Ben Jones: A Not So Happy Valley. Understanding State College's Shock
State College really could be any town.
Certainly, as someone who grew up underneath the shadow of Mount Nittany, I will admit that the relative seclusion from the rest of the world gives Happy Valley a distinctive personality. State College isn’t a small town by any means, but there is a sense of community that can be found all year long, not just during football season.
In 1994 I was in kindergarten, and any Penn State fan will tell you that 1994 marked one of the greatest years in Penn State history: an undefeated season and one of the best offenses PSU ever fielded had State College excited. Even at a young age I had some sense of what was going on, even if I didn’t fully understand the meaning of zone defense.
During that school year, Jerry Sandusky’s daughter was my class’ student teacher. Sometime during the middle of the school year, the idea came up that we would have picnic at the Sanduskys' house. They lived just on the other side of the chainlink fence that surrounded the playground. It was perhaps only 100 yards from the school, separated only by a few trees and bushes.
Given that the Sanduskys' daughter was our student teacher, we all thought it was pretty awesome that we got to meet her dad and see where she lived. On top of that, we would be the only class that got to visit. It was a one-time deal, which made it all the more exciting.
Once our permission slips were signed, we made the short walk to the Sanduskys' house. Jerry and his wife, Dottie, welcomed us in and we made our way to their basement, where cookies and milk were laid out for us to eat. After we ate our food, Jerry talked to us about football, we watched a little film from the last game and then we headed back to the school.
As I have covered this story, I can’t help but think back to that day. It is the fact that even in retrospect Jerry seemed like a normal person. A friendly guy who was just happy to share his knowledge of the game he loved. And yet, as I have read the grand-jury report over and over, I realize that it is entirely likely that I also know at least one of the victims.
The formation of The Second Mile was a moment that State College was proud of. It was a place where the community could volunteer to make a difference in children’s lives. I had friends who worked there; I myself had helped out at one or two events. Anyone who was active in the State College community knew someone with ties to the Second Mile.
But nobody knew about this.
Over the past few months I’ve heard just about every theory to be had. Paterno always knew. State College looked the other way. Penn State didn’t want to out one of its own. I’ve heard it all. But the fact of the matter is that State College is as shocked as anyone.
That’s the story that I hope people take away from this. As the media flock back to Centre County for the first of many days in court, a strong and proud community will be tested once again. State College might be known for Penn State football, but it isn’t who we are.
As a journalist, I am required to stay objective. I feel that I have done my best to do so, reporting what I see and not what I think.
Even so, a few short weeks ago I found myself reporting only feet away from a tearful Joe Paterno as he addressed the crowd from his window. The younger me wanted to reach out and pat him on his head and tell him that it would be OK. But I couldn’t, because I don’t know that it will be.
I believe that is where the disconnect between State College and the rest of the world occurs. Joe Paterno represented something more than football. He wasn’t a god like many people made him out to be in the media. He was someone who showed there could be a place where sportsmanship, success, and honor still lived together. It was an ideal that the community tried to live up to.
Many reactions in the days following Paterno’s firing were a cry of disbelief, the feeling that the rug had been pulled out from under our feet and a declaration that this couldn’t possibly be true and some sort of mistake. To think that such a monstrous thing was happening under our noses was a terrifying realization. Plenty of people loved the man, but even more loved what he had stood for.
One of our classmates could have been a victim; our families could have had lunches at the Second Mile; and, at the most basic level, our friendly, happy neighbor could be just like Jerry Sandusky.
I do not know what is to come as Sandusky’s hearing and trial commence. I like to think that it is the first step in a healing process and a step toward closing a dark chapter in State College’s history. I will be there to report on what small part of this story I can cover, but I hope that people will begin to realize that State College has always been more than just football.
State College could have been any town. It could have been yours. But this time it was mine.