Memorial service was first step to relaunch a legacy
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.
Every funereal shade of gray in nature's catalog draped Penn State for the occasion of Joe Paterno's public memorial service, a perfectly lachrymose contrast to the brilliant colors of so many festive autumn Saturdays.
The Bryce Jordan Center, hulking there in the rain and fog and imminent sleet across the road from Beaver Stadium, was simply not meant for this.
You went there to see Springsteen, Sting, Prince, or, if you must, basketball, but not to hear the haunting and still somehow vaguely comforting compositions of Ennio Morricone, whose work provided the auditory ambiance for some 12,000 people who had convened Thursday for nothing less ambitious than to relaunch a legacy.
Mr. Paterno died Sunday, and amid real fears that his singular vision and idealism about college football might have died with him, the university he loved like family deftly presented one last elaborately game-planned, gift-wrapped argument that the great coach's mission will live on.
"The Grand Experiment is needed now more than ever," said Charlie Pittman, the first African-American recruited by Mr. Paterno nearly five decades ago. "Rest in peace coach; we'll take it from here."
Mr. Pittman joined former Penn State football players from each of the six decades in which Mr. Paterno coached in a relentlessly poignant remembrance that spanned more than two hours and capped a stingingly sad week that brought mourners to Centre County from five continents.
Would Joe have liked it?
The temptation would be to say not much, as he hated the fuss, but something got done Thursday in a way that he would have appreciated, something that maybe never quite landed in the mass consciousness of casual observers before.
Every player, from Mr. Pittman to Todd Blackledge to Jimmy Cefalo to Michael Robinson to Mike Mauti and Christian Marrone, stood and spoke passionately and eloquently not so much to competition and victory but to scholarship and fellowship.
"He told me he hoped we'd always continue to teach the classics," said Susan Welch, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. "Through Joe and Sue Paterno, we were able to establish the Paterno Liberal Arts Undergraduate Fellows Program. We chose that name not to honor a football coach, but to honor someone who enhanced the lives of students."
Mr. Paterno's intellectual range and ambition coupled with the interpersonal impact he had on so many young people is what makes this moment in Penn State history an emotional ground zero. No one wanted his career, much less his life, to end anywhere near the convulsive events of early November, when a grand jury presented a raft of lurid child sexual abuse charges against former Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky.
The blowback brought down the university president, an athletic director, a vice president and shattered confidence in a board of trustees that fired the football coach for not doing more with an eyewitness account of an alleged Sandusky assault on a 10-year-old in the football building.
Mr. Paterno said in hindsight, he wished he had done more as well.
If Thursday's event was an attempt to take Mr. Paterno's legacy out of that orbit, it was at least a thundering success inside the building.
"Joe Paterno left this world with a clear conscience," said his son, Jay Paterno, who went to the microphone as the day's final speaker and walked from the stage as its most impressive.
"Socrates said, 'One must wait until the evening to truly see how magnificent the day must have been,' " Mr. Paterno said, adding that this convergence was to honor "the magnificent daylight of my father's life."
That's as direct as anyone associated with Penn State, including the Paternos, came to even alluding to the broader shadows that trap us in this moment, but Nike founder Phil Knight knew no such restraint, and the crowd loved him for that.
"It turns out [Mr. Paterno] gave full disclosure to his superiors, information that went up the chains to the head of the campus police and the president of the school," Mr. Knight said. "The matter was in the hands of a world-class university, and by a president with an outstanding national reputation. This much is clear to me. If there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation and not in Joe Paterno."
Would that it were that simple.
This difficult moment isn't going to end because Phil Knight can buy space for his swoosh on Penn State's hallowed uniform, nor because Mr. Knight considers Joe Paterno his hero.
Mr. Sandusky goes to trial this summer, perhaps early fall. It'll be somewhere on the other side of that when the end of this sad chapter is written.
For now, the people who orchestrated this memorial should be assured that Joe Paterno would have loved it as much as they loved him.
First Published January 27, 2012 12:00 am