Joe Paterno, one year later: Preserving a legacy
The past is not easily uprooted at the Paterno home in State College.
Joe Paterno's home in the College Heights neighborhood of State College, Pa. The coach lived here for decades and the Penn State campus is just steps away.
Joe Paterno acknowledges supporters gathered outside his house on Nov. 8, 2011, as the Penn State board pondered his fate.
The house in State College, Pa., where Joe Paterno lived with head coach Rip Engle and his family early in his career.
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"Seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game."
-- The Great Gatsby
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- About a decade ago in Joe Paterno's neighborhood, the city threatened to cut down a row of beautiful, old maple trees.
They had stood for a long time. Not as far back as the neighborhood's 19th century origins, but those trees had outlived many of the people they shaded on warm summer days. Towering too high, branching in the wrong direction, they extended out of place on their own land, interfering with power lines.
Throughout State College, an epidemic afflicted the oldest elms, maples and oaks. The city suggested these neighborhood maples were diseased and needed to be removed. The residents could tell differently just by studying the limbs and bark. They were fine. The city could rebuild the power lines around them. Neighbors met and made a plan to save the trees.
"We all got together because they made the character of the street," says Margaret Duda, who lives there.
A professional photographer, she snapped a photo of every one of the vulnerable trees. She went to the next city council meeting and displayed the pictures, demanding the council members to point out which one was diseased, and nobody had anything to say.
The trees still stand. In Joe Paterno's neighborhood, the past is not easily uprooted and ripped away.
A bygone era
His home is the last house on the left, but most everyone already knew that. By the time he died a year ago, the house had become a shrine.
Before then, before a monster preyed on children and the alleged inaction of several men helped keep the beast free and legacies and livelihoods were swallowed whole, many who visited State College drove to 830 McKee St., to a neighborhood called College Heights. They pointed at this house as proof.
There was no gate at the street's entrance, and no security guard to check for identification, read license plate numbers or scan names on a guest list. The leader of one of college football's best teams surveyed his kingdom from a ranch house.
College football coaches don't live like this -- current Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, for example, lives in Boalsburg, several miles from campus in a house that cost $1,225,000. Only the ancient coaches did. Penn State's Bob Higgins had a house just up the street, near McKee and Adams Avenue, in the 1930s. Joe Bezdek, who coached one year in 1949, lived near McKee and Mitchell Avenue, a block away. Paterno was like them, residing in a bygone era.
When reporters came from around the country to share his story with a national audience, they highlighted the house. Sometimes they sat across from him at the round table in the kitchen. They remarked: "You should see his house. Then you would know this is real, this is not an act."
And what a reality it once was.
Of all the places in the world, Paterno lived in this town. Of all the neighborhoods in this town, he lived three blocks from campus in this one-story house. A million-dollar man lived like he still made the $20,000 he claimed he did in 1969, when the games always started in the afternoon, the coaches ate and drank with everyone else at the Tavern, and Paterno wanted a place to raise his growing family, a place to call home.
On the move
In his younger years Paterno moved everywhere, from all over south Brooklyn, to the military, to the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Brown University. Before he graduated, his football coach, Rip Engle, offered him an assistant coaching job at Penn State and a place to stay until he adjusted to this new habitat. That would prove a considerable challenge.
On a horseshoe street adjacent to campus, Paterno stayed in a basement room at Engle's residence, a two-story story house with five front windows at 249 Woodland Drive. It had a back deck overlooking a yard with a variety of trees and squirrels. Engle had an office at the front of the house.
Engle's wife hadn't moved in yet, according to David Engle, Rip Engle's grandson, so it was just Paterno and his boss. Engle and his assistant often walked to work together, their lives five minutes away. Paterno made up his mind, even told Engle. He wouldn't stay for long. It was 1950.
Less than a half-mile away, through a jumble of houses but at the edge of the same neighborhood, Henry Hartswick and his estate had been selling land since the late 19th century. The estate sold lots that became houses, mainly for Penn State faculty and staff, including a 9,444 square-foot patch of grass and dirt on McKee Street to Howard Merrill. The deed stipulated the owner was to eventually build a dwelling costing not less than $8,000. It was 1950.
