Paterno and the Poet

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Paterno and the Poet

Christopher Clausen

An emeritus professor recalls Penn State’s insular culture and Joe Paterno’s unusual role within it.

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2m 42sec

State College, home to Penn State University’s main campus, is a sprawling town in the center of Pennsylvania, “three and a half hours from anywhere,” as the locals like to say. Its geographic isolation has a good deal to do with the debacle brought upon the university by the sex-abuse scandal in its legendary football program and, much worse, attempts for many years to cover it up. As most anyone who has followed the news recently knows, Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach who worked under the godlike head coach, Joe Paterno, is accused of sexually abusing young boys whom he met through the charity for at-risk youth he had founded, often bringing the boys onto university property and to football events.

From the time I arrived at Penn State in 1985 to head the English department, the place seemed extravagantly hierarchical and closed off, even for a land-grant university. Its presidents (three in my time) were all obsessed with public relations and cocooned by flatterers. The faculty includes many distinguished members but has always seemed unusually docile in its relations with the higher administration. Joe Paterno, however, was about the most effective supporter of academic seriousness in the whole place and had my admiration. When the renowned poet Czeslaw Milosz visited in 1990, nobody in the higher administration had heard of him or came to his appearances, though he was one of the few Nobel Prize winners to pass through State College. But Paterno, who happened to be in the Nittany Lion Inn for another event, asked me to introduce him. As I did so, a female administrator coyly asked Milosz if he knew what an eminent man he was meeting. Paterno brushed her off with Brooklyn contempt and added, “What he does is important; there’s no reason he should have heard of me.” One of the genuinely tragic aspects of the present sordid affair is that vanity led Joe to stay on as coach a decade too long and to surrender to the university administration’s compulsion to control information.

The befuddled university trustees, used to having their own way in what is very much a company town, seemed appalled at the discovery that they had completely lost control of the story, and that with ESPN and The New York Times on their case the supine local newspaper was the least of their problems. Paterno, who is 84, announced his retirement in what proved the vain hope of being allowed to finish out the current football season. The embattled president, Graham Spanier, was forced out a few hours later. A cynic might suspect these summary executions showed the same fixation on public relations that had led to the original cover-up. In addition to the criminal trials of Sandusky and two administrators indicted for perjury, civil suits and a federal investigation will probably keep the university’s lawyers and PR staff busy for years. The steady drip-drip-drip has only begun. If anyone in or outside Happy Valley needed a lesson in the dangers of big-time athletics, the temptations of secrecy, or the bureaucratic arrogance of mega-universities, here it is.

Photo credit: Statue of Joe Paterno on Penn State Campus by audreyjm529 via flickr