The weather suited the mission. Without any visible landscape to distract me, I was in a cocoon of private thoughts. Chief among them: Why am I doing this? That question echoed in my mind for hours and hundreds of miles, until the answer took on a musical paraphrase of Paul Simon's "Graceland": "For reasons I cannot explain, some part of me wants to see JoePa, JoePa."
The simple truth was I wanted to see the statue before it was removed, which it was suddenly by workmen early last Sunday morning, six months to the day that Paterno died of cancer at the age of 85. I wanted to see the statue through the window of grief and adoration that opened shortly after the coach had been fired over his role in the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal. That window seemed to have slammed shut two weeks ago with the appearance of an airplane over the campus towing a message as a dorsal fin in the water: "Take down the statue or we will."
I also visited to stand before a symbol of a united State of Pennsylvania. There are very few men - name one other than Paterno - whose lives represent the achievements celebrated by the entire state, rather than a city or region. Paterno was the pope of Pennsylvania. Venerated, appreciated, and symbolic of a larger institution that was recognized for - what's the word? - goodness. Until the staggering betrayal revealed in the last months of his life and the permanent stain on his legacy, Joe Paterno represented an uncommon goodness that was the pride of Pennsylvania.
Now that was gone. And I knew that as I drove past fog-shrouded Harrisburg, crossed the Susquehanna, and then paralleled the winding course of the Juniata River northwest to Lewistown, where the fog finally broke, and over the snowy mountain roads to Penn State on a bleak Monday morning.
At a Dunkin' Donuts I picked up a copy of the daily student newspaper, the Collegian. On the cover was a full-page photo of a 23-year-old Joe Paterno, newly arrived as an assistant football coach at Penn State, not much older than his players. More than 50 years later, that image of the coach is what the editors wanted students to have as their mind's eye memory of Joe Paterno in life.
At the statue, people stood silently in small groups or by themselves. I saw a mother crouched behind two young children, whispering about the man who was the statue. Someone - a student, probably - had draped an American flag around the bronze shoulders, along with a blue-and-white knit Penn State scarf.
I laid the "Lion at Rest" edition of The Inquirer at the edge of the expanding circle of memorabilia and good wishes. I started taking pictures. After perhaps 20 minutes, I noticed that a Penn State maintenance man and a campus police officer had removed the flag from where it had been improperly draped. Wordlessly, but with the dignity of ceremony, the two men stood across from each other and folded the flag in proper triangular fashion. Then they placed it inside a clear plastic sleeve and laid the Stars and Stripes carefully at the clay feet of the bronze god that was swept away last week.
E-mail Clark DeLeon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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