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A Salute to SuePa

by on May 06, 2010 7:00 AM

It has been said that behind every great man is a great woman—but as wonderful as many think my father is (mostly those who never had to live with him), my mother—Sue Paterno is a great woman in her own right. With Mother's Day approaching I figured it was time to use this space to salute her—even though eight hundred words won't even begin to cover it.

Much like her own mother, she is a headstrong German. Her mother Alma Heinz Pohland had a certain way of doing things and there was only one way to skin a cat. My mother is more flexible than my grandmother was—but not by much.

A few years ago at a family picnic my sister Diana asked me to put the garbage can out back so that people would have a short trip to throw out their garbage. My grandmother came by a minute later and ordered me to move it out front.

I moved the garbage can. No more than four minutes later my mother came out and told me to go get the garbage can and bring it out back.

I moved it back, threw up my hands and declared myself officially out of the trash business (I didn't want to be another Italian in waste management—we know where that leads). I love my grandmother and my sister, but in my mind, my mother held the trump card.

She's always been the family's trump card—the Paternos' ace in the hole. While my father was spending long hours away from home for his job, she was cook, chauffeur and any other job title she needed to do to keep our household running right.

There were dinners for seven people every night—she made it a priority that we always ate together as a family. She could make anything well—except liver. It is liver after all, so my mother gets a pass on that one.

Not only were there nightly family dinners but she refused to allow caterers in her home when guests came over—and by guests, I mean crowds of 40, 50, 60 or more.

She did it all—putting in countless hours planning, making her own tomato sauce and preparing food. Despite the time commitment she never turned in expense reports to Penn State for reimbursement—even when entertaining prospective donors.

If you asked her though, she'd probably tell it is most important for her to be a mom/teacher.

My mother began her life after Penn State teaching English at Bellefonte High School. When her own children were born she proceeded to do her most important teaching job that of teaching her children.

She is probably the reason we have the term "a teachable moment." Around her you have to constantly be on your toes. There's always something to point out, something to get asked about, a book to read or some knowledge to absorb.

But her greatest strengths are an indomitable spirit, a patience to complete anything she decides to undertake, and a compassionate heart.

Her causes are numerous, her time commitment to them limitless, and she will break down resistance with her persistence.

Through multiple back surgeries, hip surgery, knee surgery and God only knows what other surgeries, she has always grinned and fought through the pain. When her kids would protest that she was doing too much she'd have another lesson for us about how fortunate she had been and how she had to help others.

Whether it is raising money for the libraries at Penn State, planning The Pennsylvania Special Olympics or raising money for the hospital she is relentless.

This past April she helped organize and plan a 5K run for the Special Olympics to raise money for the summer games held here at Penn State. Just near the finish line I saw NFL Hall of Famer Franco Harris congratulating all the runners as they passed. Franco has always held Special Olympics close to his heart but this seemed to be beyond the call of duty.

I asked him how he got roped into doing this and he answered "I couldn't say no to your mother."

I've heard that countless times from all kinds of people—from millionaire CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to volunteers at local events.

When I think of the greatest lesson I've learned from my mother I am reminded of a line from the eulogy delivered at Robert F Kennedy's funeral. He was described as someone "who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it"

While my mother never served as Attorney General or Senator she has always worked to right the wrongs, and heal the suffering around her—even when she was suffering herself. She saw things she could change and fought to make something good happen.

For those lessons, and all the love and caring we received from my mother I will always be grateful.

Happy Mother's Day.

State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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