Sad days in Happy Valley

Today’s post is a special guest submission by my wise and wonderful wife, Karen, who went to grad school at Penn State.

The recent allegations of sexual abuse by former Penn State defensive coach Jerry Sandusky have taken me back to another time and place: my days as a graduate student and teaching assistant at Penn State, and the memories of sharing Penn State football with my dad.

Growing up in Central Pennsylvania, Penn State was our team. Sure, we’d root for the Steelers in the Super Bowl, but talk always surrounded what was going on with our boys in the nameless blue-and-white jerseys. And the game of the week was always on – sometimes the radio, occasionally television (a rare thing since there were only 10 channels back then and no ESPN).

My dad was a shipping clerk, so we didn’t have the privilege of snagging some tickets for Beaver Stadium and taking a 1.5-hour road trip to State College. Our relationship with Penn State was purely long-distance. But the team from Happy Valley was one of the things that made my dad truly happy, and one of the few ways we could connect.

When it came time for college, I wasn’t interested in going to Penn State. It was too big for me, coming from a high school class of just 180. And my friend Jenny was going there. So I picked a smaller state school down the road, Bloomsburg University – but my team was still Penn State.

During college, I changed my major to communications and became involved in intercollegiate public speaking (forensics). This opened doors to a paid graduate education, coaching the speech team and teaching public speaking. I applied and was accepted to three great schools, but the best offer came from the closest one – my old friend, Penn State.

That was in 1983 – the year after Penn State had won the national football championship. My dad was genuinely excited – my kid is going to Penn State, and hey, did you know she’s a teacher there, too? You would have thought I was coaching football, not public speaking (although the two years I was there, the football team was “rebuilding” and won another national championship in 1986, the year after I left).

During the next two years, my dad and I exchanged calls frequently about the football players in my classes (genuinely decent guys and excellent students), the upcoming game of the week (I froze my butt in 50-yard line seats for $12 each as a graduate student), and my one and only conversation with JoePa himself, as just he and I passed on a downtown street (Hi Joe, how are you doing today?) We even drove past Beaver Stadium a couple of times during campus visits.

In his later years, Dad had a Saturday night ritual. He would “clean up”, don his favorite blue blazer, white shirt, grey pants and red tie, and hang out at the nearby Ramada Inn. His favorite game was to go there on the night of a home Penn State game, and pretend he was a visiting color commentator for ABC Sports. I’m not sure how many people believed him, but he sure had fun telling stories.

Even after I left Penn State in 1985, Dad would still call me to talk about Gary Brown, a Penn State running back (1987-1990) from our hometown of Williamsport. Dad died in 1989, so he never knew that Gary went on to play in the NFL for eight years, and later coach. He would have liked that.

I’ve only been back to Penn State once since graduate school. I probably wouldn’t recognize the campus today – or Beaver Stadium – which is now twice the size it was when I went there. But my memories of the school, and the team I shared with my dad, have remained strong. More than once, I’ve had an employer acknowledge the value of my Penn State education. And even though I live in ACC sports country now, I still proudly declare my love of Penn State during football season.

I don’t know if Joe Paterno failed to do the right thing by not doing more regarding Sandusky. Many times, someone in his position (and of his age) is often protected from ugly by the people who surround him. Maybe his judgment was clouded, or his faculties were beginning to fail (he was 75 at the time). Maybe he should have retired a few years ago, before he started to embarrass himself in other small ways. If he was negligent on this one, he doesn’t deserve a pass. But if he honestly didn’t know exactly what happened in the locker room – or he felt like he was following procedure, then I’m genuinely sorry for him.

I’m just sad that an excellent educational institution and what I knew to be an outstanding football program has been tarnished forever by this horrible situation and a few individuals in power positions who made some very bad decisions.

My dad would surely have something to say about this. And he’d call me up to talk about it. If he still could.


1 Comment

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One response to “Sad days in Happy Valley

  1. Greg Mercer

    Watching Joe Paterno’s decline over the past few years has been painful. If you’re powerful and/or famous, perhaps one of the most difficult things in life is knowing when to exit the arena. Very few “celebrities” seem to get this right.

    While not a Penn State fan, I’ve always admired PSU as one of the places that tried to do things the right way. My sincere wish is with time and penance the wounds can heal for the victims and all those who love Penn State.

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