Waiting to be Penn State proud again

On a State College bookstore mural, someone gave Joe Paterno a halo.
On a State College bookstore mural, someone gave Joe Paterno a halo. (GENE J. PUSKAR / Associated Press)
Posted: January 29, 2012

Who has the stomach for a scoop of Peachy Paterno now?

That line was part of a Nov. 13 Inquirer commentary piece I wrote at the urging of my editors.

They wanted my perspective as a Penn State alum (Class of '82) to the stunning disclosure that Joe Paterno's longtime trusted defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, allegedly had been sexually abusing young boys for years. What had turned me off to JoePa - whose life-size cutout had long occupied a prominent place in my house - was that he had alerted his superiors, but not police, when he learned of at least one of the purported attacks.

And so, in my fury in those early days after the Sandusky bombshell, I had railed against school administrators, Paterno, and students who rioted over his Nov. 9 firing rather than over what had happened to what we now know are at least 10 victims of a man's alleged deviant ways. And I had called for The Creamery on campus to drop Peachy Paterno from its ice cream offerings.

I would hear from nearly 100 readers - mostly alum. About half were repulsed by what I had written, especially about my disparaging Coach Paterno. One caller had urged me to "drop dead you b----."

In what is no doubt a disappointment to him, I'm still here. Again, I'm writing at the behest of my editors. They wondered whether time and Paterno's valiant yet shockingly short lost battle with lung cancer last weekend had softened my feelings for him and the school that helped prepare me for a career that endures nearly 30 years after I collected my diploma on the same field where JoePa ruled for 46 seasons.

Forgiveness is a long, complicated process involving dozens of steps forward and many in the opposite direction.

Concerning Penn State, my effort at forgiveness has been tripped up by a number of things. Most recently, it was the behavior of alumni who turned out at town hall-style meetings earlier this month in King of Prussia, Pittsburgh, and New York City to hear Penn State's new president, Rodney Erickson, address the school's bungling of the Sandusky disgrace.

Once again I was disappointed to see the Nittany faithful more incensed over Paterno's firing than over the university's misguided agenda of protecting image over the helpless.

We will never know for sure whether a desire to protect his beloved school's reputation is why Paterno never went to police with what he learned from former player and assistant coach Mike McQueary - that McQueary had come upon Sandusky allegedly assaulting a boy in the football complex's showers in 2002.

What we know is that Paterno - the legend, mentor, academic, and philanthropist - had managed to live most of his life having "never heard of . . . rape and a man," as he told the Washington Post earlier this month.

If true, that is a troubling knowledge gap for a man whose job was dedicated to youths and their development.

Along with being a business writer at The Inquirer, I am an officer in our union, responsible for looking out for my members on the job. Sometimes, that means sensitively, yet firmly, letting them know when the time has come to retire.

If only university administrators had had the courage to take the steps to get Paterno to leave when he should have - long before his incomparable run would be tainted. It could have been a departure on the coach's terms - dignified and filled with justified celebration and gratitude over his monumental athletic and academic contributions to a university that wasn't just JoePa's employer, but part of his soul.

Instead, it was an exit forced on Paterno late at night over the phone as he and his wife, Sue, were preparing to go to bed.

"In the best interests of the university, you are terminated," John Surma, then-vice chairman of the board of trustees, told Paterno, according to his interview with the Washington Post a little more than a week before his death.

Now the board of trustees plans to hold some sort of event to honor Paterno's legacy and contributions. They are hardly the group to do so.

Don't get me wrong. I have not retrieved the JoePa cutout from a cobweb-filled corner in my basement where I stashed it in disgust after the Sandusky mess broke and Paterno's legally defensible but woefully insufficient steps to report what he knew became public.

Nor do I think the halo recently painted over Paterno's likeness on a campus mural is appropriate.

He was just a human being, flawed like all of us. What the tireless advocate for excellence on and off the gridiron deserves is to rest in peace.

For the Penn State family that lives on, none of us should think about resting. Not until victims of this revolting chapter in our school's history get the care they need, and the myriad ongoing investigations uncover the truths that still elude us.

When all those responsible for the damage are identified and made to answer for it, when processes and procedures that allowed such a scandal to bloom unchecked in Happy Valley are fixed, only then might my alma mater become a source of pride for me again.

Forgiveness takes time.

Chat live with Diane Mastrull at 1 p.m. Monday at www.philly.com

Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or @mastrud on Twitter.

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