HUNTINGDON - For decades, Juniata College has had a secret that a lot of graduates knew about, but the outside world didn't share, and if the person at the center of it had her way, things would stay that way.
But the college's board of trustees thought people needed to know how Hilda Nathan worked behind the scenes to get diplomas for literally hundreds of men and women who were strapped for cash.
The newest residence hall on campus is named after Nathan, who could not attend the dedication ceremony last month.
Photo for the Mirror by Thomas Jordan
Juniata College student government President-elect Kunal Atit (left) gives students a tour of Hilda Nathan Hall.
At age 95, her health is only recently declining, said Gabriel Welsch, Juniata vice president for advancement and marketing.
Nathan lives in an assisted
living facility in Huntingdon, he said.
"Hilda, throughout her time at the college, became well-known to students for her efforts to do all she could to help them pay for
a Juniata education,'' Welsch said. "Hilda's compassion for students is legendary among our alumni from the '50s to the '70s.
She loaned students money, found scholarships and helped them stay at Juniata when finances may otherwise have stood in the way of [them] earning their degrees.''
Welsch said Nathan was reluctant at first to have any publicity about her efforts because she just felt she was doing her job when she helped out the students. But he said she has always held the college in the highest regard and has many fond memories of her time there.
The decision to name the hall after her came when the board debated the hall's name, Welsch said. Many of the trustees in the room had gotten through the college thanks to Nathan, he said.
"When someone mentioned Hilda's name, there was sort of a collective unanimous nod, and everyone said 'yes,'" Welsch said.
Nathan worked at Juniata College from 1946-76 in what was then called the treasurer's office, now known as the bursar's office. Soon after she started working there, some students started noticing something unusual was happening with their bills, Welsch said.
"When they'd go to pay their bills, they'd see that the bill was paid in full,'' he said.
Eventually, the students figured out Nathan had helped them in some way, usually by steering a scholarship their way or part of the college's endowment fund, Welsch said. Sometimes she did loan them money from her own pocket, but not often.
"She would do that occasionally, but it wasn't something she did a lot,'' he said.
What Nathan did is do her job exceedingly well, Welsch said, searching every nook and cranny of her office for possible sources of financial aid to help students who faced problems paying for college. The times were different, too, and the financial aid system less complicated, he said.
But still, Nathan had an excellent ability to keep tabs on what each student needed, said Rich Paulhamus of Mohnton, which is near Reading. Paulhamus, who graduated from Juniata in 1970, said Nathan was kind of like mother hen or watchdog over the approximately 1,300 students who attended the college when he was a student there. She knew everyone's story, what subjects they took and their financial status, not to be nosy but to keep tabs on how they were doing and to make sure everyone was doing OK financially.
Paulhamus, whose father was a farmer in Williamsport, got worried at the end of his junior year that he might not be able to pay for tuition and expenses the next year.
"It got to the point that it was going to be real tight, so I talked to her about it,'' Paulhamus recalled.
The next thing he knew, he got a letter that he would have a job on campus that fall.
"I know she was influential in getting me that job,'' he said. "Seeing that happen just made me feel so much better about things.''
Paulhamus, a member of the board of trustees, is now married to another Juniata College graduate, Lorraine "Laurie'' Trexler, whom he met at a class reunion in 2005. He and Trexler have visited Nathan several times in Huntingdon when they've gone back for reunions or to visit the area. He said Nathan's name never fails to come up when former classmates get together.
"There are thousands of stories out there like mine,'' he said. "She was like the 'pay it forward' theme, that they would eventually go and help someone else.''
Another former student recalled the day he walked into the former treasurer's office and met Nathan for the first time. Howard M. Nathan, who graduated from Juniata College in 1975, said he was first struck when meeting Hilda because they had the same last name.
"We cracked up because there's not many Nathans around,'' he said.
Howard's father had passed away when he was 9, and his mother struggled when he was growing up with a minimum-wage job, he said. He said he was attracted to Juniata College because it offered a lot of financial aid. He had much interaction with Hilda, whom he described as a small lady with glasses.
"She reminded me a lot of one of my aunts,'' Howard said.
Hilda found a scholarship for Howard that enabled him to complete his studies at Juniata, he said. She also found him a job in the library on campus.
"She was pretty resourceful,'' Howard said. "It's hard to know exactly all the people she helped, but I imagine there are quite a few.''
Hilda's assistance more than paid off in people like Howard. He is the president and CEO of the Gift of Life organ donor program in Philadelphia that he helped create 36 years ago. Since then, the group has been responsible for 36,000 organ donations and 500,000 tissue donations, he said.
"I feel really fortunate that I have been a part of that,'' he said.
Howard has also taken the lead in donating to a scholarship fund in Hilda's name, Welsch said. The scholarship fund that is accepting additional donations will mean a $2,500 scholarship annually to any student living in the residence hall named after Hilda, he said.