Penn State: Getting back to normal, 'more or less'


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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Thursday, the evening after the coverup allegedly perpetrated by Penn State University's former highest leaders seemed to become more sinister and clear, traffic backed up for a mile.

Cars filled Atherton Street, turning on Park Avenue toward the Bryce Jordan Center on campus. Downtown, many of the bars were packed, the patrons drinking and preparing for a night of enjoyment and live music, a night of Bruce Springsteen.

Mr. Springsteen played "My City of Ruins." It was a tribute to his beloved Jersey shore, but the meaning could have extended to a Penn State community that had earlier been forced to remember everything that happened a year ago.

On Nov. 4, 2011, Jerry Sandusky could no longer hide from accusations of child sexual abuse. He had escaped being charged in 1998, escaped consequences from an infamous Penn State locker room shower incident in 2001, dodged the swirling rumors and even a published report from The Patriot News of Harrisburg detailing that a grand jury was building a case against him.

After being indicted a year ago, Sandusky was convicted and last month was sentenced to prison for what will be the rest of his life. On Thursday, the men said to have covered up the crimes of the former Penn State assistant football coach had new charges lodged against them. Former president Graham Spanier, former athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz now face conspiracy, perjury, child endangerment, failure to report and obstruction of justice charges.

The scandal also embroiled former football coach Joe Paterno, who was fired a year ago and died two months later. Former assistant coach Mike McQueary sold his house this summer and is suing the university for wrongful termination.

That's six people. Everyone else is still here. Students tailgate early on Saturday mornings, alumni line up out the door of the Corner Room for brunch on Sundays and the university brass makes decisions in Old Main during the week.

A year ago, in any article you read, on any TV report you watched, a phrase seemed to be cut and pasted into each: Penn State would never be the same. Reports and articles portrayed a mystical universe that once existed, a product of the "Grand Experiment" brandished by the university itself and gleefully embraced by the media, and how it had shifted into a netherworld of tears, thunderheads and omnipresent shame. Life was catalogued for a few weeks and then on the special occasions, when the Freeh Report was released, when the Paterno statue was removed, when the NCAA sanctioned Penn State.

It seemed like a movie, like this place wasn't reality or inhabited by real people. But they did live here. They still do.

Rooted at the university

Who stays in State College for his entire adult life? Well, why do you stay anywhere for a lifetime? The obvious answer is that you make friends and you feel safe letting your kids play in the street, and then even a small town in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by hills and plagued by rain, becomes home.

Kim Steiner, professor of forest biology, came to Penn State 38 years ago. He and his wife had lived in Wyoming, Michigan and Indiana. State College was supposed to be one more X on the map.

Penn State cast as Camelot, as the myth, hadn't entered his mind and never really did. He had grown up in a small town that felt like Pleasantville, too.

The university community's ambition endeared Penn State to his heart. His students who moved on came back telling him other college towns sleep. Work, whether it was teaching, learning or coaching football, energized Penn State and kept it bustling.

"There's something about the university that inspires loyalty to it and it's not the fact that we've had a winning football team for so many years," Mr. Steiner said. "That's certainly a part of it, but there's something of value that resonates with people."

From the day the grand jury presentment came out to the events of the summer, it has become difficult for him to convince others of the beauty he still sees at Penn State. The Freeh Report and the NCAA consent decree didn't stop at condemning Sandusky and the upper levels of administration they accused of failure. They derided a culture that "permeated every level of the university community."

Mr. Steiner vehemently disagreed with those accusations and co-authored a statement this fall with communications professor emeritus John Nichols that stood up for Penn State's culture.

Scott Kretchmar can relate. The professor of exercise and sports science was the faculty athletics representative from 2000 to 2010. He admits Penn State's "success with honor" mantra could be syrupy then and sounds hollow now, but he still believes it and knows other universities did, too.

