As I was reflecting yesterday on the one year anniversary of his death, I couldn’t help but ask myself — has a man’s legacy ever been analyzed, written about, and discussed more widely than Joe Paterno’s? I suspect the answer is no, and the topic of Paterno’s legacy seems to be one of the main rhetorical obsessions of many Penn State students, alumni, and supporters.
It’s understandable, of course, why the ambiguity of his legacy would inspire so many people to action. It’s hard not to be perturbed at some of the vitriol thrown around over the last 15 months. If you read enough comment sections on national news sites, you’re bound to read something that makes you want to throw a fist through your computer.
But I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t matter. You might not agree, but hear me out.
To a large part of the country, Joe Paterno is a child molestation enabler. Nothing more, nothing less. Mike McQueary came to Joe Paterno’s house, told him he saw a boy being raped in the shower, and Joe Paterno didn’t report it to the police. That’s what they know, and nothing anyone says is going to change those people’s opinions. If the story as they know it is true, then Joe Paterno must be a monster, right?
Of course, those critics haven’t been immersed in the story like those inside Happy Valley have. If I’ve learned one thing out of this whole situation, it’s to never take the news again at face value. Always dig deeper and always pay attention to details.
Do the people who think Joe Paterno is an evil, despicable man know who Jack Raykovitz, Wendell Courtney, Jonathan Dranov, Cynthia Baldwin, or John Seascock are? Probably not — nor do they care. They know only the basic facets of the story reported in 30-second sound bytes, not the entire story that seems to implicate many more people than just Joe Paterno in not bringing Jerry Sandusky to justice sooner.
I can’t blame most of these people for not knowing all the minute details of what happened here at Penn State. They don’t live the story. Think about how many national stories that you know as well as the Sandusky scandal. If I’m interested in a piece of news, I’ll read a few articles from national news sources, form an opinion, and move on. I don’t have the time or desire to pour over small details, I just want to know the meat of the story.
And so while I disagree with the people who call Joe Paterno a villain, I cannot blame them. If a similar case happened at USC or Ohio State or somewhere far away that I had no emotional attachment to, I wouldn’t examine the story like a law thesis either.
Joe Paterno was told that a boy was being raped by Jerry Sandusky in the shower. He didn’t call the police. The end. That’s what the national story is. It’s not the complete story, but that’s the story. It’s understandable then, why Penn Staters who stick up for Paterno are often maligned in the media as a sick cult. If the story was as simple as that, they would be right.
But it’s not that simple, and nothing anybody says is going to change those people’s minds about Joe Paterno.
What is important, however, is what Joe Paterno means to you. No matter what the national impression is, and no matter the extent that Joe Paterno may have failed, his contributions to the Nittany Valley don’t just disappear.
You’ve all heard the stories by now. There’s the one about couple of college guys having a barbecue at Sunset Park behind Paterno’s house. Upon realizing that they were missing a spatula, one of the students knocked on the door. To his surprise, Joe Paterno answered the door and not only lent him a spatula, but came outside to join the barbecue.
There’s another popular Paterno story told by a former Penn State player whose name escapes me at the moment. The player hadn’t seen or spoken to Paterno in over 20 years. His mom became ill and passed away. When the player arrived at the funeral parlor a few days later, the first flower arrangement next to the casket was signed “Joe and Sue Paterno.” After 20 years of not speaking, Paterno still managed not only to find out about his mother’s death, but decided to send flowers and a condolence card.
Stories like that number in the thousands, and they just don’t go away because of a report. You can’t erase history.
When I was only ten years old, I sent Joe Paterno a letter. Even in fourth grade, I was already a big Penn State fan and felt compelled to tell the only Penn Stater I knew how I intended to enroll after I graduated in eight years. In my best cursive, I wrote down my thoughts and zipped the letter off to the Lasch Building not expecting a response.
Two weeks later, I received an envelope in the mail with 830 McKee Street in the upper left corner. Inside was a handwritten note from Joe Paterno.
I received your wonderful note and I just wanted to thank you for being a fan. I hope to see you on campus one day.
As I look at that note today, yellowed with age, I think back on the day I received it and the lasting impact it had on me. And you know what? It doesn’t matter to me what anyone else thinks of the man.
I know the man I believe Joe Paterno to be. He had flaws, sure, and he made his fair share of mistakes — big ones, even. I don’t claim to know everything, but I do know that without Joe Paterno, I might have never made the decision to come to Penn State.
Statues, wins, trophies — these are all things you can take away. But the last three years of my life as a Penn State student? Something that great you can never take away.
That’s Joe Paterno’s legacy to me.