February 02, 2022
By Tom Joudrey
This article is courtesy of Penn State University's Office of Development.
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Wrestling fans flanked fly-fishing enthusiasts at the Penn State vs. Rutgers tournament on the night of Jan. 16, drawn together by a 93-year-old Penn State alumnus whose decades of achievements have spanned both sports. Before garnering fame as a world-renowned fly-fishing icon, Joe Humphreys faced down foes on the wrestling mats of Rec Hall and demonstrated an athletic prowess that he would later parlay into acumen as a coach and instructor, culminating in his induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2012 and the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame in 2013.
University officials chose the wrestling event as an apt backdrop to announce the receipt of an anonymous gift that will honor Humphreys’ legacy and provide substantial financial support to Penn State’s fly fishing program. The $250,000 endowment will help to secure the program’s status as a top-tier educational leader in the sport of angling. The College of Health and Human Development, which houses the program within the Department of Kinesiology, will honor the donor’s request to rename the program the Joe Humphreys Fly Fishing Program in recognition of the contributions that Humphreys made through 19 years of teaching and half a century of advocacy and fundraising.
The infusion of funding will kick off a host of new initiatives. Upgrades to existing classroom technology will enable the streaming of digital course content and enhance virtual interactive demonstrations with expert fly fishers. The endowment will also expand the program’s travel opportunities by helping to offset transportation costs associated with fieldtrips to streams across the mid-Atlantic region. Guest speaker honorariums and recruitment events will augment programming, including outreach to bolster enrollment of students from underrepresented backgrounds. To track the long-term impact of the program, the new fund will facilitate longitudinal record keeping of students who matriculated through the program and maintained their affinity for angling and environmental stewardship.
“Penn State made history at the height of the Great Depression by becoming the first university in the United States to offer courses in fly fishing,” said Craig J. Newschaffer, Raymond E. and Erin Stuart Schultz Dean of the College of Health and Human Development. “Now, some eight decades later, this extraordinary gift will help us expand the reach and impact of this remarkable program that has been critical in establishing so many lifelong relationships between young people and the outdoors. Joe personally touched the lives of thousands of students with his irrepressible enthusiasm for the sport of angling and his love for the natural beauty of central Pennsylvania. It is especially meaningful that this new gift pays tribute to his remarkable legacy by permanently associating the program with his name.”
Humphreys’ roots in Pennsylvania run deep. Born in Curwensville, Clearfield County, he moved with his family to State College in 1935 and a year later, at age six, caught his first brown trout with a bamboo rod on Centre County’s Spring Creek. His mother made a sandwich out of the eight-inch fish, which he said he still ranks as the best he’s ever eaten.
Humphreys honed his athleticism wrestling and boxing in the U.S. Navy in the 1950s, before returning to the Keystone State to enroll at University Park. There, he majored in exercise and sport science, earning his degree from the College of Health and Human Development in 1957. He lettered in two sports in the same season, a feat equaled by only one other Penn State athlete.
Following graduation, he spent 13 years coaching wrestling at various Pennsylvania high schools. He led Penns Valley Area High School to its first winning season, coached Kittanning High School to its first undefeated season and was the District Six Coach of the Year for Bald Eagle Area High School, where he trained its first state champion. Meanwhile, in 1959, Humphreys purchased an abandoned Oak Hall gristmill nestled astride Spring Creek, hired a crane to lift the collapsed roof and collaborated with a contractor to renovate the structure into the home he still occupies today.
Humphreys’ string of wrestling achievements impressed Penn State wrestling coach Bill Koll, who in 1970 invited him to return to University Park as an assistant coach. In the years after, Humphreys would sustain his commitment to wrestling by teaming up with renowned sportscaster Fran Fisher to provide tournament commentary at Rec Hall in a partnership that lasted 20 years.
Ensconced again at his alma mater in 1970, Humphreys thrived on teaching responsibilities that spanned bowling, personal defense and ice skating. But it was his fly-fishing courses that soon became his sole focus and carried him through almost 20 years of teaching. His lessons, elaborated in classroom and creek, covered fly tying, nymphs, conservation strategies, equipment selection and casting technique.
In August 1977, Humphreys landed a then-Pennsylvania record 34-inch, 16-pound trout, which he’d chased, Ahab-like, for three years. After his official retirement from Penn State, Humphreys’ competitive hunger led him to compete in five World Fly Fishing Championships in Finland, Ireland, Wales, Italy and finally Portugal, where he scored the bronze medal as coach in 2017.
Based on his more than 50 years of accumulated angling experience, Humphreys has published three high-profile books: "Trout Tactics," "Trout Tactics Revised" and "On the Trout Stream." He was also profiled in the award-winning documentary "Live the Stream: The Story of Joe Humphreys," which is widely available to stream, rent or own.
Humphreys’ wife of 57 years, Gloria Irvin Humphreys, earned her bachelor’s degree in physical education from Penn State in 1959 and devoted her life to education and to managing her husband’s fly-fishing engagements. In later years, she taught beginners' ice-skating classes at Penn State while Joe taught advanced classes at the other end of the rink. She passed away from cancer in 2014. Their daughters, Dolores Humphreys Barnes and Johanna R. Humphreys, each graduated from Penn State with bachelor’s degrees in individual and family studies and rehabilitation education, in 1984 and 1985 respectively. Johanna returned to University Park to earn a master’s degree in education in 1990.
Over the years, Joe Humphreys indulged requests to wade into streams from all sorts of marquee names — former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and Oscar-nominated, Irish actor Liam Neeson, among others — but it’s the thousands of Penn State students who sharpened their skills under his tutelage that, he said, is his enduring source of pride.
Penn State’s fly-fishing program was founded in 1934 by George Harvey, who earned his degree in ornamental horticulture a year later and went on to direct his alma mater’s angling program for more than four decades. Harvey mentored and eventually passed the torch to Humphreys. Successors Vance McCullough, Mark Belden and Greg Hoover followed in their footsteps. Humphreys’ protégé George Daniel, a two-time U.S. Fly Fishing Champion, was selected for the role of lead instructor and director of the program in the fall of 2019.
“George is the perfect person to lead, innovate and expand our fly fishing programming with the goal of exposing greater numbers of underrepresented groups to the sport,” said Nancy I. Williams, professor and head of the Department of Kinesiology.
The Department of Kinesiology’s Physical Activity Program administers the fly-fishing program, offering several sections of the basic course and a single section of the advanced course each semester. The longevity of these courses has been aided by decades of giving from alumni, friends and advocates of environmental sustainability. Humphreys was deeply involved in promoting philanthropic investment since the early 1980s, which helped lay the groundwork for the most recent anonymous gift.
Today, Humphreys’ calendar is crowded with commitments. He partners with local and national organizations to leverage his clout to improve stream quality, and his commitment to young people has included mentoring participants in the U.S. Youth Flying Fishing Team and serving as honorary chair for the On the Fly tournament benefiting the Centre County Youth Service Bureau. He also fly fishes with wounded military personnel and veterans as part of Project Healing Waters, which aims to heal and support service members through immersion in the natural world of fly fishing.
Despite his full docket, Humphreys continues to participate in fly-fishing excursions across the country and to serve as an unofficial ambassador to Penn State. Fellow anglers are known to pull up short when they spy him on the waters, or even wade into riffles in search of an autograph.
“I’m a trout-bitten kid who went on to fish in countries around the world,” said Humphreys. “I am proud to see the program flourishing, and to have my dear friend George to take over for me. This is what I’ve dreamed about. It’s the dream coming true, that this course will be forever. I can go to my grave and rest easy, knowing it’s taken care of.”