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Growing Up with Joe

by on January 19, 2018 7:00 PM

He was just “Joe” to them, their father’s co-worker who needed a place to live and who ended up staying in their home for nine years.  

That was long before this not-so-ordinary Joe became the most recognizable figure on the Penn State campus. Or the most famous person to ever reside in State College. Or the winningest coach in major college football history. Or, sadly, the man whose legacy seems, for some, permanently tied to the Sandusky scandal.

But to the children of former assistant coach Jim O’Hora, Joe Paterno remains as he always was to them — not “JoePa” but just Joe. Monday marks the sixth anniversary of his death, but their memories revolve around the passing of a family member, not the death of a celebrity.

“We knew Joe as a different Joe than other people knew him,” says Peggy O’Hora Robison, born the year that Paterno joined the household and just nine years old when he moved out. “Kind of like an older brother or an uncle. Joe was just Joe.”

“He was part of the family,” adds Jim O’Hora Jr., the firstborn O’Hora offspring who is six years older than Peggy. “Joe really did a lot with us… He was included in everything.”

“For us, our family, Joe was tremendous,” says Bob O’Hora, two years younger than Jim. “He always had time to talk to me, no problem.”  

The youngest O’Hora, Don, was only four when Paterno exited the home, so most of his memories are second-hand. But he echoes his siblings when he says, “He was just part of the family,” and he marvels over the fact that this “roomer” lived with the family in two houses over a nine-year period. “That whole thing is just remarkable,” notes Don.

*          *          *

Remarkable, indeed. And that’s one factor that drove me to write this column. As a 1970 graduate of State College High School, I’m a classmate of Peggy and her husband, local dentist John Robison. So I’ve known that Paterno stayed one year with the Suhey family upon arriving in State College and then he spent many more years with the O’Horas. But my knowledge of that era was limited. So as the anniversary of Joe’s death once again approached, I decided it was time to learn more about his early years in Happy Valley. And I decided that maybe it’s finally OK to talk about Joe without wrapping everything around the Sandusky scandal.

Yes, it grieves me deeply to think of the pain that is felt, even today, by those who were abused. It also still saddens me to think of Joe’s words—“With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.” But when I think of Joe Paterno’s legacy, I can’t help but ask this very question of myself: “What if my own biggest shortfall, actual or perceived, was the only thing that others remembered me for?”

*          *          *

And so we go back to the 1950s via the memories of the O’Hora “kids.” It was an era of black-and-white TV with just two channels available in State College. A few of their dramatic recollections might have fit into an episode of “Gunsmoke,” but most are funny little vignettes with a “Leave it to Beaver” feeling:

  • Joe’s Socks. It seems the young Penn State coach had better things to do than laundry. He only washed his socks once per month and then, for some reason, the O’Hora kids always did the sorting among 30-plus pairs of blues, blacks, browns and grays. Jimmy, who first owned this task, thinks Joe was colorblind. But perhaps the Mom of the household, Elizabeth (“Betts”) O’Hora, thought that sock sorting would develop the work ethic of her kids. Regardless of the reason, once per month those children sat down to sort a mound of socks. “It was a big event,” says Peggy. “It was a fun thing. It was never a chore.” (Many years later, Betts mailed Joe a newspaper clipping of a “Dear Abby” column. In that column, a woman asked Abby if she should go ahead with her wedding after receiving 203 pairs of dirty socks in the mail from her fiancé. Joe’s reply to Betts appears here.)

  • Trips to Whipple. “He loved to go to Whipple Dam on a Saturday or a Sunday in the summer,” says Bob. “We’d all go as a family. Dad and he would cook. Joe used to sit in his lawn chair and read Sports Illustrated.  Joe would always be helpful for me with my (toy) boats — they never worked right.” And when a little vessel sailed away on its own, says Bob, “We’d get in his car and run over to the other side to get the boat.”

  • Backyard Fun. Jimmy recalls splashing around in a little rubber pool while Joe sat nearby and put his feet in the water. And then, when he got older, he enjoyed many chances to throw a football with Joe in the backyard and get some expert tips from Penn State’s quarterback coach. In 1963 as a high school senior, Jim was playing quarterback for State College against Bellefonte, and he shocked his coach, Bill Leonard, by designing a pass play in the huddle that went for a touchdown. Paterno was able to attend that game and, says Jim, “Joe was really proud.”

  • Licorice “Bribes.” With only one television in the house, Sunday evenings in the fall could present a problem. The kids would want to see the weekly Disney show; Joe would want to watch the end of an NFL game. “He would bribe us,” says Peggy. “He would have licorice in his top drawer, and he’d say, ‘Go ahead and get your candy.’ There would be a white paper bag from Graham’s (a legendary store near the corner of Allen Street and College Avenue). We thought it was a surprise, but Joe had it all planned. It was neat."


Joe Paterno responded with this note after Betts O'Hora sent a "Dear Abby" column to tease him about his habit of washing his socks only once a month.


There were also times, however, when life with Joe wasn’t so simple and sedate. Like the summer evening in 1954 when the O’Horas’ elderly neighbor, Mrs. Watts, ran to their home at 204 E. McCormick Ave. and yelled through the screen door that “there’s somebody in my upstairs.”

