First Person / Joe Paterno, tragic hero

My memories of college life at Penn State used to feel safe

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After the death of President John F. Kennedy, Mary McGrory said to Pat Moynihan, "We'll never laugh again." Moynihan replied, "Mary, we'll laugh again. But we'll never be young again."

This mirrors my thoughts on the recent situation at Penn State, where I spent some of my happiest days. I always thought that it was the perfect place to grow up.

And, although the allegations against Jerry Sandusky are horrific, I still feel entitled to treasure my memories and take pride in my alma mater. But some people no longer consider that a given right.

Two separate issues have become entwined in recent Penn State coverage.

First, there is the matter of child abuse, which is abhorrent. Those of us who love Penn State and admire Joe Paterno are not proponents of child abuse. Neither are we "delusional" -- the tag, unfairly applied, to Mr. Paterno's most visible supporter, Franco Harris, who is man enough to stand up for his old coach.

Joe Paterno was a link in the chain of command at Penn State, certainly not the perpetrator of abuse. He is 84, and represents a different, less outspoken era on sexual subjects. If the allegations against Mr. Sandusky are true, it seems that Mr. Paterno was mistaken not to insist that university officials pursue the matter more vehemently.

But we are not our mistakes. Is there no compassion for Mr. Paterno, who has done so much good? Or is this the time for all involved to "sweep up their white robes" and let an easy target take the blame?

Mr. Paterno has already suffered total humiliation in being fired from his position by a phone call. (It reminds me of the old joke about breaking up with someone via Post-it note.) Mr. Paterno's name has also been removed from the Big Ten trophy. What can more harassment accomplish? It cannot undo alleged harm to children at the hands of another man.

But it can harm students who are made to feel ashamed of their university. For the first time, I am aware of opposition to cheering "Go State," or "We are ..."

My own impression of Penn State starts with the thrill of studying journalism and liberal arts under professors who were enthusiastic and challenging. I enjoyed every minute of dorm life -- talking far into the night with friends about our newly exciting lives.

Football games were a highlight of weekend fun. After working hard all week, we headed for Beaver Stadium with dates on golden Saturday afternoons, when they struck up the Blue Band. Afterwards, dinner and a party at the fraternity house blew away the stress of studying.

And, yes, Joe Paterno was a big part of all this -- as Rip Engle's assistant, he motivated players with his sideline dance. By 1966, he was named head coach, to accrue the most wins in college history. It was "success with honor" as Penn State also set records for the most players graduating.

Things get a little personal for me here. When I joined Gamma Phi Beta sorority as a sophomore, I learned that Sue Pohland was an older sorority sister. She had recently graduated and married Joe Paterno.

This is not to say that Sue (or Sudie, as she was called) was a part of everyday life in the suite. But she would sit in on meetings, bringing her beautiful baby, Diana Lynn. And she would tell us stories of life as the coach's wife, including how she came home from the hospital with Diana to a house full of Maryland coaches -- and that just became life as usual.

So, as they say, Penn State felt like a family. I never had a sense of being lost in a large university. I felt surrounded by friends. Some of them are among my closest lifelong confidantes. My husband, Jim, also graduated from Penn State.

At our house, fall Saturdays still belong to Penn State football. The game blasts on TV, but Jim also wears a headset, tuned to Penn State radio commentary.

Jim was an old Brentwood High halfback and I think his dream was to have Joe Paterno as his college coach. Or maybe he just wanted to be Joe Paterno -- until now.

Now is a time that none of us could predict. After weeks of media bombardment, Jim breathed a sigh of relief the other day. "This is the first day I haven't heard a story about the Penn State scandal."

Reluctantly, I corrected him. "Sorry, Mike McQueary is all over the Internet."

Can we stop making Penn State and "scandal" synonymous? Hopefully, as the Sandusky trial takes its course, the healing process will begin.

Penn State students and alums already have raised more than $400,000 for the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. And the university has pledged $1.5 million of postseason bowl revenue to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

In the midst of all this came the news flash that Joe Paterno is suffering from lung cancer. And in the place where my Penn State memories used to feel safe, I now pull up a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy."


Carole Yagello Takach is a freelance writer who lives in Mt. Lebanon (caroletakach@ verizon.net).


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