Blair County

Mary Petrak (selfie) / courtesy of Mary Petrak

We asked WPSU listeners to share their experience of this past year for our series, Pandemic, Year One.  For today’s story, WPSU’s Kristine Allen spoke with a retired teacher from Hollidaysburg.  She lost her husband just before the pandemic began.

“He was just a guy with a big smile that lit up the room,” Mary Petrak said. “He was really good at listening to people’s stories.  Also a good storyteller.”

Petrak’s husband, Dave, died five months before the pandemic started.  They had been married for 43 years.

In this file photo from summer 2020, a sign in front of the Mount Nittany Medical Center asks visitors to see a staff member if they have COVID-19 symptoms.
Min Xian / WPSU

The number of reported COVID-19 cases in Centre County increased by 302 Friday, setting a single-day record, but the state said an oversight in reporting may be a factor in that large jump.

The county now has a total of  7,456 known cases. The previous largest single-day increase was 212 cases on Sept. 15. After that, the rise in cases in Centre County had slowed down.

Outside of Mount Nittany Medical Center showing sign.
Min Xian / WPSU

The number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 broke new records both statewide and in State College Wednesday. The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported Wednesday that more than 5,500 people were hospitalized with COVID-19.

The Blair County Courthouse sits on Allegheny Street in Hollidaysburg, PA.
Min Xian / WPSU

As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in Blair County, local leaders are encouraging residents to follow precautions and take advantage of the free testing the state Department of Health has set up at the Blair County Convention Center.


Bruce Erb, chairman of the Blair County Commissioners, said the site at the Convention Center has been very busy — 500 to 600 tests a day.

Penn State Old Main building
Min Xian / WPSU

As Penn State wraps up the in-person portion of the fall semester this week, 236 students university-wide have tested positive for COVID-19 from 15,600 departure tests conducted since Nov. 12, according to a release from the university Friday.

More than 5,500 results are still pending at University Park, where the majority of departure tests were administered. Penn State says results can take up to 48 hours or more and tests administered later in the week will be included in next Tuesday’s dashboard update.

Brick exterior shot of The Hollidaysburg Area Junior High School
The Hollidaysburg Area School District

  

A growing number of school districts in central and northcentral Pennsylvania are switching schools to remote learning, even if temporarily, as COVID-19 case numbers in that part of the state increase sharply.

Brick exterior shot of The Hollidaysburg Area Junior High School
The Hollidaysburg Area School District

The Hollidaysburg Area School District in Blair County is moving its junior and senior high to totally virtual learning Monday as COVID-19 cases in the community increase.

 

The plan is to return to school Dec. 1.

Even though the vote count is not complete yet, at least nine northern and central Pennsylvania counties have already recorded more votes than they cast in the 2016 presidential election.
Carolyn Donaldson / WPSU

As election offices continue to count votes in Pennsylvania, at least nine northern and central counties have already recorded more votes than they cast in the 2016 presidential election.

Even though the vote count is not complete yet, counties including Blair, Clearfield, Clinton, Cameron, Elk, Forest, Huntingdon, Mifflin and Lycoming have already counted more votes this time than in the 2016 presidential election. 

Pat Mansell / Penn State

It's Halloween: time for chilling tales of local hauntings.  And in the interview below, Matthew Swayne delivers the goods. Swayne, originally from Tyrone, Pennsylvania,  is a science writer for Penn State's Institute for Computational Sciences.  He is also the author of "Haunted Valley: the Ghosts of Penn State."

TRANSCRIPT:

ALLEN: You wrote a book on hauntings at Penn State.  How did you get interested in that?

Ernie Chamberlain

 WPSU asked you, our listeners, to tell us how you were getting along during the pandemic lockdown. Here are some of the ways you’ve been getting through it.

Evie Madison of Altoona is pastor of Wehnwood United Methodist Church in Altoona. She was busy becoming tech savvy early on in the pandemic.  She learned to record and edit video so she could bring Sunday services to her shut in congregation.

Sixth grader Lauren Dawson doing schoolwork at home on a computer.
Mike Dawson

You’ve probably heard stories about what it means to be an adult working from home or out of work. But, what’s it like being a young person out of school? K through 12 students have been at home since March, and WPSU talked with some of those students from central Pennsylvania about what they think of not going to back for the rest of school year and what they’re looking forward to.

