STATE COLLEGE – Penn State alumnus and trustee emeritus H. Jesse Arnelle – a professional athlete, lawyer and activist who served in the U.S. Navy and Peace Corps – died on Oct. 21, the university announced on its website Monday.
Arnelle died in San Francisco, California, at the age of 86 due to heart disease.
A 1955 graduate of Penn State with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Arnelle was the first Black student body president in school history, as well as the first Black member and chair of the Penn State Board of Trustees.
Arnelle was elected to the board in 1969 and served as a trustee for 45 years before being honored with the lifetime designation of trustee emeritus in 2014.
Born in New Rochelle, New York, in 1933, Arnelle first came to Penn State to play football in 1951. He earned All-American honorable mentions on the football field, but it was on the basketball court where he excelled. He helped lead the Nittany Lions to the NCAA Final Four in 1954, and was also recognized as an All-American in basketball.
In addition to being a student-athlete, Arnelle was elected Penn State student body president his junior year and worked to promote racial justice and equality on campus.
With opportunities to play professionally in the NFL and NBA after graduation, Arnelle chose basketball and became the first Penn Stater to join the NBA (he played for the Fort Wayne Pistons) and later the Harlem Globetrotters.
“Jesse had an abundance of experience and much success throughout his life, but he always remained strongly connected to Penn State,” Penn State President Eric Barron said in a news release. "His impressive contributions as a student-athlete are only surpassed by the positive difference he made for the people within our University community and in many others."
After sports, Arnelle served in the U.S. Air Force and the Peace Corps (where he spent time in Washington, D.C., Turkey and India) and graduated from the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle in 1962.
He began his law career in California and worked in corporate law and as a trial lawyer for a public defender’s office before he opened his own practice, the university said. In 1987, he joined forces with a colleague and founded the firm of Arnelle and Hastie – one of the first minority-owned corporate law firms in the country. The firm represented such clients as Ford Motor Co., Coca-Cola Co., Chrysler and Levi Strauss and Co.
Arnelle served on a variety of corporate boards – Wells Fargo, Gannet and MetLife, among others. After his retirement in 1998, he continued on as counsel for the law firm of Womble, Carlye, Sandridge and Rice.
“With his range of life and professional experiences, Jesse brought a unique perspective to the (PSU) board,” Trustees President Mark Dambly said. “Jesse was a pleasure to work with, and his forward vision and insight will be missed, as will his good nature and generosity.”
Arnelle co-founded the Penn State Renaissance Fund, which provides scholarships to academically talented students with the greatest financial need, and helped organize the close affiliation of Penn State and the Dickinson School of Law, the university said. Arnelle and his wife, Dr. Carolyn Block-Arnelle, established scholarships for students in the colleges of the Liberal Arts and Health and Human Development, as well as the Dickinson School of Law.
Arnelle was awarded the Lion’s Paw Medal, which is given to Penn Staters who have contributed in notable ways to the university, in 2000; the College of the Liberal Arts Centennial Fellows Award in 2009; and the Penn State Alumni Association Distinguished Alumni Award in 2016. He was a lifetime member of the Penn State Alumni Association, President's Club, President's Advisory Council and Laurel Circle.