Paterno lived in an apartment with assistant coach Steve Suhey and his wife, Ginger, for one year after living with Engle, according to his autobiography, "Paterno: By The Book." He didn't encounter a semblance of permanence until he became close friends with fellow assistant coach Jim O'Hora.
O'Hora and his wife, Elizabeth, bought a house at 240 E. McCormick Ave. in 1952. It is small but sturdy, built with brick. The family room was on the left, the master bedroom downstairs. Upstairs, with a landing surrounded by pine walls, they had one bedroom on the left -- where Paterno slept -- one on the right and a tiled bathroom in the center. They invited Paterno to live with them.
The O'Horas needed a bigger house and moved down the street to 504 E. McCormick in 1957. It was brick, too. Upon entry, the dining room was set up on the right -- louvered doors allowing them to extend the table for large gatherings. A stately birch tree stood in the front yard.
The team physician, Dr. Alfred Griess, lived across the street on East McCormick. Assistant coach J.T. White owned a place a few doors down.
White had parties for the coaches about twice each year, inviting the O'Hora's, the Engles, the Suheys, Paterno and some of White's best friends who lived in the neighborhood, like John Baylor, who worked in the college of agriculture.
In White's backyard, they chatted and they drank beer. If they looked south, the emptiness of untouched, undeveloped land crept toward them.
They were outsiders on the edge. They could to try to squeeze into the insularity, or they could make the world around them bigger.
"We joked that if we stayed 50 years we'd be accepted into the community," Baylor says. "You had to work at becoming part of the community."
Family responsibility officially arrived in Paterno's life in May 1962, when he married Sue. Less than a year later, on March 25, 1963, Paterno paid $25,700 for an existing house at 1909 Norwood Lane in the Park Forest section of State College.
The house is a split-level up a hill on an awkward lot that makes the house look as if it has five sides. The family room is in the basement. The floor is and was linoleum, though many of the houses here are fitted with hardwood.
"You can tell he's very frugal," says Dale Toso, the current owner.
Shrubs in the backyard surround a deck big enough for a table, chairs and breathing room. There is no fence. Residents of Park Forest always have kept the neighborhood open and lively.
Thursday nights during football season, neighbors watched Paterno and Centre Daily Times reporter Croy Pitzer amble through the backyards. Pitzer held a recorder in his hand, listening to the game plan for Saturday, and Paterno trusted he wouldn't leak the details.
They were close on this block, but the house couldn't hold Paterno's family. He wrote of his Norwood Lane residence as "a crowded little home."
The right house
Merrill, the original owner of the land that would become 830 McKee St., didn't build. He sold the lot to Charles N. Winck, owner of the Skyview Restaurant and gift shop. Property records show the house was erected in 1958; Paterno's house was built to the specifications of a restaurant owner.
Winck sold to Alexander Woskobijnyk in 1965. Woskobijnyk and his wife, Helen, escaped occupied Ukraine in World War II. In State College they started a real estate company and contributed to Penn State's agricultural college.
They sold the house in 1966 to Charles E. Woodring, a former professor and a Centre County commissioner. He served in World War II and earned his master's degree from Penn's Wharton School of Business. In April 1969, he died of injuries from a car accident.
On August 22, 1969, Paterno, about to enter his fourth year as Penn State's head coach, signed his name on the deed, buying the McKee Street home for $58,000. Eight-thirty McKee now belonged to a football coach for now, and forever.
Hosts and neighbors
Unlike the split-level in Park Forest, the Paternos had space to spare on McKee with nine total rooms, including the basement. They could entertain.
On Saturday nights, when the Paternos had guests, they had to phone the city for permission to let others park on the street in front of their house. Nobody parked on the roads of College Heights without permission.
The famous dinner parties were for visiting dignitaries such as congressmen, donors, recruits' parents and the occasional well-known guest. Alumni Jim Meister, who helped design the latest Beaver Stadium expansion, went twice with his wife, Janet. He came after Paterno's 324th victory, against Ohio State in 2001. He also came in an earlier year, after a game he can't remember, except for the fact that Penn State had lost.
