Mural from Oliver LaGrone Cultural Center
Mural from Oliver LaGrone Cultural Center
Image: Penn State

Namesake of campus cultural center, LaGrone made an impact

Oliver LaGrone and his characteristic phrase, “I say this to say that,” left an indelible mark on those he met. 

Students, faculty, and staff recently joined together in the Oliver LaGrone Cultural Center at Penn State Harrisburg to celebrate the life and legacy of the room’s namesake. LaGrone would have turned 107 years old in December 2013.

Born in the Oklahoma Territory, LaGrone attended the University of New Mexico and the Crankbrook Art Academy.  He spent much of his adult life as a teacher within the Detroit public school system and as an art educator with the United Auto Workers before arriving at Penn State Harrisburg in the early 1970s as a professor of art and African-American history.

After retiring, he was appointed as Penn State Artist-In Residence.  As part of his responsibilities, he traveled to Penn State campuses teaching classes, lecturing, and serving as a resource for students, faculty, and local communities.

In the late 1980s, a room in his honor was the idea of Roberta McLeod, a former coordinator of student activities at Penn State Harrisburg, and planned by several professors, who worked with the Black Student Union to find a way to allocate space for a black cultural arts center on the campus. 

Originally in the east wing of the Olmsted Building, the Oliver LaGrone Cultural Center featured rotating art exhibits that showcased the African-American experience.  Currently on the first floor of the Olmsted Building west wing (Room W-132), the room features a unique mural, in part finished by students, faculty, and staff, that traces important events in African-American history, including images of Dr.  Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali, and Louis Armstrong.  The room also houses sculptures by LaGrone, which highlight his talent and celebrate diversity.

Hosted by the college’s Multicultural Academic Excellence Program (MAEP), the birthday celebration for LaGrone featured former Penn State Harrisburg professor Clem Gilpin, who spoke about his personal relationship with LaGrone and shared details about LaGrone’s life as a poet, sculptor, educator, and humanitarian. 

Student MAEP Coordinator, Brianna Greenwood, expressed a sense of pride in helping plan the event. “It meant a lot to me, sitting in the Oliver LaGrone Cultural Center, in a room filled with people of different races, genders, and ethnicities all coming together. It was eye opening and inspiring seeing the mission of MAEP represented in the life of Oliver LaGrone.”

After more than 30 years, the spirit of the center remains strong.  The Oliver LaGrone Cultural Arts Center is now used to host guest speakers, receptions, international programs, and the annual Model UN event for local high school students.