On Penn State's main campus, mixed reactions, but concern, over PSU's role in Sandusky case

A security guard stands watch over the Joe Paterno statue on Penn States campus. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
A security guard stands watch over the Joe Paterno statue on Penn States campus. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 14, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Old Main, the majestic administration building at Pennsylvania State University, looked out Thursday morning over the serene main campus of ancient elms and green lawns.

There was no hint that the findings of an independent investigation were about to explode, confirming what many here had suspected but didn't want to believe. That the top administrators at the school, dubbed - without irony - Happy Valley, had deliberately and consistently shielded a child sexual predator.

And as the day progressed, the mood on campus focused more on the joy of a gorgeous summer day than the dirty secrets that had been hidden for so long. When asked directly about the report, most people said they had not read it yet and did not know enough to offer an informed opinion, but -

That but was overwhelmingly reserved for the late Joe Paterno, the beloved football coach who reigned for four decades over not only the school's athletics, but also its soul.

No matter what the report says about Paterno's part in covering up Jerry Sandusky's crimes against children, those who love him at Penn State - and they are too many to be counted - are still struggling, seeking some way to defend his honor.

"Most people are going to have a knee-jerk reaction," said Maddy Pryor, 21, a senior studying public relations. "But it takes time to read 267 pages."

The more she read, the heavier her sighs grew. She hoped that Paterno would be exonerated. "Of course I do," she said. "I don't know how you can't."

Just before 9 a.m., when the report was released, the student center, known as the HUB, had been deserted. A student, slumped in an armchair, dozed in front of the large-screen TV projecting CNN as Soledad O'Brien said that the report's findings would be announced momentarily.

A few reporters, a student blogger, a couple of undergraduates, and an alumnus showed up to catch the coverage. Then suddenly, the screen went blank. Within minutes, the channel had been switched to PCN and a discussion about the state budget.

Several students, upset, tried to find out why the station was changed but were told the man who knew was in a meeting.

Later, the student blogger posted a report online saying he was the one who had requested that the station be changed because he wanted to be sure that Freeh's 10 a.m. news conference was aired and knew PCN would cover it.

Toward noon, the campus had come alive with thousands of alumni attending the annual four-day arts festival, flooding hotels and restaurants, strolling the shady paths, and visiting favorite haunts.

"I had the highest regard for Paterno," said Dave Venerus, 49, who earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Penn State in 1989. "He was everything you wanted a coach to be. He tried to make sure his athletes were good students and good citizens."

Venerus had flown in from Chicago in part to persuade his son, Dylan, 17, to apply to the school in the fall. They posed with the Paterno statue behind the football stadium. On a stone wall, Paterno's copper-lettered quote shone in the sun, "They ask me what I'd like written about me when I'm gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach."

From the little he'd heard, Venerus said, the report seemed to confirm his worst fears. "He was a very powerful guy. Maybe too powerful, and maybe that kind of got to him."

A professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Venerus said, "This place is not a great university because of its football team, but the football team allowed it to become a great university."

Still, the idea that the administration was trying to protect its cash cow is difficult for many to accept.

"Even if they had an inkling, we believe they had no idea of the scope of the problem," said Iris Goodman, who earned her master's in journalism from Penn State in 1955 and met her husband, Al, here when she was a freshman.

"We felt very close to Joe," said Al, who met Paterno only once. "His personality, his morals. We really loved the man."

"I think they all should have done more," Iris said. "Not just him. I think the blame is shared."

Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a group outspoken in its condemnation of the university's board of trustees, said that the Freeh report left no room for doubt about the leadership's culpability.

"For there to be a new day at Penn State, the board of trustees must resign immediately," spokeswoman Maribeth Roman Schmidt said in an e-mail.

Derek Jones, executive director of Atelier Art Storage L.L.C. in Philadelphia and a 2005 graduate of Penn State's Smeal College of Business, said he was shocked at how long school officials had known about Sandusky's crimes and done nothing to limit his predatory reach.

"That's kind of hard to stomach, that people would know something like that and not report it," Jones said.

Then again, he noted, the child- abuse scandal in the Catholic Church showed that institutional failure is not unique to Penn State.

"I think it's what our American culture has turned into," Jones said. "People are more worried about their reputation than the person next to them. The whole culture has to change."

Lou Pacchioli, the athletic director at William Tennent High School in Warminster and father of four Penn State graduates, said he had faced a similar situation but handled it quite differently.

When he arrived at the high school 14 years ago, Pacchioli said, "My first job was to fire all the wrestling coaches because we had a national disgrace with one of the boys sexually abused."

After the incident, he helped develop a disclosure policy. "I tell my coaches I want to know everything. The smallest thing, you let me know."

He worries that the university's troubles are far from over. "I just feel the civil suits against everybody are really going to fly now."

Robert Jones of East Norriton, who was on campus helping his girlfriend, a fiber artist who had a booth in the art show, said he understood how people want to believe the best about Paterno. "But there's wanting to believe and then there's the facts."

Jones, 45, who did not attend Penn State, said any parent should be outraged at the flimsy excuses the administration has offered.

"How would you react if the kids being molested were your children?" he asked. "Would you be fine with them not going to the police?"

Leslie Laninger and her husband, a 1982 alumnus, spent the afternoon parked under a tree, their lawn chairs and picnic food spread on a quilt, as they prepared to enjoy the free afternoon concerts.

Hearing the news of the report on the radio, Laninger said, "I just was sick. ... This just comes from making the football program a god. It was the money. It was the money. They were afraid of losing the money - and they should have been."

There was no justification, she said, for not putting the children's welfare first.

The onus, however, lies with the individuals who were in charge, she said, and it would be wrong to allow their poor judgment and even crimes to tarnish the university's stellar reputation.

The Laningers' older son graduated from Penn State in May with a degree in architectural engineering and already has a job in his field. Their other son is a sophomore at the university.

"I want it understood," Leslie said. "This is a fine institution of learning. Penn State is my son. Penn State is my husband. Penn State is my father, who just attended his 50th reunion. This crime," she said, "is not Penn State."

Behind her, a student guide was walking backward, leading a campus tour for prospective applicants and their parents. As the entourage crossed in front of Old Main, the guide could be heard extolling the school's virtues, and the loyalty of its alumni.

"It's said that once a Penn Stater, always a Penn Stater."

Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Mike Jensen contributed to this article.

We invite you to comment on this story at www.philly.com/psucomments. Comments will be moderated.

comments powered by Disqus