“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.”
These are the words that are beside the statue of Joseph Vincent Paterno outside Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa. Four hundred-nine wins and one world-class university later, I think I can speak for just about everyone in the Penn State community when I say, “Mission accomplished, Coach.”
Joe Paterno was born December 21, 1926 in Brooklyn, N.Y. He attended Brown University and came on board the Penn State coaching staff in 1950 as an assistant coach. He was named head coach in 1966 and would remain head coach until 2011, when he was let go by the university in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Joe was diagnosed with what was called a “treatable form of lung cancer” in November 2011 but lost his battle with the cancer this morning. He spoke with his heavy Brooklyn accent until the day he died.
Paterno’s condition was labeled as “serious” last night and premature reports of his death began to circulate in the news. Hundreds of students and community members gathered at Paterno’s statue in the freezing cold to say thank you, to say one last goodbye, to leave a candle at his feet or just to be with some other members of the Penn State family. Multiple times, the Penn State alma mater was sung by the crowd.
Soon after these faulty reports had gone out, Joe’s son, and former coaching partner, Jay Paterno, announced via Twitter that this news was inaccurate and that Joe was still alive. He also announced that he told his father about all of the support he was receiving at the statue and that it inspired him. Like the fighter he always was, Joe was able to fight for one last sunrise over Happy Valley.
As an aspiring journalist, it is rare that I find myself at a loss for words. But today in Happy Valley, there aren’t many words to be said. Sure the CATA buses continue running around campus, photos will continue to be taken at the Lion Shrine and the Berkey Creamery will keep selling its “Peachy Paterno” ice cream, but for the first time since 1950, State College, Pa., is without JoePa. And that is an eerie feeling.
Joe Paterno died the winningest coach in major college football history, but his legacy far exceeds that. He helped turn a small agricultural college into the world-class research institution that we today know as The Pennsylvania State University. He has made a profound impact on every student who has come through Penn State in the last five decades, and not just its athletes. Since his initial hiring, Joe emphasized academics over athletics, in what he originally called a “Grand Experiment.” This “experiment” soon became a hallmark of the Penn State athletics program. This mantra of “Success with Honor” is a code that Penn Staters hold close to their hearts.
You could say that I didn’t mention enough of the scandal in this story and that it needs to be addressed more. To that, I say the scandal does not define Joe’s life. There have been over two months of news coverage focusing solely on that, and more will surely be said; right now is the time to remember the decades of good.
The Paterno family has requested that in lieu of flowers or gifts, that donations be made to the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania or the Penn State THON (Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon).
Rest in peace, Joseph Vincent “JoePa” Paterno. As it reads on the other side of your statue, you were truly an “educator, coach, humanitarian.”
Well said, Alex.
thanks for a lovely tribute. Testament to his life that all Nittany Lions past and present feel an incredible sense of loss.
Cheryl Truchan PSU ’82
I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Rachel Drosdick, who grew up in Verona sports and now coaches in Pennsylvania, had a different perspective on Paterno’s passing, which she shared on her blog. http://skirtsandsports.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/death-does-not-erase/