Paterno statue a lightning rod

A painting of the Paternos hangs in the Pattee and Paterno Library. Sue Paterno is also a legend at the school.
A painting of the Paternos hangs in the Pattee and Paterno Library. Sue Paterno is also a legend at the school. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff)
Posted: July 21, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Liz Grove's tears splashed onto the concrete a few feet from the bronze statue of her hero, Joe Paterno.

She had held herself together through a week of blame and accusation against the coach, but broke down when a small plane appeared overhead trailing a banner that warned, "Take the statue down or we will."

"You really think this is helping the victims?" the 50-year-old shouted. Then she said quietly, "People, outside people, don't realize what they're doing to us. It's really upsetting."

And it's about to become more so as Penn State officials grapple with wrenching decisions about whether, when, and how to disassociate themselves from the legacy of their legendary former football coach, whose 409 victories are the most among major colleges.

The larger-than-life statue of Paterno, who died in January, has become a flashpoint for seething emotions following last week's release of a scathing report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh. It provided documentation of Paterno's covering up the sexual abuse of children by his former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, who now awaits sentencing likely to keep him in jail the rest of his life.

University officials say they'll decide within a week whether to remove the statue and how to deal with other Paterno honors on campus, foremost the Pattee and Paterno Library, which received millions of dollars in donations from Paterno and his wife, Sue.

"We have to look at all these things in relation to the various aspects of Coach Paterno's time here," university president Rodney Erickson said in an interview this week.

Erickson exempted himself from deciding the fate of the popular Peachy Paterno ice cream, dished out at the university-run Creamery. "In the case of ice cream flavors, the president and the board typically don't get involved," he said.

The judgments hold enormous complications and ramifications, with the potential to inflame alumni - plenty of whom continue to believe in Paterno's essential goodness - and cost the school millions in donations. Two newly elected trustees ran on platforms advocating that the university apologize for firing Paterno after Sandusky was indicted. One new trustee, Anthony Lubrano, is among the university's largest donors, having pledged $2.5 million to build the school's baseball park.

"It is a very, very difficult question they are going to have to weigh," said Laura Otten, director of the Nonprofit Center in the La Salle University School of Business. "For nonprofits, one of the most valued things they have is their reputation."

Other institutions have already acted.

This week Paterno's alma mater, Brown University, removed his name from its annual award to the outstanding male freshman athlete. Paterno's standing in the Brown Athletic Hall of Fame is under review. And Nike, which outfits Penn State athletic teams, scrubbed the coach's name from the Joe Paterno Child Development Center at its Oregon headquarters.

The Penn State student group that manages the football weekend tent city long known as "Paternoville" changed the name to "Nittanyville."

In more than 30 interviews on and around the Penn State campus this week, most said they wanted the statue and other references to Paterno to stay. Several people added, though, that the coach did not do enough to stop the abuse of which Sandusky was convicted.

People came by the score to visit the seven-foot, 900-pound statue outside Beaver Stadium that depicts Paterno sprinting ahead of his players, his index finger raised, the universal sign for "We're No. 1."

"He's dead, and he hasn't got the chance to say anything in his defense," said Timothy Reynolds, who with his friend Linda Kreitz roared up on Harley motorcycles. "Here are these people ready to cut the legs out from under him after all he did for this university."

Two Wisconsin high school teachers brought their 8-year-old son to see the statue. A retired couple from Oregon made their visit a mandatory vacation stop. Some worried that the statue would be vandalized or stolen, and wanted it moved to a safer location.

"If they don't, somebody probably will destroy it," said Bob Herr, 74, of Oregon City, who grew up near here.

As Herr stood admiring the statue, a man in a passing car shouted, "Pedophile enablers!"

People looked up, but didn't respond.

Paul Helm, one of the Wisconsin teachers, said he thought the backlash against Paterno was not just overblown but insane - that Sandusky was responsible for his own actions.

"We're Wisconsin fans that back Penn State," Helm said after taking his son's photo with the statue.

One prominent voice favoring the statue's removal is another famed coach, Bobby Bowden, who is second to Paterno in career victories, most won at Florida State. "Every time they show the statue on TV, people won't remember the good years," Bowden told the Chicago Tribune. "They're only going to remember the things with Sandusky."

