Penn State trustees get hate mail, threats after Paterno firing

Anthony P. Lubrano decries the board and the hate mail.
Anthony P. Lubrano decries the board and the hate mail. (Anthony P. Lubrano)
Posted: March 16, 2012

The phone call to Keith W. Eckel, a longtime member of Pennsylvania State University's board of trustees, was succinct. "The coach died. And you will, too," the male voice said.

The Lackawanna County farmer said he wasn't afraid and didn't report the call to police, but was saddened that someone would stoop to an anonymous threat over the board's decision to fire iconic football coach Joe Paterno in November after his onetime top assistant, Jerry Sandusky, was indicted on child-sex-abuse charges.

The phone call to Eckel is just a sampling of the pressure and vitriol some members of the board - and some high-level university administrators - have experienced as angry alumni and fans continue to vent over the firing and subsequent death of Paterno.

They have received e-mails and anonymous letters to their work and home addresses. Some letters specifically blame the trustees as having killed Paterno, who was 85 and had lung cancer.

The onslaught continues, more than a month since Paterno's death on Jan. 22. Eckel received a threatening letter as recently as March 3 with a Syracuse, N.Y., postmark.

"Hey Keith," the anonymous typed letter said. "You will have to pay people to attend your funeral, be pallbearers, etc.

"No bishop, no eulogy, no hundred thousand people. No flags flying at half staff.

"Try a pine box."

Because of the intensity of some of the communications, the board retained a professional security analyst and consulted with a retired FBI agent to determine if they posed an actual threat.

The board was told that the communications do not "cross the line of law enforcement" because they do not contain specific threats, according to Lanny J. Davis, a lawyer representing the board and university president. But Davis said the advisers noted that the communications should be taken seriously and that in at least one case, security for an employee was recommended, Davis said.

That employee received e-mails wishing him dead, said a university source.

The board is looking at options to determine the origin of e-mails from some of "the worst anonymous hate-mailers," Davis said.

Trustees interviewed said they stood firmly behind their decision to remove both Paterno and former president Graham B. Spanier, saying the men failed to do enough after becoming aware of the child sex-abuse allegations against Sandusky.

"I'm very comfortable in my own skin and I'm very comfortable that we made the right decision," said Keith Masser, a Schuylkill County potato farmer who recently was elected vice chair of the trustees board.

The trustees this week issued a statement reiterating their position, unleashing another round of backlash, including a response from the Paterno family.

"This is not fair to Joe's legacy; it is not consistent with the facts; and it does not serve the best interests of the university," the family said in a statement. "The board . . . did not conduct a thorough investigation and engaged in a rush to judgment."

Anthony P. Lubrano, a candidate for the trustees board, is irate over how Paterno was treated and has called for the ouster of the entire board.

This week, he launched a $25,000 media blitz, including a five-minute television commercial airing in the Johnstown-Altoona-State College market that celebrates the life of Paterno and blasts the trustees for their actions. His mission, he said, is to get a public apology and have Paterno named head coach emeritus.

"Joe Paterno's always believed in us, so then, why, board of trustees, did you not believe in him?" Lubrano asks in the ad.

Reached by phone, he called the hate mail and death threats to trustees "despicable."

"Whether or not you like what they've done or how they've done it, you have no right to send somebody a death threat or wish them ill," said Lubrano, a wealthy businessman and university donor from Glenmoore, Chester County.

The board, Masser said, is taking steps to put the university on the right path, including a proposed change in committees with new emphasis on areas such as risk assessment and legal matters, scheduled to be debated and voted on at the board's meeting in Hershey on Friday afternoon. Trustees also are looking at their governance structure and makeup.

"Nothing is off the table," board chairwoman Karen Peetz told staff at a faculty meeting this week.

The debate is likely to continue to intensify as more than 80 candidates compete for one of three open alumni seats on the 32-member board. Ballots go out next month.

Before the Sandusky scandal, serving on Penn State's board was a relatively low-key volunteer position. Members attended six meetings a year.

Since then, the job has become much more high-profile and can involve unexpected encounters with alumni who want to discuss Penn State issues, even at home.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, trustee Stephanie Nolan Deviney was hanging Christmas decorations. Her 7-year-old son was playing outside. Her husband also was home when the doorbell rang.

It was Lubrano, whom she had never met.

"He said, 'I just have some things I want to talk to you about. A lot of us are upset,' " Deviney recalled.

She invited him in.

Lubrano was polite, said Deviney, a lawyer who lives near Lubrano in the same town. "It was a little surprising for someone to show up at my home whom I hadn't met - the fact that he had sort of looked me up and found out where I lived," she said.

She wished in retrospect he had called her at her office, she said.

Lubrano said that he made the in-person visit because she lives less than a mile from him and that he had just hoped to set up a meeting.

"Please don't give the impression that I forced myself on her," he said. "I resent that.

"If she didn't want me there at all - I would say, 'Anthony, I'm really not comfortable with you being here.' I never would have said, 'Come on into my kitchen and meet my son and husband.' "

Other interactions have clearly crossed the line and astonished the trustees, such as the anonymous letters and call to Eckel.

"I'm 65. I've been in business all my life. I'm a farmer. I don't feel threatened, but I'm disappointed that people would feel like that," said Eckel, who has been on the board since 2001. "I honestly believe that I and the other trustees did what we believed to be in the best interest of the university."

Eckel reported the phone call to the trustees' office and turned over the first letter he received to university counsel. He said he planned to turn over the most recent letter at the meeting this week.

"It's unfortunate that people are that emotional. I understand the strong contributions the coach has made," Eckel said of Paterno. "Certainly, this isn't the way he would have encouraged anybody to conduct themselves."

Deviney also received hateful e-mails.

"You and your fellow incompetent BOT brethren and sisters are 100% responsible for his death," said one e-mail from a 1986 graduate.

"Think about that when you kiss your 7 year old good night!"

Deviney said the response had "been terrible . . . hurtful."

But she isn't reconsidering.

"I would not change the decision that I've made, even knowing the backlash I've gotten from it," she said.

Trustees said they have received positive remarks, too.

"A lot of my people are saying, 'Hang in there,' " Masser said. " 'Don't let it get you down.' "

Contact Susan Snyder

at 215-854-4693 or, or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq.

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