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Guest Column: The Paternos and the Penn State Family

by on January 21, 2012 11:12 PM

by Thomas A. Shakely

As the months accrue since those terrible days in November when all Penn State cried, all of us whose hearts love thy name struggle to make sense of how so much could go so wrong at a place where for so long it went so right.

Nothing I offer here will speak in reflection of the evil of what happened to the child-victims. If justice in any measure is to come for them, it will come in the courts, a sphere of action beyond my competences. To focus on anything other than the child-victims can seem like a person has lost perspective. Their sad stories after all are what this is really all about.

But so, too, is the story of Penn State, of who we are, and what we will live on to be tomorrow. And that story is inextricably bound up with Joe and Sue Paterno, as the narrative of President Rodney Erickson's alumni town-hall tour testifies to.

The Paternos, as former trustee Ben Novak has written, are the "greatest Penn Staters since Our Founders Strong and Great." The story of their lives in Happy Valley is the living embodiment of our values, of the ideals that have defined us since our beginning, about fair play, plan-dealing, humility, loyalty, solid work, and a thousand small acts of decency that end up forming a legacy.

If all our talk about "the Penn State family" means anything, it needs to resonate with reality. We know intuitively that no real family would treat any of its members in the way that John Surma and our trustees treated Joe and Sue Paterno on Nov. 9. No real family uses any single member. No real family disposes its patriarch or matriarch. No real family dishonors its elders.

The idea of Penn State as a family means that we must honor Joe and Sue Paterno, now all the more so in the wake of a firing whose method and manner -- an initial rebuffing, a late-night courier, and a one-sentence telephone termination -- suggest nothing of the love and tenderness which the closeness of family would demand.

I continue to think about Joe and Sue Paterno because I worry about what it will mean to be a Penn Stater or to be a part of a Penn State family if we decide we're comfortable with disposing those whom we love in moments of crisis or convenience.

No one disputes the predicament faced by John Surma and the trustees during the heady early days of the crisis. Our despair flows not so deeply due to the loss of Joe Paterno as head football coach, but due to that method and manner by the trustees that signaled not so much a termination of employment as a whole and utter disavowing of Joe and Sue Paterno, an entire rejection, a shunning.

We suspect that the spirit of the trustees has somehow fallen out of sync with the spirit of our family, and what we've for so long believed about ourselves.

To speak about Joe and Sue Paterno and our feelings about how they were treated by John Surma and the Penn State trustees is neither to ignore the child-victims nor to obsess over optics. We're repelled by the coarseness and hideousness of it all -- about the crimes against the child-victims as much as our correspondingly disastrous response to it all. We're speaking about Joe and Sue Paterno because, whether we met them personally or not, we love them.

We love them. A thousand times we love them. We can't not think about them. We can't not talk about them. We can't not afford them dignity. We can't not honor them.

The future of the Penn State family, and of life in the Nittany Valley, can really be a bright future only if we successfully recover the best aspects of our legacy -- our history, our identity, our guide.

It's because Joe and Sue Paterno have for two lifetimes taught us about ourselves that we feel as strongly as we do about them. For the lifetimes of most, Joe and Sue have been there to embody legacy, to be our history, our identity, our guide.

Now we're tasked with forging ahead without them. We perceive the impossibility of the challenge of forging a future without first rejecting our trustees' rejection of them.

This is why we think and speak of Joe and Sue Paterno — because no family that destroys its own can hope to have a future.

We are the Penn State family.

Editor's note: A Penn State alumnus and former student activist, Shakely serves on the board of The Penn State Student Radio Alumni Interest Group. He can be reached at

This piece was submitted by a guest columnist.
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Family: Claims of Paterno Death Not True; Former Coach Still Fighting
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