Giving 'Em Fitz: Valley may be happy again one day, not soon

The hearse carrying the body of Joe Paterno passes Beaver Stadium. Happy Valley has been forever altered by the coach's tragic fall and death.
The hearse carrying the body of Joe Paterno passes Beaver Stadium. Happy Valley has been forever altered by the coach's tragic fall and death. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 26, 2012

"Don't let it be forgot,

"That once there was a spot,

"For one brief shining moment,

"That was known as Camelot."

- Camelot, by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - At the moment Joe Paterno's polished wood casket disappeared into the frosty earth at Pine Hall Cemetery on Wednesday, the legend of Happy Valley vanished, too.

Like the bespectacled football coach who'd shaped it, the Happy Valley mythology was mortally wounded by the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Born as a metaphor for the Penn State Paterno envisioned, the concept grew into a powerful and enduring symbol in the spectacular growth of the university and its football program.

For generations of Penn Staters, the Avalonian image of a remote mountain valley ruled beneficently by Paterno, its incorruptible Arthur, had remarkable appeal - and, until November - validity.

Just as Paterno's ethos set him apart from other football coaches, "Happy Valley" suggested this was not just another university.

Penn State was different. Penn State was special. Come see for yourself.

And a surprising number of those who did developed an unusually strong attachment to what, for them, was more magic kingdom than alma mater.

"We Are . . .," they proclaim often, perhaps a little too often for outsiders, ". . . Penn State!"

If the football players who signed letters of intent to play for Paterno were initially skeptical about all the Happy Valley talk, they shed it quickly and became convinced that in coming here they'd actually slipped through a crack in the natural universe.

"To the kids that came to school here, this was an out-of-the-way Disneyland," said Gary Grey, a former Penn State linebacker.

But that place is gone. Whatever vestiges survived the autumn's child sex-abuse scandal evaporated with Paterno's January passing.

Curiously, his death and the three days of mourning that will conclude with Thursday's Bryce Jordan Center memorial service provided Penn State with a brief cushion against the new reality.

This week felt good for Penn Staters. It helped them remember the late coach's essential goodness and forget about the pain that surely lies ahead:

The multiple investigations into the horrific Sandusky revelations and the university's questionable reaction to them. The ongoing financial and spiritual crises. The alumni civil war Paterno's firing provoked.

But come Friday morning, when all the players who returned for the funeral have departed and the flower mountain at Paterno's Beaver Stadium statue has wilted, the unpleasantness will return:

This school, this University of Happy Valley, has been profoundly and forever altered by the old king's tragic fall and death.

Happy Valley doesn't exist anymore.

And before a new myth can be created, there are several questions that need to be answered:

What will Penn State become without the overwhelming presence of Paterno, a man so aflame with a classical idealism that he single-handedly imparted it to an entire university?

How does his replacement, Bill O'Brien, sell a repackaged Penn State to wary football recruits?

How does president Rodney Erickson reassure skeptical donors?

How is an institution's faith in itself restored?

How do you fit the happiness back into an emotionally shrunken valley?

Penn State has to decide how to move forward and how to best define itself.

Maybe the concern for Sandusky's alleged victims, which, though nearly obscured by the fuss over Paterno's firing that has arisen here, indicates a new Penn State will be built around atonement.

Or maybe it will rise reborn from the ashes. If Happy Valley won't fly anymore, perhaps the image of a phoenix will.

Let's face it, Happy Valley had a good run, a half-century in which Penn State became the beau ideal of football programs, and, in many ways, of college life in general.

Other than Paterno himself, in fact, it might have been the image outsiders most closely associated with the university. As far as iconic advertising symbols go, it's right up there with the Green Giant or the Friendly Skies.

But the ugliness of the world finally invaded Penn State's retreat.

There wasn't much left standing in the aftermath.

Just before Paterno's burial Wednesday, for the first time in this gloomy week, the sun came out, only to duck behind clouds again a short while later.

As hard as it might be for some here to believe, the sun will return to this valley.

And one day, it might even be happy again.


Giving 'Em Fitz:

Public Memorial Service

Bryce Jordan Center, Thursday at 2 p.m. TV: Big Ten Network; CW Philly 57; PCN


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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