Giving 'Em Fitz: Even in death, Paterno plays it close to the chest

Posted: January 25, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Something tells me Joe Paterno had a hand in his funeral plans.

The late Penn State coach, whose penchant for secrecy - especially when that secret was being kept from the media - ran as deep as his passion for excellence, is expected to be interred Wednesday.

But the locale of the Penn State legend's final resting place was omitted from the meticulous three-day itinerary his family and the university worked out to honor him. In fact, that itinerary details the route of a funeral motorcade at 3 p.m. Wednesday, after a private funeral service on campus, but makes no mention of a cemetery. Burial was described as private.

And on Tuesday, a day when thousands filed relentlessly past Paterno's closed wooden casket in a campus chapel, that question clung to the proceedings like the gloom, as deep a mystery as his salary used to be.

Would Paterno join his brother at a local cemetery? Had he opted to be near his parents in New York? Did he choose some out-of-the-way place? Or would it be at some yet-to-be-conceived monument on Penn State's campus?

Most people here had no clue. And those who knew wouldn't say.

"I'd like to help you," said one Paterno friend, "but I really can't."

Jeff Nelson, a university spokesman, said the Paterno family preferred to keep the location private. Others who might know - the State College funeral home handling the arrangements, cemetery employees, police officers, and family friends - all felt the same way.

To a large extent, the family's silence was understandable. After all, members of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, known for their antigay beliefs, have threatened to protest.

And if I thought those Kansas-based funeral defilers, or clamoring cameramen, or satellite trucks might disrupt my loved one's arrival at the final resting place, I'd be concealing the details, too.

After a daylong investigation, I apparently was the only person in Centre County doing any digging on the question of where Paterno would be buried.

My inquiries included calls to the Koch Funeral Home, which is handling the arrangements, the local state police barracks, and many others.

I traveled to as many local graveyards as I could find. First stop was the Centre County Memorial Park.

I ruled that one out quickly since I was fairly certain the old coach wouldn't have wanted to spend eternity staring at a mall and a car dealership.

But I needed to be sure. After all, Paterno's younger brother, George, as noteworthy an iconoclast as JoePa was a conformist, was buried there in 2002.

Even for a cemetery, the absence of life there was astounding. The office was closed. I saw no fresh graves. No workers digging. No workers at all, in fact.

There were, however, two pickup trucks parked behind a maintenance shed. Then again, there are pickup trucks parked everywhere in Centre County, where those vehicles are more numerous than Penn State trustees.

Further investigation revealed a quaint cemetery in Boalsburg, not far from Duffy's, the old country inn where Paterno dined often as a young Rip Engle assistant.

I never did find the cemetery.

After an Internet search, I learned that in nearby Bellefonte, the Centre County seat, Union Cemetery was home to several Pennsylvania governors and some Civil War generals. Surely here was a place worthy of college football's winningest coach.

Despite the cemetery website's claims, though, it seemed to me that no noteworthy general or politician would be caught dead there.

Untended grass. Headstones askew. A rusty fence.

Maybe they were Confederate generals.

Next came Pine Hall Lutheran Cemetery. I went there even though I found it hard to believe a man taught by nuns and Jesuits in the 1930s and 1940s would agree to be buried alongside Protestants.

There was, however, a Waffle House on the corner, so I stopped in. I must have overdone it on the Texas Cheeseburger Waffles because it briefly seemed I might soon require a spot opposite one of the dead Lutherans.

This place, too, looked as if no one had been buried there since the coach got to town.

Running out of options, I found a cemetery opposite the handsome Centre Hills Country Club and was momentarily encouraged.

But the thought of erudite, Ivy League-educated Joe Paterno choosing to be laid to rest in a place called Slab Cabin Cemetery quickly disabused me of that notion.

Someone suggested that maybe Penn State was planning to build some sort of monument to the coach on campus and bury him there.

Frankly, that sounded a little over the top for a coach who lived so modestly.

So, eventually, exhausted and muddy, but quite certain where I didn't want to end up, I ended the search.

Somewhere, after his latest victory, No. 410, I believe, Joe Paterno was chuckling with delight.


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

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