He summed up that “lots of quarters” – for dropping into a pay phone – were involved.
Soon, the world, especially the United States, was swept up in change.
“The Vietnam War was in full effect,” recalled Tom. By Christmas 1970 – the year Tom and Kathy were to have marked their first holiday together – he had voluntarily deployed with his unit to Southeast Asia, flying in Operation Coronet Cobra/Commando Buzz from Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand.
Upon returning to Capitol Campus, life continued for the recently-married Tom. He recalled a time in 1971 when he was working as a 10-credit student, working for the state Department of Highways, and flying for the Air National Guard.
“It almost did me in,” he says.
An improvised commencement
In 1972, the Kuhns were set to graduate, Tom with his master’s degree and Kathy with her bachelor’s. But that June, Hurricane Agnes struck. With much of Central Pennsylvania flooded, Capitol Campus became a shelter for nearly 1,000 people who had fled their homes. And, the official commencement ceremony was cancelled. But the Kuhns made the most of the situation, celebrating with their own photo op. They donned the graduation robes they had already purchased and took turns handing each other the only diploma they had on hand at that point – Tom’s undergraduate diploma – and posing for photos. “We pretended to have a ceremony,” Kathy laughed, “and we got a very nice letter from the chancellor at the time.”
A life dedicated to service and education
Tom went on to attend pilot training at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas in 1972, and Kathy was with him. There, she benefitted from her early days at Capitol Campus. The campus had no foreign language program, so Kathy had switched to elementary education. Penn State had started something called “open classroom education,” a “new concept at the time,” Kathy remembers. At Lubbock, she applied for a position in substitute teaching, and got a full time position because of her open concept exposure at Capitol Campus.
By the early 1980s, the Kuhns were back in Pennsylvania, where Tom was appointed as chief of operational plans in 1983 and began full-time duty with the 193rd Special Operations Group of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. Its headquarters were at Harrisburg International Airport, directly across the street from Penn State Harrisburg, where Kathy was back in school studying for her master’s.
Later, Tom, now a Lieutenant Colonel, had become a member of the “Class of 88” at the U.S. Army War College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. After graduation, he was appointed the deputy commander for support of the 193rd Special Operations Group.
More duty followed. Tom was appointed the first vice-commander of the 193rd Special Operations Wing in January 1993. He assumed command of the Wing in November 1996. Service followed in support of U.S. operations throughout the world.
In November 1999, he was promoted to Brigadier General, retiring shortly thereafter.
After retirement, he became executive director of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee of the Pennsylvania House of
Representatives. He retired in December, 2010.
Meanwhile, Kathy continued to use her Penn State degrees. She taught fifth and six grades with the West Shore School District, and
devoted many years to the education of all ages at Camp Hill Presbyterian Church. There she served as preschool director, director of adult education and director of Christian education.
A lasting legacy
The old Capitol Campus – now Penn State Harrisburg – brought Kathy full circle. Her professional life began with a degree and applicable experience from Penn State Harrisburg and it continues there today. Before her retirement from church work, Kathy began supervising Penn State Harrisburg elementary education majors during their student teaching. She plans to continue this, still parlaying her education and connection to Penn State into satisfying work.
In 2014 the Kuhns moved to Masonic Village, Elizabethtown, just minutes from Penn State Harrisburg. But retirement hasn’t meant too much “resting,”and Penn State again has a role.
“There is a Penn State alumni interest group called the Grey Lions of Elizabethtown,” Kathy says. “They were looking for someone to serve as president so I volunteered!”
Today, “we have 130 people in the Grey Lions,” Kathy says. They often host guest speakers from the University, and the group also gets out and about. On a beautiful day in October, the Grey Lions visited Penn State Harrisburg for a tour and luncheon, part of the college’s 50th anniversary celebration.
But, the Grey Lions are more than just a gathering place for people to reminisce, notes Kathy. The group has established a scholarship program for young people who work at Masonic Village and attend Penn State, an endeavor of which Kathy is proud.
The Kuhns recognize the many ways Penn State has shaped their lives. Tom led what many would call a complicated life. But his degrees from and participation in Penn State life helped ease his many transitions and helped him to juggle public service responsibilities in government and the military. It’s a legacy he continues today for others.
“Over the years, I’ve encouraged a lot of enlisted people to come here and get a degree,” he says of balancing service to country with education.
“It’s always been about education,” sums up Kathy. “[It’s just] in different emphasis areas.”