Do you know the Button Man? He carries a tradition with him

From the green paper‑backed buttons of the 1970s to the met­al‑backed buttons we are familiar with today, those quick‑witted, opponent‑knocking Penn State football buttons have a storied history that started with Central Counties Bank and continues today. Central Counties Bank started distributing paper‑backed buttons for home football games in 1972 and continued the tradition in 1973 while adding away game buttons to the mix; the buttons also saw a switch from flimsy paper backs to the more common and durable ones made of metal. Central Coun­ties Bank continued passing out buttons until 1983, then Mellon Bank took over the buttons in 1984. And now Citizens Bank has owned the button distribution tradition since the middle of the 2001 football season.

Despite the change of banking institutions, the one constant has been the clever, poignant, and entertaining sayings that grace the weekly buttons during football season. From the early days of “Crush the Orange” (1972), “Barbecue Pitt” (1974), and “Out Lasta Nebraska” (1980) to the more recent “Irish I Were a Nittany Lion” (1990) and “Can’t Duck the Lions” (1994) to “Hoosiers Weepers” (2000), “White Out the Nois” (2010), and one of my personal favorites, “Four Quarters Will Change a Buck” (2007), the buttons are a staple of the game day experience and have become collector’s items for the Penn State football faithful.

As a Penn State student, I would occasionally pick up and wear a button, but my true interest in the tradition didn’t occur until the summer of 2004, when my father, a PSU alum and diehard football fan, passed away in a tragic car accident. I started to collect the buttons as a way to keep a connection with my dad. You see, as mentioned previously, the first buttons made their debut in 1972, which happened to be the same year my dad graduated from Dear Old State. It seemed like fate, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Thanks to a dear friend and fellow collector, Dr. Lou Geschwindner, and bidding on several ebay auctions I started my journey of collecting Penn State football buttons. Today, I only need nine buttons to complete the collection. Not too bad, considering the trio of banks has created 525 dif­ferent football buttons between 1972 and 2013.

So How Did I Become the Button Man?

Well, in the fall of 2005, my mom, who is actively involved in the Penn State Club of Wyoming Valley (in Northeastern Pennsylvania), called me while I was in graduate school at Penn State to see if I wanted to carry the club’s banner in the Homecoming Parade that year. My youngest sister, Sarah, had just started her freshman year at Penn State, and I contacted her to see if she wanted to walk along too. She agreed and convinced her college roommate, Katy, to join in as well. We knew we needed something eye‑catching to stand out from all the other alumni organizations marching in the parade. We didn’t have the budget for a float or even a convertible, but what we did have was a lot of buttons! Despite collecting the football buttons for only a little over a year, I had amassed quite a few “extra” buttons…buttons that were not a part of the collec­tion but I hated to part with. One day as I looked at the 18-gallon Rubbermaid container full of “extra” buttons, it came to me that we needed to put them on a coat. The Button Man was born.

In the weeks leading up to Homecoming 2005, my sister and her roommate created the first button coat with my charcoal topcoat and about 75 buttons, and we proudly marched in the parade. The next year the girls wore sweatshirts with “Button Man’s Blondes” inscribed across the back. Since that first parade, the button coat has gone through three transformations (the most recent of which will be unveiled during this year’s parade) and the number of buttons on the coat has increased drastically. We have also gone from marching to riding in my brother‑in‑law’s truck; a much welcome change as the coat with all those buttons is quiet heavy to wear and navigate in during the trek from the IM Build­ing down College Avenue and ending at the Nittany Lion statue.

One of the parade highlights was in 2012 when we added music to the truck. I was dancing to Psy’s hit, Gangnam Style, as we passed the fraternities along Burrowes Street, when all of a sudden the bed of the truck started to shake and the parade goers began to cheer even louder. I turned to see the Nittany Lion in the truck with me, dancing along. It amazes me how many people get excited over a guy in a button coat…they cheer, they give high fives and fist bumps, and they ask to pose for photographs. The Button Man can be seen traversing the tailgate fields before and after the Homecoming football game. Last year, The Button Man even made the front page of the Centre Daily Times! It is a thrill and an honor to represent Penn State alumni and fans, and have so much fun while doing it.

At Homecoming this weekend (when you see us, be sure to tweet: #TheButtonMan), The Button Man will once again dawn the coat of many buttons, climb into the back of the pick‑up truck, and enjoy the screaming fans along the parade route chanting “Button Man, Button Man.” And to think it all started in homage to my Dad, a Penn State 1972 alum and one of the most proud football fans I will ever know. He never got to see The Button Man, but I know he is with me each Homecoming as we ride along the streets of State College and take in the moment of celebrating what it means to be a Nittany Lion and simply coming home. 

Jonathan U. Dougherty, PhD earned his Bachelor’s degree and PhD in Architectural Engineering from Penn State. He taught at PSU from 1999‑2005 earning two teaching awards. He currently serves on the Penn State Wilkes‑Barre Advisory Board and the Penn State Engineering Alumni Society Board of Directors. Jonathan is President of the Alumni Society of Architectural Engineers and represents the Penn State Club of Wyoming Valley, as #TheButtonMan, in the annual Homecoming Parade. In October 2014, he will be recognized as the Penn State Alumni Association’s Volunteer of the Year. You can follow Jonathan on twitter @JUDougherty.

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