How do we measure the value of a life? For some of us it’s by the wealth and fame amassed, for others it’s by the good works done.
Last weekend we lost an icon. Even those who are not sports enthusiasts have come to know the name Joe Paterno, but I am not sure they have come to know the man and the value of his life. Born in Brooklyn in 1926 to a good Catholic family, he excelled in sports and was intelligent, attending Brown University. When he graduated, his parents wanted him to go on to law school, but he followed his former coach to Penn State to be his assistant. There his life would forever change. For the next 61 years Paterno devoted his life to the university he came to know and love.
The events that unfolded this past fall, the alleged sexual molestation of young boys by a former Penn State football coach on Paterno’s staff, sent shock waves throughout the country. The press lambasted Paterno for a crime he did not commit. They judged him guilty by association, and all the naysayers became Monday morning quarterbacks, offering advice about what he should have and could have done. Few came to his defense. Few spoke about his life’s work.
Tragically, this man who had done so much for so many students’ lives over the last six decades was cast aside by the university he worked so tirelessly to help build. He accepted his fate with respect and dignity because he knew the institution he helped lead was more important than one person.
Penn State alumni and students were devastated by the events. They, too, became victims by association for a crime they had no part in. They were angry and upset that their beloved head coach was being maliciously attacked by the press and that public sentiment was crucifying him. Some students rioted when the 85-year-old was fired by telephone for a crime he did not commit.
And now he has passed on. The official diagnosis was lung cancer, which had been found just two months before, but those of us who have grown up with him suspect that he died of a broken heart.
As you might surmise, I am a Penn State graduate. My P.S.U. family is in mourning. As the head coach of the football program, Paterno was in reality the face of the university — a father figure and our leader. During an exemplary career as a coach, he played by the rules and encouraged players to put education first. He and his wife, Sue, lived in the same modest house they raised their family in. They donated millions to the Pattee Library on campus. His core values were ours, and we respected and valued his dedication.
It was ironic over the weekend how anyone who is anyone in the sports world was touting his virtues. Where were all these notables in the fall? Paterno not only did not commit any crime, he, too, was a victim. A member of his staff took advantage of his own power and position and allegedly victimized young boys (and I use that word “allegedly” not because I don’t believe crimes were committed but because I graduated with a degree in journalism and live in a country where you are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law).
My dad is almost Paterno’s age. He also grew up Catholic in Brooklyn in the 1930s. Topics dealing with our bodies, sex, and any deviant behavior were never discussed; even now those subjects are not something my dad is comfortable with. I am not condoning anyone’s actions. Paterno realized that he should have done more to follow up, but I can understand how he had a hard time wrapping his head around the events that were brought to his attention. He did not try to cover up what had taken place; he called his boss to report it. JoePa would never do anything to intentionally hurt a child. He devoted all of his adult life to helping young adults.
I wasn’t born a Nittany Lion (the name comes from nearby Nittany Mountain). I did not grow up in Pennsylvania. But as a 17-year-old I arrived on campus in the fall of 1978, and I spent four of the most magical years of my life there. I got a terrific education, and, more important, I grew up.
I met wonderful people. People in central Pennsylvania are grounded. They work hard and are happy with the things their hard work affords them. They don’t look at what others have, jealously searching for more. It’s no wonder that many of my lifelong friends are those I met at Penn State. Almost every year since I graduated I go back to my alma mater for homecoming. When I drive onto the University Park campus, a calm comes over me. I am home.
I believe Joe Paterno felt the same way about State College, so much so that what was supposed to be a temporary move ended up becoming home for the rest of his life. Over the years he had many lucrative offers to coach in the pros, but he turned them all down. His heart was in Penn State.
In the 30 years since I graduated and moved back to New York, I have had the chance to travel quite frequently. It pretty much never fails that during one of these trips I will strike up a conversation at an airport or a convention and meet a fellow Penn State graduate. The university has the largest alumni association in the world. What makes being a Penn Stater different is that immediately there is a bond. I have many friends who went to other big universities with rah-rah athletic programs. When they hear my college stories and meet my P.S.U. friends, they tell me how their college years were not like mine. They enjoyed college and made friends, but when they left they moved on with life.
Penn Staters don’t want to move on. We leave the campus to build careers, marry, and have families, but we always come back. Yes, football was huge there; it was the rallying event each fall weekend that brought so many groups together. But there was so much more to the place.
Philanthropy and charity were encouraged. My freshman year I danced in a 48-hour dance marathon to raise money for the Hershey Children’s Cancer Hospital, then still in its early stages. Now the largest yearly collegiate fund-raiser in the world, it was just one of many such events I participated in. To this day my friends here applaud my fund-raising efforts and ability to host charity functions.
That is the face of a Penn Stater. In the aftermath of the awful headlines this fall, we didn’t just pray for the victims and their families, we began fund-raising for organizations associated with the prevention of child abuse.
We now grieve for those victims of the alleged crimes, their families, and our coach. We know down deep in our hearts that Penn State will be stronger because of this. Though the naysayers insist that the events will define Coach Paterno and Penn State, we know better. The university is not the buildings or the athletic fields or the football team. Penn State is made up of the hearts and souls of its students and alumni, and we are a strong force.
Mary A. Lownes, Penn State class of '82, lives in Amagansett.