Flying banner threatens to raze Paterno statue


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JULIAN, Pa. -- Here, on a tiny strip of concrete between a two-lane highway and a forest, a plane took off at about 11 a.m., flew above State College displaying a message and landed about two hours later.

Tom Knauff, the airstrip owner, has watched hundreds of planes do this since 1975. He just hadn't watched any like this one.

The plane, a single-engine Cessna 150M, towed a banner that read "TAKE THE STATUE DOWN OR WE WILL." It referred to the Joe Paterno statue, the one outside of Penn State University's Beaver Stadium. That was obvious. Other aspects of this situation weren't.

Who are the "WE" in the banner. The people who know declined to say. Air America Aerial Ads, a banner towing company based in Genoa, Ohio, owns the plane. Costs for rentals start at $625 per hour, plus overnight costs and travel fees.

Owner Jim Miller said a client and not his company came up with the message.

"I've had positive responses and I've had negative responses," Mr. Miller said, regarding the Penn State banner.

"We are an advertising agency," Mr. Miller said. "I believe in freedom of speech whether it contradicts my views or not."

The statue itself was standing the way it always has on Tuesday, well below the circling plane. People were stopping to take pictures. Someone left a sign that read, "THIS WILL ALWAYS BE PATERNOVILLE." Paternoville was the name of the tent community created by Penn State students who camped out weekly for home football games.

The group's leaders voted to change the name to Nittanyville on Monday night. On Tuesday, Brown University removed Mr. Paterno's name from its head coaching position and a student award. Last week, Nike Inc. announced it would remove his name from a child development center at the firm's headquarters in Oregon.

The changes display a re-evaluation of Mr. Paterno's status after last week's release of the Freeh report. The report concluded that Mr. Paterno, head coach of the Nittany Lions for 46 years, was one of four university officials responsible for keeping the actions of Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant coach, hidden from the public for years. Last month Mr. Sandusky was convicted of sexually assaulting young boys.

Mr. Paterno was fired shortly after Mr. Sandusky's arrest in November. He died in January.

As of Tuesday, Penn State had not decided what it would do with the Paterno statue. President Rodney Erickson said he heard from many alumni who supported both sides of the issue and wanted to decide by next week. University spokesman Dave La Torre said it would come within 10 days.

"I think we have to move ahead," Mr. Erickson said. "This is not something that we'll want to hang out there for a long time."

Mr. Knauff had no idea any of this would happen. He said his airstrip, Ridge Soaring Gliderport, has no affiliations with the banner towing companies that take off and land there. He didn't see the message until the plane was airborne.

"We just thought this was a routine, 'Happy Birthday Jim' thing," he said.

state - psusports

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com. Staff writer Laura Olson, The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, and The Associated Press contributed. First Published July 18, 2012 4:00 AM


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