Here's some of what they had to say:

My name is Lauren Dawson. I’m in sixth grade, and I go to Mount Nittany Middle School. (Centre County)

A teacher reads to kids at Step by Step School for Early Learning in State College, Pa.
Min Xian / Keystone Crossroads

In some ways, Rachel Johnson is grateful for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s mid-March business shutdown order: it took the agonizing decision over whether to close the child care center she runs with her husband out of their hands.

“It was sad and scary, but in a way, easy, because the choice was made for us,” said Johnson, 36, who runs Step by Step School for Early Learning in Centre County. “It was like, ‘Ok, we have to close.’ There was nothing to think about.”

People outside the courthouse holding signs protesting Gov. Wolfs' stay-at-home orders
Anne Danahy / WPSU

 

Just before Gov. Tom Wolf announced the easing of restrictions on 24 counties in the northwest and northcentral parts of Pennsylvania, a crowd gathered at the county courthouse in Hollidaysburg for a “ReOpen PA Rally."

 

Attorney Marc Scaringi headlined the event, held by the Blair County Tea Party Friday.

 

A rendered design of the new silk mill site that is under redevelopment.
Courtesy of Leonard S. Fiore Inc.

 

For many former industrial cities in Pennsylvania, redeveloping old industrial sites is a way to attract new businesses and talent. One of the projects underway is taking place at an old silk mill factory on the southern end of Altoona. 

Supporters of Trump watched his third State of the Union address in Altoona Tuesday.
Min Xian / WPSU

 

Diana Fritts was showing off her “Make America Great Again” pants just before the State of the Union address began. 

“Did you see my pants?” Fritts said as she laughed.

Associated Press

To celebrate Halloween, we have a ghost story for you, told to WPSU back in 2015.  It's a firsthand account of strange phenomena at the Mishler Theatre in Altoona, which is rumored to be haunted. Marlene Liszka is a retired professor from Penn State Altoona who does technical work for Altoona Community Theatre. She spoke with WPSU’s Kristine Allen  about what she saw and heard at the Mishler Theatre.

To hear other ghost stories, including more from the Mishler, and a Halloween soundscape of eerie music, listen to Fright Night, tonight from 8:00 p.m. to midnight on WPSU-FM.  

Altoona held its first Pride parade on Oct. 11, 2019. Members of the Pride Alliance at Penn State Altoona carried a balloon display that said "PRIDE."
Min Xian / WPSU

 

Altoona saw its first Pride parade Friday, coinciding with National Coming Out Day.

 

Forty-four organizations, including Penn State Altoona student groups and sports teams, local businesses and support groups from across Central Pennsylvania, marched for a quarter mile in downtown Altoona. Some groups fashioned vehicles into floats while others walked and danced, holding signs of rainbows and supportive messages. Hundreds of spectators cheered along the parade. 

Kristine Allen / WPSU

Last fall, Altoona Community Theatre lost their long-time executive director to a sudden illness. Their new theatre season begins September 19-22, with a production of Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” at Altoona’s Mishler Theatre. It’s an emotional time for the theatre group, as they remember an old friend, and welcome a new leader.

Steve Helsel was, for decades, the first and only executive director of Altoona Community Theatre, also known as “ACT.”  Members of the theatre speak of him as a leader, a whirlwind of creativity, and a good friend to everyone.

U.S.G.S

A minor earthquake hit Central Pennsylvania Wednesday night. The U.S. Geological Survey reports the quake, with a preliminary magnitude of 3.4, struck at around 8:31 p.m. The epicenter was located in Juniata county, Pa., about 11 miles south/southwest of Mifflintown. Reports of mild shaking came in to the U.S.G.S website from Altoona to Lancaster, and from State College to Hagerstown, Md.

New Pa. Court Ruling May Help Older Clergy Abuse Claims Proceed

Jun 12, 2019
Mark Levy / Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A Pennsylvania court has ruled that an evolving legal landscape means a woman can pursue her lawsuit claiming officials in the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese worked to conceal her alleged molestation by a priest.
A three-judge Superior Court panel Tuesday reinstated Renee Rice's lawsuit alleging the diocese and two bishops illegally tried to cover it up to protect their reputations and that of the parish priest she claims abused her.