When Sue Paterno's mother was alive, she would sometimes greet the guests at the door. They would then go to the basement for pre-dinner cocktails. Meister remembers it being furnished like a family room with a bar in the corner and the room full of books.
Eventually, Joe Paterno came downstairs after that loss. He toasted his guests and drank whiskey; later, Sue served a meal that included her famous spaghetti sauce, the guests spread throughout the basement, living room and kitchen.
"He was just as gracious when they lost," Meister says. "He probably kept it inside of him. I give him credit because some of us weren't in the greatest of moods."
The guests of Paterno's house remember the home more for what it didn't have rather than what it did. He set a standard by choosing not to live up to one.
"No gilded trophies, no gold vases or anything like that," says Booker Brooks, a former assistant coach. "They weren't into ostentatious furniture or anything like that. Comfortable -- you would like to have the house. I would like to have the house."
Though Sue reportedly tutored a few players at her home, several players said it was rare for a player to visit the house. His communications with them and the public that adored him were generally on his terms, which isn't to say Paterno wasn't friendly when he had the time.
Doug Robb annually played behind Paterno's house in Sunset Park in a pickup game called the Toilet Bowl in the 1960s and 1970s. Sometimes Paterno would approach them.
Robb remembers late in his high school years, when older kids pitched in to buy a keg. They built a natural cooler in the snow so the beer would stay icy and refreshing. Paterno brought a mug outside with him and asked if he could fill it up.
"Nobody was going to take a picture of Joe having a beer at the Toilet Bowl," Robb says. "There was no modern-day, find faults 24-7."
Acting the opposite of the house, the Penn State kingdom grew and grew and grew. Soon the university would enroll 40,000 students and boast an endowment of nearly $2 billion. The progress had much to do with the owner of 830 McKee St.
Paterno aged. He spent more time working at home, especially as the first signs of football decay crept into Happy Valley at the turn of the century.
Was the end near? Paterno wanted to discuss his future with administrators in 2004, so he set up a series of meetings at his house and decided he could turn his program around. Former university president Graham Spanier told the New Yorker magazine they met at Paterno's house because it was the weekend and they wanted to give Paterno the courtesy of meeting at home.
On the weekend, important discussions took place there, like in 2001, when Mike McQueary told him on a Saturday morning he had seen something "extremely sexual" between Jerry Sandusky and a child in the Lasch Football Building showers.
After the kingdom unraveled, these meetings -- one that involved him in the Sandusky scandal and one which demonstrated his power -- would be brought up time and again.
But the unraveling wouldn't happen for a few more years. He and Sue didn't like to discuss specifics on when his ride with Penn State might end.
"I don't look far ahead," Sue told pennstateclips.com in 2009. "Who knows? Life can change in an instant."
Old State College
On Woodland Drive, the last piece of proof that this house sheltered Penn State's two most famous football coaches is a gas bill in Engle's name tacked next to the furnace in an unfinished section of the basement.
John Stevens owns the O'Horas' first house at 240 E. McCormick. His mother bought it from them in 1957. He spent his teenage years in the house then attended Penn State, once encountering Paterno at the Corner Room.
"I told him I was a high school kid when we moved up there," Stevens says. "... I'll never forget what he said: 'Take care of that house.' "
So Stevens did. He tells the lightning story to each of his tenants, too. One morning, in 1955, a bolt of lightning struck the bathroom as Paterno shaved at the sink, and a black streak still lingers behind the bookshelf in the right corner of his room.
Stevens says he looks at the residue when he brings in new tenants. Current occupant Chris Davis swears he has seen it, too, a black mark that looks like soot. He tries to show a visitor but can't find the marking. Even forces as powerful as nature lack permanence.
Cricket Eccleston Hunter lives down the street, in the O'Horas' second house. When she moved in she called Elizabeth O'Hora, who has since died, and O'Hora told her about a birch tree that stood in the front yard. It had been there forever. When it died and had to be cut down the neighbors grieved, too.
