Inspiring Interview with Van Wagner: Pennsylvania Strong

Van Wagner at

Van Wagner at

Garrett Gess, Writer

The state of Pennsylvania is the best state in the USA – that may be biased (a little), but there’s so many things we take for granted in this great state of PA.

What other states can have a bustling city in the Northeast megalopolis (Philadelphia), an industrial city back on the rise in the Rust Belt (Pittsburgh), and areas with rural landscapes with similar features to Kentucky (“Pennsyltucky”)? Pennsylvania’s history and culture extends further than just Pittsburgh and Philadelphia as this state is definitely not a “one-size-fits-all.” Pennsylvania was built by those from “Pennsyltucky” too. Here in suburban Hampton Township, we’re situated around half-an-hour north of urban Downtown Pittsburgh, and half-an-hour south of rural Butler area. Commuters love the suburbs for being close to the city, but those in Hampton don’t have to travel far to reach “Pennsyltucky” as well.

James Carville, political correspondent, who worked on Robert Casey Sr.’s 1986 successful gubernatorial campaign, said that “Between [Philadelphia area] and [Pittsburgh area], Pennsylvania is Alabama without the blacks. They didn’t film The Deer Hunter there for nothing – the state has the second-highest concentration of NRA members, behind Texas.”

Pennsylvanians are tough. There’s no question about that. It seems that every multi-generation Pennsylvanian has relatives that came from the steel mills, the coal mines, the railroad tracks, or the oil wells. This state also has a higher population of military veterans in our state (4th nationally) than neighboring New York does, despite having nearly seven million less people than then. Go through any small town in PA and you’ll probably see banners of military veterans from that town hanging on the street poles.

Shortly before Christmas break, I had the pleasure of getting to interview Van Wagner, a Danville Area High School teacher, singer, former coal miner, and father of two in Northeastern PA. A fellow Pennsylvanian, he has a deep passion for music and uses folk songs as a way for Pennsylvanians to learn more about the history of PA. He doesn’t sing for the money, he sings to inspire. Van Wagner wrote and sang dozens upon dozens of great songs, and even got to sing alongside Brad Paisley at a concert before. One of Wagner’s mottos and song lyrics is “You Must Get Lost In The Mountains To Find Your Way Again.”

Wagner recalled, “I grew up playing folk music, I’ve always been surrounded by folk music, and I love it. I love the ability to tell a story. That’s always just interested me and when I started writing my own songs, it’s been about telling a story”

In terms of his inspiration Wagner credits his dad for giving him such a love for Pennsylvania. “Always going with [my dad] to state parks, museums, fishing, hunting, and just being really connected to Pennsylvania.”

Van Wagner is someone who epitomizes the toughness that Pennsylvanians bring to work. PA has always been an area where the “blue-collar” way of life can flourish. Even as the state is moving forward from their past industries, PA still has a higher workforce in goods-producing sectors (manufacturing, construction, mining, and logging) than the national average. Our “blue-collar” workers are as much businessmen as the doctors, lawyers, and corporate financiers of the big cities. College enrollment is increasing across the nation, and Wagner himself graduated with a Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences Major at the PSU School of Forest Resources. He still brings the blue-collar work ethic that his many Pennsylvanian ancestors had before him.

One of Wagner’s great albums is titled “North of 80.” Interstate-80 is the subject of the song, which is the famous interstate that runs horizontally through the north-middle part of Pennsylvania. His song explains how much of Pennsylvania’s attention is placed on the places South of Interstate-80. Cities and big towns like New Castle, Pittsburgh, Greensburg, Altoona, State College, Harrisburg, York, Lebanon, Lancaster, Reading, Allentown, Easton, and Philadelphia can steal the show in PA lore. But the areas “North of 80” are deserving of more love.

Likewise, the Pennsylvania Turnpike runs right through Hampton Township. If you were to go from Hampton all the way East, you’d end up just North of Philadelphia. You’d travel through many rural counties in Southern PA and will likely see a lot of farms and wilderness. Instead of seeing those areas, I encourage all to “watch” those areas. And instead of hearing those areas, I encourage all to “listen” to those areas.


Land purchases from Native Americans in the 17th and 18th centuries


The Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area is in red, the Philadelphia Metropolitan Area is in blue, and the “Pennsyltucky counties” are white.


Change in total number of manufacturing jobs in metropolitan areas, 1954–2002 (Green: gain; red: loss)


2022 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election (Blue: Democrat Josh Shapiro; Red: Republican Doug Mastriano


High School Graduation Rate by School District Data, based on ACS 2011 estimates

As high schoolers here at Hampton move on to the next chapter of life, many will venture to other areas outside of Pennsylvania, while some will stay. Just know that Pennsylvania will always be home and home will always be Pennsylvania.