Faculty athletic representatives from other schools would call or email him or visit campus. They wanted to know how Penn State graduated so many athletes without stuffing them into hokey majors, particularly the football players. At parties, Mr. Kretchmar now hesitates to tell people where he works, much less his feelings about Penn State.

"It's really hard to speak up because people will say you're soft on childhood abuse," he said. "No. It's among the worst things people can do to one another but at the same time you don't want false accusations made about your institution. ... I don't want to come across as Pollyannaish. Football and Joe Paterno did wield a good amount of influence at Penn State. But if you look at details of how we played, how we dealt with student athletes, the kind of protections we had in place, you can't cash in the argument that football caused us to lose the perspective we have in the values of higher education. But it's hard to say, 'I love Penn State' without hearing snickers and without worrying people will snicker."

A view from afar

State College is a town awash in signs, history, memorabilia and banners tying together Penn State's past and present. The abundant outpouring of pride is striking for visitors and newcomers. For residents, the effects become wallpaper, ubiquitous and unnoticeable.

When the school year started, the spirit-makers shifted into overdrive. A banner was hung over Atherton Street promoting unity. Stores sold T-shirts that ranged from the blissful to the angry.

The most prominent signs read, "Proud to Support Penn State Football." They're still everywhere, from the stores downtown to Sue Paterno's house on McKee Street.

Charles Yesalis is a retired Penn State professor of health policy and administration. He moved to Lynchburg, Va., in May with his wife. Not everyone falls in love with State College and never leaves. People would ask how he could depart the community.

"I actually like Lynchburg better," Mr. Yesalis said. "We're outdoor people. The weather is nicer. And Lynchburg has dramatically better restaurants."

He did not forge a bond with Penn State. The university was his employer, and he enjoyed the work he did there.

He still talks to friends and former colleagues. Through conversations, he gets the feeling that every time something about Sandusky, Mr. Curley, Mr. Spanier or Mr. Schultz appears in the news, a reminder of the despair returns, like "the scab comes off the wound." The other days, when the pride is still prevalent, make Mr. Yesalis wonder.

"There's a part of me that has a curiosity from quite afar, six hours drive away," he said. "I don't know what is happening there. I hear people describe it as a false bravado. Others say it's the love of the university."

Normal, more or less

Sandusky didn't actually live in the main part of State College. He lived in Lemont, an enclave with its own tiny plaza and farmers market away from the student noise.

When you leave his neighborhood and go west, the road takes you downtown. Veer right to University Drive and you can get to Penn State. Either way, you can't miss the heart of the community.

It's 73 degrees here on a late October afternoon, according to the digital thermometer at Balfurd Cleaners. Expectedly, Cafe 210 West is occupied. Students socialize around glistening pitchers of beer.

Penn State has 7,600 freshman this fall. The overall enrollment of 45,351 is the highest it's ever been. They come for the same reasons. Many are Pennsylvanians. The education is good and relatively inexpensive. And there is the love for the school.

"If anything, it brought us all together," said senior Kristy Cowfer. "We're all here for academic reasons, not football."

The money still pours in. While Sandusky scandal expenses, including the Freeh Report, legal fees and public relations work have totaled $19.2 million, the university raised $208.7 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year, its second-highest total in history.

Life is back to normal, say many students and professors, often adding the expression "more or less" at the end of their thought. The more is what you read above, the fact that Penn State's leadership seems to have steered the university on a comfortable course after its highest leaders made the worst decisions imaginable. The less is the fact that division still brews between the university leadership and alumni, and the anger still pops right into the open.

Forward?

Maribel Roman Schmidt is the spokeswoman for Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship (PS4RS). She is clear with her words, which are the basis for the group she represents: Every current member of the Board of Trustees who was a trustee last year needs to be removed, same with university president Rodney Erickson.

PS4RS is not a fringe group. It has about 15,000 members. Ms. Schmidt says since November 2011, more people have joined each time the Board of Trustees makes a "terrible decision." For them, this means firing Mr. Paterno, accepting the Freeh Report, signing the NCAA consent decree and doing so in secrecy.