The problem at Penn State isn't Paterno, said Gene Grabowski, vice president of Levick Strategic Communications in Washington, who frequently advises colleges on public relations. The problem is that Paterno's bosses allowed him to become all-powerful - and that power was misused.

"The university needs to do something meaningful, that demonstrates institutional commitment to making a true sacrifice, in order to start getting this issue behind them," Grabowski said.

That includes considering a unilateral suspension of the football program, a willful surrender of not just millions of TV viewers but millions of dollars.

Some say it's impossible to judge Paterno's ultimate guilt or innocence. The Freeh report, while detailed and damning, is not a legal finding. Paterno was never charged with a crime, and never had the chance to defend himself in a court or university proceeding.

The decisions of other schools, though, offer a rough guide.

Villanova University pulled the name of a millionaire donor off its basketball arena - formerly the John Eleuthère du Pont Pavilion - after the scion of the influential family shot and killed Olympic wrestler David Schultz in 1996.

In 2010, Radford University in Virginia stripped the name of the musician John Powell from an arts building after it discovered he had been a white supremacist. Indiana University learned that its board president in the 1930s had been an active segregationist, but left unchanged the name of the Ora L. Wildermuth Intramural Center.

Penn State's situation is complicated by the fact that in cases such as the library, the honorific was bestowed on both Paterno and his wife, herself a legend at the school. Their legacy includes the Joe and Sue Paterno Scholarship Fund, and the Suzanne Pohland Paterno Catholic Student Faith Center.

"This is so wholly unprecedented," said Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of Sport Management at Drexel University and a former athletic director at two colleges. "The myth, the legend, the icon, the culture are so wrapped up together at Penn State."

On one hand, she said, there's a strong argument that an honor given to someone later found to have acted dishonorably should be rescinded. On the other hand, doing so may destroy the personal, emotional investment of legions of alumni, staff and students.

"In dismantling all of that, what is left in the aftermath?" Staurowsky said. "Maybe it's a cleansing of the soul that needs to happen. But will it provide the relief that the people requesting this are asking for?"

Near the columned entrance of the Pattee and Paterno Library is a color portrait of its benefactors Joe and Sue Paterno.

The couple led the fund-raising effort that raised millions beyond their own donations. The library they helped create is the academic heart of Penn State, its shelves filled with an astounding 31 miles of books. The Paterno Family Humanities Reading Room is on the second floor.

Now, as controversy swirls, some visitors come not to study but to take photos, and through that to make some connection to the man.

"All the blame is being put on him. It was not all his fault," said front-desk assistant Maria Zavala, 24, a student. People who visit "have a lot of respect for him, regardless of what is happening."

Across campus at the Berkey Creamery, run by the school's College of Agricultural Sciences, the manager says one decision has been made: Peachy Paterno is staying.

"There's not a single person on this Earth that has a life free of any flaw, so we've decided to continue selling this ice cream," said manager Thomas Palchak. "We look at his entire life, his character, his integrity and unbounding love for Penn State."

The Creamery stopped serving its Sandusky Blitz - a mix of bananas, chocolate-covered peanuts, and caramel - immediately after the former coach's arrest.

The Peachy Paterno flavor has always been a top-five seller, but in recent months it's been selling out, demand outstripping the Creamery's production capabilities. Palchak thinks buying the ice cream has become a way for people to honor Paterno.

"They're powerless to do a lot of big things," Palchak said, "but they connect to him with that."

People have lots of ideas for the statue.

The comedian Albert Brooks suggested turning the head so Paterno will forever "look the other way." The syndicated newspaper columnist Eugene Robinson advised adding an additional bronze figure - of a weeping boy. Some say the statue should stand as a reminder of all that went wrong.

"We mustn't try to erase inconvenient truths - whether by sweeping allegations under the rug or tearing down a statue," said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which promotes academic freedom and accountability at colleges. "Why not let the Paterno statue be the foundation of discussion - the kind of robust discussion we often don't see on campus?"

This week, Stephanie Duross, a 20-year-old theater major from Philadelphia, sat near the statue, vigorously scribbling a note to Paterno.

"Everyone is so quick to judge a man defenseless in death, but what I ask them is this: Could they have done better?" Duross wrote in the note she left by the statue. "Could they have been certain to make the right choice when right is a relative term? The facts are gone with you now, Joe."


Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

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