Joe immediately ran to her house to pursue the intruder. And when he got upstairs, he looked out an open window and saw the burglar getting off a ladder. “Joe starts to holler at him,” says Bob, “and then he ran back down the steps and chased the man until he escaped through some nearby fields. The police came and yelled at Joe for chasing a burglar, but I thought he did a good job for Mrs. Watts. And then he made sure that Mrs. Watts got rid of that ladder. So she felt safe over there.”  

Another drama visited East McCormick Avenue in the form of a 1955 thunderstorm. Early on a Sunday morning, Joe was shaving in the upstairs bathroom which was located between his bedroom and the one shared by Jimmy and Bob. “The lightning hit the TV antenna,” says Bob. “It got all the wires going, it was frying in there.I remember I was knocked out of bed by the lightning. If Joe had been in bed, he might have been killed. That was earth-shattering.”

Paterno first made sure the boys found safety outside with their mother and little sister. Then he went to work with the garden hose as Jim Sr. manned the spigot. They were thrilled to extinguish a fire in the basement ceiling — until they realized a much bigger blaze had broken out in Joe’s bedroom. They were beginning to address that threat when the Alpha firefighters arrived. Joe was usually one to give orders, but he quickly complied when the Alphas yelled, “Put down that hose and get out of the house!” The house was saved, and the O’Hora-Paterno family was able to return there after a few weeks.   


Jim, Bob and Peggy all remember going to bed in the early evening and hearing snatches of football strategy being debated by their dad, a standout defensive mind, and Joe, the brilliant young offensive mind. “I think a lot of what Penn State became was decided right there at the house,” says Bob. “If my dad and Joe could agree on something, that went with (Head Coach) Rip Engle.”

“I remember the arguing,” says Peggy. “It would be late and it would usually be after a game on Saturday night. They’d go over what had happened and they would sometimes get in arguments that were loud. And then Mom would have to yell down the steps, ‘You two get to bed, right now!’ And they would.”

Although the two coaches would frequently argue over strategy or personnel, those around them observed a deep mutual respect. And the arguments never carried over to the next day. As Peggy says, “It would always be, ‘Good morning, Joe’ and then ‘Good morning, Jim.’ It was just over.”

Joe Paterno and Jim O'Hora   


The O’Hora kids all loved their years with Joe, but they marvel at how their mom managed the family dynamics. “Mom was a saint,” he says. “Not only did she raise us four kids as a football coach’s wife, but she had Joe for nine years.”

Paterno brought an extra level of intensity and some constant humor to the household, and Betts valued both. And so she began the weekly autumn ritual of “decorating” the O’Hora doorway with crepe paper. When Penn State’s football team won, Betts would tell the kids to get out the blue and white crepe paper from the front closet. But when the Nittany Lions lost, the streamers in front of the home were black. Regardless of color, the crepe paper would remain on display until Wednesday.

“Joe hated the black,” recalls Jimmy. And that was just the point. Betts wanted to celebrate the victories, but losses gave her a chance to tease Joe a bit and also offer him some motivation. “It was never about Dad, cause Dad just ignored it,” says Peggy. “Mom said it was a reminder (to Joe) that you need to do better. One time the mailman said, ‘But they only lost by a point.’ But Mom told him, ‘It doesn’t matter. A win is a win, a loss is a loss.’ ”


A change in housing was prompted when Betts became pregnant in 1956 with her fourth child, Don. Jim and Betts began preparing to build a new home at 504 E. McCormick. No one opposed the idea that Joe might move with the family, but Jim and Betts assumed he was ready to get his own place.

“They had the floor plan out one evening,” says Peggy, “and they were showing Joe. He said, ‘That looks really good, but where’s my room?’ And Mom said, ‘Well, we didn’t know whether you were going to move with us or whether you were going to move out.’ And Joe goes, ‘No, I’m not going to move out; I’m moving with you.’ “

That decision meant that Betts lost two small rooms from the original plan — a sewing room and a mud room. But, from all indications, Jim and Betts were happy to keep Joe in their household, and the loss of those two little rooms was a small price to pay.


Eventually, of course, it really was time for Joe to leave the family. Jimmy thinks his mom was finally ready for a less football-centric atmosphere, and so she suggested that Jim urge Joe to move. But Bob thinks the change was prompted more by Joe’s own plans. After all, he was dating Suzanne Pohland, so it made sense for him to get his own apartment in 1961 and then bring Sue to live there after their marriage in 1962. But even though Joe left the household, he certainly was never forgotten. Never did the O’Horas talk about “the sewing room.” Even after many years, that room was still called, “Joe’s room.”

Although Don, the baby of the family, hardly recalls Joe from childhood days, he grew to know him better in his adult years — especially when Joe visited the family on the day that Jim died. (Betts had passed away in 2001, Jim died in 2005.) All the family was gathering at the Robisons’ home that day, and Joe was already there, in the kitchen, when Don arrived. “How great he was with all the grandkids,” says Don, “telling them stories about Dad and all the things they did together. It was fantastic.”

No wonder, then, that Don thought back to that day when Joe himself passed away. And, no doubt, he’ll have similar thoughts on Monday, the anniversary of Joe’s death. “How kind of a person he really was,” says Don. “He was a guy who really cared about people.”

Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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