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Writers discuss Joe Paterno’s legacy

by on October 19, 2017 3:12 PM

STATE COLLEGE — It’s been nearly six years since Penn State lost one of its most influential leaders, and easily its most visible figure.

The debate continues to rage over the legacy of Joe Paterno’s reputation, from people who believe he was unjustly tarnished by the fallout from the Sandusky abuse scandal and that his statue should be put back in front of Beaver Stadium, to people who hold him fully accountable for the perpetrated abuse and failure of follow-through, and everyone in between.

On Oct. 17, three writers from different backgrounds — but whose careers are all steeped in Penn State history — talked about what Paterno’s legacy will be in coming years and what has already changed since the scandal and his death. It was the last session in a class offered by Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the Paterno family lawsuit against the NCAA.

Paterno was fired in November 2011 in the wake of the grand jury indictment of Sandusky on multiple counts of child molestation. The investigation led to the resignations or firings of top administrators.

The major debate concerning Paterno is what and when he knew about Sandusky. Some people have come forward as victims and said they brought it to his attention decades ago. Others believe when he passed the claims up the administrative chain he did his duty. Yet others believe he didn’t follow through when he should have, since it was his football program.

The guest speakers at the OLLI class didn’t address their beliefs concerning the core debate, and stuck to the legacy of Paterno and his family and their impact on the school through the coach's 46 years at Penn State.

Michael Bezilla has written multiple history books on Penn State and Pennsylvania railroads. He compared Paterno and his legacy to the legacies of the great Penn State presidents.

Bezilla said Paterno had the ability to get the public, legislators and other stakeholders to buy into the ideas of Penn State as a great institution, much like former presidents Evan Pugh, George Atherton, Eric Walker and Bryce Jordan. Each of those presidents made critical advancements, Bezilla said, and were men who had the foresight to imagine what Penn State could become in the future.
He told the story of how Paterno addressed the board of trustees in 1983, saying Penn State should use its newfound football momentum to raise money and pivot toward more philanthropic measures of raising money. So began the Campaign for Penn State. The university now has a $3.6 billion endowment.

“Take a walk across campus and see how successful it’s become,” Bezilla said.

He said the reputations of leaders can be an advantage, and the qualities of the leader become qualities of the institution. But when that face of the franchise falls into disfavor and is perceived in a negative light, it leaves a question of what happens to an institution.
“Paterno was the face of the Penn State franchise, and he is seen now in a negative light in certain quarters,” Bezilla said during a question-and-answer session. “I'm not saying it's warranted or not warranted. But, I think one reason, among many, that we are in such a quandary about how to deal with this is to look at the other great leaders of Penn State. They were never in a negative light.”

John “Jack” Selzer is a Paterno Family Liberal Arts Professor of Literature. He outlined some of the major contributions of the Paterno family to the liberal arts.

He joked that since no one graduates from a library, fewer people are willing to donate money to one. The Paterno family changed all of that, raising tens of millions of dollars and putting the Penn State library on the map as one of the best in the country.

That money allowed professors like Selzer to be better at their jobs and opened up opportunities for students who otherwise wouldn’t have experiences such as studying abroad.

“It's literally more money than I know how to use,” he said. “So, it has helped me become the faculty member that I could only ever dream about being.”

Selzer was one of the organizers of the Paterno Fellows Program, which allows students not in the Schreyer Honors College to do honors college work in their first year and be admitted later on. He said the program noticed many students were capable of doing the work, but didn’t get into the honors college in their first year or didn’t know it existed. The program also requires students to go above and beyond and do additional work and study abroad.

“This is very popular for us,” Selzer said. “Obviously, it's helped us build our student body tremendously and to bring out the best in the students we have.”

He said that while it doesn’t have to bear the Paterno name, at the time it was the values they believed the family embodied as patrons of the liberal arts. The Paterno family contributed greatly to the fellows program and provided students the opportunities even if they couldn’t afford them.

Though Selzer’s career centers around the library, he said he believes one of Paterno’s greatest achievement was helping Penn State enter the Big 10 in 1990. He contends Penn State would not have been as interesting without the football program Paterno built, and thus helped the university’s chances greatly in entry to the oldest collegiate athletic conference in the U.S.

“When we got into the Big 10, it changed the whole mentality of the school,” Selzer said. “Our alums, of course, stepped up tremendously.”

So while the university always had something to brag about, Selzer said, after joining the Big 10, Penn State became a major force to be reckoned with in the national and international higher education scene.

“Part of it also is, suddenly we became an aspirational school. We’re going to be great. There was a sense up until 2011, I would say, there was a sense in which we were something special and we do things a little differently here and we are a school on the make. We are not accepting our position in the hierarchy.”

Now in the wake of scandal, he said he believes Penn State has lost some of the aspirational qualities of that era, even if the material benefits are still evident.

“Everybody who works at Penn State and enjoys the tremendous working conditions and salary and so on has something to owe to the Paterno family for that.”

Mike Poorman has been writing about and teaching Penn State athletics in the media for 40 years. Currently, he is the alumni director in the College of Communications.

The beginnings of his career date to his time covering football for the Daily Collegian in 1979. He later taught a course at Penn State called "Joe Paterno: Communications in the Media."

“As you would imagine, Penn State students through the years had a great relationship with Joe, a personal relationship with Joe."
He said an exercise he used to do with his class was gather their perceptions of Paterno.

“It was stunning. Almost 40 percent of the kids had a personal interaction with Joe Paterno, from going to his house, to walking across campus, to being yelled at by Joe for jaywalking.”

In freshman seminar class, he said he had students report what drew them to Penn State. Up until 2010, he said football and Paterno were often in students’ top three reasons for attending the university.

Now the perception of Paterno is much different, he said.

“I don't want to say Paterno is a non-entity, but he is a non-starter. For a kid who is coming in who is 18, six years ago, seven years ago, they were not aware. Right now, comparing Paterno 10 years ago, 20 years ago, students perceptions versus now, Joe is not on their radar screen.”

While the perception is mixed between negative and recognition of the legacy, he said with new students it can be as if Paterno was at Penn State 50 years ago.

As for the media, he said national and local media members have made up their minds on Paterno’s legacy and are firmly entrenched in those positions.

He discussed the unavoidable evoking of Paterno’s name as context for covering the storied football program. Of the perhaps 150 people who will cover a football game for the media, he said very few will ever bring up Paterno during press conferences and younger writers are shy about using him in historical context in regards to football.

“It is amazing to me the number of people who write about Penn State football and, in many ways, it’s as if Joe did not exist.”



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