But Paterno didn't belong to them in life, and doesn't belong to them in death. His reputation is not subject to the sometimes- whispered, sometimes-thundering accusations of moral trespass. His life won't be summed up, either, by the legal experts, members of my own profession who hover like hungry carrion over the bodies of those who've been wounded by innuendo and legal posturing.
Paterno transcends all of that. The people who knew him ignored the public campaign to blame him for someone else's alleged brutality. His players - current and former - felt as if an organ had been removed from their bodies when the Penn State trustees fired the coach late one November evening. And it had been, because JoePa was the heart of Happy Valley.
The students - current and former - also rebelled at the media's depiction of a (take your pick) doddering old fool who let criminals run roughshod on campus or a venal old man who didn't care if they did. And when they raised their voices in protest at rallies and alumni meetings, the press came back and ridiculed them for missing the "bigger picture." As if you couldn't feel sorry for this man and recognize his greatness while at the same time sympathizing with victims of sexual abuse.
Most egregious to me were the alumni who seemed to resent the role that football had played at their alma mater, and used this opportunity to attack Paterno as a belated bit of payback. Some wrote letters to the editor dripping with venom. Some wrote me emails that, if they'd been letters, would have corroded my fingers with acid. And all of them presumed guilt.
Paterno belongs to none of them. He is bigger than their political correctness, their willingness to judge before proper judgment has been rendered, their desire to tear an icon from a pedestal he never asked for but fully deserved. He's bigger than the teachers and trustees who worried about how this story played in the big cities where perception often carries more weight than the truth, and for whom football is just a way to pay for "things that really count." Like libraries. And scholarships.
Ironically, that's where Paterno belongs. He will be in every classics seminar that talks about honor and obligation. He will reside in the pages of every book, bought with his donations, that coaxes an athlete to read a little more. He will be in the mind of every Penn Stater who understands that winning is a process, not a destination. And he will be in every stone of every building erected with money donated by those who loved him, and what he stood for.
Right now, it's hard to gauge the true measure of the man who personified Penn State for more than five decades. Some will be too kind and want to forget that he made mistakes, not the least of which was failing to believe that there was evil in the world, and on his campus. Others will be too unforgiving, and never allow his name to be spoken without also mentioning Jerry Sandusky's.
The fairest way to remember Paterno, and the one that will take some time, is to understand that lives are not defined by singular acts. Hitler could never be redeemed even if he'd saved the life of a child. John F. Kennedy is not worthless just because he cheated on his wife. These isolated snapshots of events do not determine how history - and God - will judge us.
That's why, when we allow the sorrow and anger to dissipate somewhat, I know that Joseph Vincent Paterno will be remembered for all the good that he brought into this world, and forgiven for whatever sins he may have committed.
It reminds me of these lines from Ralph Emerson, invoking the Lord:
I cause from every creature
His proper good to flow
As much as he is and doeth
So much shall he bestow
A fitting epitaph, don't you think?
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer. Email email@example.com