"Move forward" is the university buzzword. Everyone uses it, from Mr. Erickson to board chairman Karen Peetz to football coach Bill O'Brien. With an enormous, nuanced university community, forward can constitute a number of directions.

Officially, Penn State has implemented one-third of the 119 Freeh Report recommendations, dealing with compliance, Clery Act procedures, mandatory reporting procedures and transparency. Transparency is not an aspect that sits well with PS4RS, especially relating to the Board of Trustees.

"We're not going to move on until they are held accountable for their actions," Ms. Schmidt said.

The process of trying Mr. Curley, Mr. Schultz and Mr. Spanier, meting out settlements to victims and reforming the university will continue for months and years, as will altering Penn State's image to the outside world. Stigmas don't disappear quickly.

Mr. Yesalis knows athletic scandals as well as anyone, having written extensively on performance-enhancing drugs. What happened last year, he says, has no precedent, no comparison because of the nature of the crimes and because of Penn State's standing. Stories in national magazines about high football graduation rates and Paterno's "Grand Experiment" -- nurturing student-athletes who strived equally to learn and win -- had let the university form too sterling a reputation.

"They were allowed to mythologize," he said.

Everybody now knows Penn State for something else. The university went from utopia to cesspool in the public eye. Mr. Yesalis wonders when the outside world will ever look at Penn State with a sense of reality.

"You know how you meet people in the bars and on the beach," he said, talking about a recent trip to Florida. "I didn't meet one person who didn't know about this. That is striking because there are a lot of people who don't know the vice president."

Outside the stadium

On a Monday night in late October, the students, gathered at Beaver Stadium. Many planned to spend the night in tents, so they brought sleeping bags and wore stocking caps.

They were part of Nittanyville, a student camping group for football. A record number, 1,200, would camp for the Ohio State football game.

Here was a scene for the critics: Nothing had changed. Football still mattered too much. Here was a scene for the supporters: Nothing had changed. Football was still a rallying point for campus unity.

The students there didn't see it either way. Juniors Luke Brookes, Jeremy Slocum, Brian Cai, Tom Benz and Kerry Wagner all camped together because they hated Ohio State and wanted good seats for a night game on Halloween weekend.

Kyle Magill camped with seven of his friends: "Really, it's just something we wanted to do before we graduate. We're all seniors, and we haven't done it yet."

One night last year, the students of Penn State poured into downtown to protest the firing of Mr. Paterno, and more than 20 of them were charged with crimes. Another night thousands of them held candles on the Old Main lawn as a vigil for the sexual abuse victims.

Yes, life was dark and sad and different for a few weeks. Ms. Cowfer, the senior, remembers the melancholia remaining through the semester, then fading during the annual THON fundraising campaign in February. Her friends worried donations would dry up. The students raised a record $10.6 million for cancer research.

Change wasn't so much the word she used as awareness. The new criminal charges Thursday added to her feeling rather than providing new doubts or conflict.

"It was just those people and what they did," Ms. Cowfer said. "This isn't going to hold us back as Penn State students."

On this Monday, a few minutes before midnight, the students chanted together for several minutes, culminating the rally by singing the alma mater. One line of this song has been played out over and over in the past year, the one that goes, "May no act of ours bring shame."

Even the students shouted louder during this part.

But it's better to focus on another passage. "Shapeless in the hands of fate / Thou didst mold us, dear old State."

The song places Penn State on a pedestal, as though its institutional and cultural worth bring greatness to those who come into contact with it, rather than the inverse. Penn State always has been and still is a product of hundreds of thousands of alumni, faculty and, especially, students.

So here was Penn State a year later: a few hundred young men and women getting ready to spend the night outside a stadium with their best friends. Some brought books for studying. Others tossed around a football. One group had carved pumpkins.

It was one night of college life in one college town, and it looked like a lot of fun.

mobilehome - homepage - state - psusports

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, Twitter @mdent05. First Published November 4, 2012 4:00 AM


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