Rather than emptiness, the backyard here and of those along McCormick Avenue overlook swaths of houses that appear to extend all the way back to the mountains. Just west is Atherton, the busiest street in town. A reporter for StateCollege.com once asked Paterno what he thought of the growth on Atherton Street. "I know the old State College," he said.
Unlike the rest of the city, College Heights couldn't grow. It is landlocked, trapped by the campus, the arboretum and Atherton, and neighborhood statutes limit change to the old houses.
"The town has changed a lot," says a retired Penn State English professor who lives in College Heights and saw Paterno give his famed Aeneid heroism speech in the early 1970s. "Much more than this neighborhood."
For a long time, Paterno would take prospective Penn State football players to the Nittany Lion Inn for dinner during recruiting visits and present a slideshow of that old State College, a past so enticing and so vivid that maybe a person would think he could live in it. Photos traced back to the 1800s -- photos of the Corner Room, of wooden sidewalks along College Avenue.
"I think there were times Joe missed the old days because it was simpler," says Lou Prato, a Penn State historian and first director of the school's sports museum. "I know he missed them."
His last November
The outsiders arrived on McKee Street in vans with satellites attached, and on feet, holding flowers and signs of support. Paterno stepped out on his front porch on Nov. 9, 2011, the night he was fired.
In his final gesture to the crowd, he led a "We Are Penn State" chant. Then he turned around, walked through the glass door Sue held for him, and, except for an interview with The Washington Post in his home, didn't address the public again.
The next day, Penn State junior Nick Taro and several of his Delta Kappa Epsilon friends slipped past the media and fans and knocked on the front door. After Taro and his friends explained they were from the Penn State chapter of Paterno's old college fraternity, Sue told them to come inside and sing a fraternity song for her husband.
"He recognized it from the past," Taro says. "After we were done singing, he started telling us some old stories from when he was in college. He seemed really -- believe it or not -- he seemed happy."
Many former players and coaches returned in the next two months. Todd Blackledge, the quarterback who led Penn State to the 1982 national championship, visited in late November.
"All those years they had pretty much lived their lives as normal people, normal neighbors, and everything was difficult for them during that time," he says.
The encampment outside the house lasted for weeks, some segment of the media or straggling, devoted fans holding on until Thanksgiving, cars parked on the street, resembling the nights of those dinner parties. The Paternos now played host to unwanted guests.
In the hours leading up to his death a year ago, police barricaded the entrance to McKee Street. The neighborhood was calm and guarded, preserved from any part of the outside world that dared intrude.
In early January, the brown house, speckled with tan brick, boasting wall-length front windows, is still. Snow blankets the yard. A hedge wraps around the side that faces Sunset Park.
The path to the house is shoveled. An ornamented lion's head extends from the front door, and the doormat says "We Still Believe."
The Paterno family declined comment for this story.
For now, visitors still stop by to pay homage, occasionally leaving signs or flowers. They came out in force the day Paterno's statue at the stadium was felled, seeking comfort from the enduring symbol. Old 830 McKee radiates the simplicity of the State College and Penn State that knew little wrong until November 2011.
The neighborhood comes to life in autumn especially, when painted leaves rustle and fall from the old trees, still standing tall. That's when you can imagine how it used to be.
The kids run pass routes and throw footballs in the street, waiting for the school bus to arrive. The college students sleep in their dorm rooms three blocks up the road. They study hard and let loose on the weekends at Beaver Stadium.
One day they'll tell their children about the time a famous football coach said "Hi" to them as he passed on the sidewalk.
Paterno has been up since dawn. After breakfast at the round table, he kisses his wife goodbye and leaves to coach football, saying he can't understand why sports are such a big deal. But he continues to invest his time in football year after year after year, straining for a championship that never seems too far out of his grasp, returning to sleep in a home that never changes. At night, tucked comfortably in his refuge, he believes or at least hopes that tomorrow will stay the same, too.
First Published January 22, 2013 12:00 am