Tiffany Myers reads a children's book out loud to a class of about 20 fifth graders. She said the idea is to teach the basics of mental wellbeing just like other school subjects.
Min Xian / WPSU

 

On a recent school day at Mount Nittany Elementary School in State College, Tiffany Myers read a children's book out loud to a class of about 20 fifth graders.

“The story we’re going to read today is called, ‘Red: A Crayon’s Story.’ Just right off the bat, what are you noticing about this crayon that make it different than what you might expect?” Myers, a school counselor, asked.

Corl Street Elementary, in State College, is receiving extensive renovations, all done with safety in mind.
Emily Reddy / WPSU

Martha Sherman has two kids at Mount Nittany Elementary School in State College. On a recent morning when she was dropping them off, office staff wouldn’t let her go beyond the front office. She wanted to walk her son Zane to his kindergarten class, but his school, like many others, has a safety policy that says parents can’t do that.

Erin Murphy.
Erin Murphy

Erin Murphy, an English professor at Penn State Altoona, won the Brick Road Poetry Prize for her most recent poetry collection, “Assisted Living.” The poems in this collection explore the aging and caretaking processes, as well as what “assisted living” looks like throughout the lifespan.

WPSU’s Adison Godfrey talked with Murphy about the book.

Two men testing out voting machine
Anne Danahy / WPSU

Zane Swanger tapped on the screen of a voting machine to make his elections choices, including a write-in candidate, before printing out his ballot.

“OK, so it won’t even let me vote for overvotes, so good.”

Swanger was testing out one of the new voting systems that Pennsylvanians could be using in elections starting next year. He's the director of elections in Mifflin County, and that was third time he’s seen the equipment.

PennDOT recently released a report reviewing car crashes in Pennsylvania for 2017.

According to the report, 128,188 total reportable traffic crashes occurred last year, which resulted in the deaths of 1,137 people and injuries of 80,612 more.

Midterm voter turnout increased up statewide in Pennsylvania from 43 percent in 2014 to 58 percent this year.
Emily Previti / Keystone Crossroads

Voter turnout was up in every county in Pennsylvania this year compared to the last midterm election in 2014.

Statewide, it jumped from 43 percent in 2014 to 58 percent, according to our analysis of Department of State data.

Preliminary ballot counts suggested as much, but the state only just released data this week making it official.

Judy Ward and Emily Best
Anne Danahy / WPSU

Job training, the opioid epidemic and taxes were some of the topics covered during a forum this week for the candidates for the state Senate, 30th district.

The candidates were Republican Judy Ward and Democrat Emily Best. And the hosts were the Blair County Tea Party and the liberal Indivisible Blair County — organizations at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Indivisible President Aaron Wagner said that type of forum means politicians have to speak to people with a broad range of opinions.

Shirley Pechter, who performed at age 8 with the ensemble that later became the Altoona Symphony, looks at the orchestra's 90th anniversary program.
Teresa Cheung / Altoona Symphony

This Saturday, the Altoona Symphony Orchestra will officially open its 90th anniversary season with a concert at the Mishler Theatre in Altoona.

And there is a woman who was there at the start back in 1928. Shirley Pechter, now 97 years old, was part of the Altoona Symphony at the very beginning, when it was just a small group of musicians. Pechter spoke with WPSU's Story Corps in Altoona in 2013. 

"Russell Gerhart was the violin maestro in Altoona," Pechter said.  "And he started what he called an ensemble, which was a group of six of his students."

The Blair County Courthouse sits on Allegheny Street in Hollidaysburg, PA.
Min Xian / WPSU

Michael Fiore, 56, remembered, growing up, he never had to worry about drugs in his neighborhood or the violence that they sometimes inflict. He said, back then, his community in Blair County, home to Altoona and Hollidaysburg, was safe.

But as he got older, with the rise of the opioid crisis, he saw things change. 

Road closed sign
Kelly Tunney / WPSU

Dozens of roads are closed across southwestern and northcentral Pennsylvania due to heavy rainfall and flooding. The state Department of Transportation said more closures may be expected on Tuesday.

In five counties in the southwestern part of the state, the closures impacted roads including U.S. 22, which connects Blair and Huntingdon Counties. But PennDOT press officer Tara Callahan-Henry said the majority of the roads closed are not major arteries.

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