Remembering JoePa: No man leaves an uncomplicated legacy

Factions will continue to disagree about Joe Paterno's legacy

January 26, 2012|By Chris Korman

By the time anyone gets around to asking another person how he or she would like to be remembered, the answer is, almost assuredly, destined to be a footnote. The query makes sense only if that man or woman’s legacy is already shrouded in nuance and of some particular public interest. And it’s not like the answer will tilt the scales; not in the cacophony of chatter that crowds the internet.

Yet when they erected a statue of Joe Paterno outside of Beaver Stadium on Nov. 2, 2001, they included the following quote:

"They ask me what I'd like written about me when I'm gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach."

It struck me as a strange thing to include. I was a sophomore in college then, just beginning to understand the skepticism needed for journalism. But I still had few doubts about one thing: if anybody existed who didn’t really need to have his own say – especially so largely and permanently displayed – it was Joe Paterno. His detractors were few, their complaints petty.

Ten years, stunning revelations and Paterno’s all-too-sudden death – the sort of death those close to him say he always feared if he left the sideline – leave those words hanging there as thousands upon thousands of people debate his legacy.

Paterno’s body is, as I write on Wednesday afternoon, being driven past thousands of people who have lined the streets of State College.  Try to imagine you are there, and that you are a Penn State student, or an alum, or just someone who for so many years spent Saturdays in the fall watching Joe Paterno coach his football team and now you are up on your toes trying to see the man – known as much for his pensive, solitary walks through town as his stirring gallops out of the tunnel before a game, his players in their plain blue and white jerseys eventually overtaking him, engulfing him, seemingly lifting him to the sideline – pass by one more time. And now you are part of the team. You, too, can carry JoePa (the hashtag on Twitter being used by those standing vigil was #GuideJoeHome). Do you feel the dissonance – do you think of the victims of Jerry Sandusky’s alleged crimes – or is it just, for all you can tell, a simpler time?

And if it is, how long will it last?

***

A majority of those close to the situation in State College have opted to focus on all the good Joe Paterno did for what was – you’ll read repeatedly – a sleepy farm town and its cow college when he arrived. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Frank Fitzpartrick – who wrote a book on Paterno and has been far from an apologist – gives Paterno much of the credit for Penn State being the nationally renowned university that it is. Rick Reilly’s ode to Paterno asks that we remember all the good, even if his final public days were so full of sorrow.

Whether you find Paterno’s legacy ruined or merely sullied or diluted or complex or gleaming and whole depends on where you stand. It’s that way with everyone, especially those who spend the majority of their lives as public figures. Show me the man with an uncomplicated legacy, and I’ll show you a hermit.

We’re unlikely to ever come to any clear understanding of whether Joe Paterno merely made a mistake by not reporting what he knew about Jerry Sandusky to the police – as he has maintained – because he didn’t quite grasp the seriousness of the story he heard from assistant Mike McQueary, or if his momentary lack in judgment was borne of a desire to mitigate that which might hurt his program. It’s hard for many to believe Paterno partook in something truly nefarious. But it’d be naïve to think that a culture he built – one equally as demanding as insular – didn’t obscure the way those inside of it thought and acted. (For a particularly interesting read on this, read Kate Fagan.)

There's something eerie and tidy about Paterno’s death coming now, before the new coach, Bill O’Brien, has even arrived or the court cases and investigations into Jerry Sandusky, accused of sexually assaulting 10 boys over a 15-year period, have moved forward. His testimony to the grand jury is now inadmissible; he’ll essentially be a bit player in the legal proceedings. He’ll rest in peace.

A majority of the people lining the streets Wednesday were students. In news reports they’ve called him a grandfather-like figure. They’ve repeated a popular refrain – We Are because You Were.

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