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Happy Valley’s Super Mom: Sue Paterno Is My Choice

by on May 10, 2019 5:00 AM

Did you know that Sue Paterno has been named the “Happy Valley Mother of the Year?” No, you didn’t — not until you saw this column. That’s because I made the selection and announced it here.   

As Mother’s Day approached, I felt the urge to honor one of our community’s mothers — a hero among heroes. But I didn’t have time to consult any community organizations on selecting a special mom. And I didn’t have an opportunity to poll the readers of StateCollege.com.

Although I made this decision pretty much by my lonesome, I can’t imagine there's any doubt about Sue’s mothering credentials. She raised five children, all of whom graduated from State College High School and from Penn State. She is the grandmother of 17 kids. And Sue didn’t just care for her own kin. She tutored an estimated 60-80 of her husband’s athletes over a span of nearly 50 years and every single one graduated from Penn State. Furthermore, she’s served as a Special Olympics volunteer since the mid-1980s and has served on the board of Special Olympics Pennsylvania since 1991.

Admittedly, I’m a bit biased in Sue’s direction. As a State College native, I grew up with an appreciation for Joe Paterno’s wife, the “SuePa” who helped her husband in every way imaginable to build a powerful football team with a solid academic foundation.

Because objectivity is a good thing, I asked my wife, Kathy, to join me on a visit to Sue’s lovely McKee Street home. Not only is Kathy not a Penn Stater, but she was a student at the University of Missouri when Joe and his undefeated 1969 team (yes, voted No. 2 in the polls) beat Missouri in the Orange Bowl.

“Listening to Sue’s stories was even more fun than I expected,” says Kathy in reflecting on our time with the former Suzanne Pohland. “Like any good mom, she escorted us back to her kitchen, sat us down, opened up her fridge and asked us what we wanted to drink. I never felt like she was bragging about her accomplishments, her kids or her grandkids. She was just telling it like it was. Even when she shared about difficult times including the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal, I sensed no bitterness or self-pity.”  

* * *

So how did Sue Paterno raise five solid citizens while accommodating the chaotic schedule of Penn State’s head football coach? Does she have a secret for mothering success?  

“Lotsa love,” says Sue. “I think you can weather everything and anything if you always let them know you love them and you’ll never stop loving them, no matter what they do. And how can you not love ‘em? But there were days…”

NOT-SO-GOOD AT SLEEPING

Most of Sue’s challenges as a young mom involved sleep, specifically a lack thereof. “We didn’t have good sleepers,” she says. “Mary Kay was the only one who slept well and napped.”

It didn’t take long for the first child, Diana, to demonstrate an aversion to sleep, but perhaps it wasn’t her fault. “She didn’t sleep and she didn’t nap,” says Sue. “We think it was because I’d get her to bed and Joe would get home at 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock, and he’d wake her up to play with her.  She was just a little toy, and we’d play with her for a couple hours, and she didn’t want to go to bed after that.”

But the pattern continued with the other children, long after Joe had learned to honor the kids’ theoretical sleep schedule. Whether the problem was caused by nurture or nature (Sue admits she’s not a great sleeper), some kind of solution was needed. Finally, Sue made a deal with the kids. “I said, ‘If you’re up after 10 o’clock, you have to read your own book and play quietly.’”

That strategy helped, but it didn’t solve all the sleeping issues. “David was a 4 o’clock or 4:30 riser,” she recalls. “When we lived in Park Forest, he’d go out the door and cross Park Forest Avenue to go to the park. And you get tired of running down the street in your nightgown at 4 o’clock in the morning. So my dad came and put a deadbolt in our door.”      

Scott, the youngest Paterno, repeated David’s tradition of early escapes after the family moved to McKee Street. Just a pre-schooler, his goal was to enjoy a late night snack. At first, Sue didn’t know he was the culprit when cookies or candy went missing from the lunches she had packed for the older children. But then, late one night, Sue heard the front door close and she went outside. “There was Scotty eating the cookies and candy,” she says. “It was 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock in the morning.”


Joe and Sue Paterno with daughters Diana and Mary Kay in 1966. Photo courtesy Penn State University Libraries Photo Archive

LOTS OF HUMOR

Love was undoubtedly the hallmark of Sue Paterno’s parenting, but laughter was a close second. Today, she chuckles continually as she recalls her kids’ and grandkids’ antics. Then she points out a decorative poster in her living room that was made by a friend. Here’s how it reads: “This home runs on love, laughter, Hershey Kisses and lots of Diet Pepsi.”

Of course, Joe was just as quick as Sue to crack a joke or find humor in the shenanigans of the children. He loved to toss around a light-hearted word of sarcasm, and one line that Scott found especially amusing was this: “I chose your mother, but I’m stuck with you guys.”  

It wasn’t easy for the Paternos to get time together, but Joe and Sue agreed that the family would always try to eat dinner together when Joe was in State College. In order to make that possible, Sue would typically bathe the kids and put them in their pajamas before Joe arrived for a 7 or 7:30 pm meal.

BATH CHALLENGES; DINNER LAUGHS

There was a time, however, when the Paternos tried a different evening format. Joe volunteered to bathe the kids after dinner, and Sue was more than willing to let him try. Her approach to baths was rather hang-loose, allowing the kids to bring waterproof toys into the tub and letting them splash around just a bit. It produced a wet bathroom floor, but the kids were always happy and so was Sue. As for Joe, he thought the kids should be able to operate according to more traditional bathtub protocol—no toys, no splashing.

How did it work? “I’m doing the dishes and I hear all this crying,” recalls Sue. So I said to Joe, “I tell you what. This isn’t working. But I have the ideal job for you. You read the book to them. And that turned out to be the one. He loved doing it, and they loved it.”

Many of Sue’s sweetest or funniest memories stem from time spent around the dinner table. One of her favorites comes from dinner on the last night before Scott’s birth, when she and Joe asked each of the children to state their preferences for the baby.

“Diana wanted a baby girl named Joanne—‘Jo’ from ‘Joe’ and ‘anne’ from ‘Suzanne.’ Mary Kay wanted a girl. David wanted a boy,” Sue says. “When it came to Jay (then 4 years old), he said, ‘Well, if you can do anything about it, I’d rather have a dog.’”

BUSY DAY FOR BABY’S BIRTH

Despite their consistent dinners together, the Paterno family rarely escaped very far from the demands of coaching. In fact, the next day — the day of Scott’s birth — provides a good example. When Sue realized her labor had begun, she put aside any thought of calling Joe and instead dropped off Jay at a neighbor’s home, called her mother in Latrobe and then drove herself to the hospital.  

Later in the day, Joe called home to say that he would not be able to come home between football practice and his weekly television show, “TV Quarterbacks.” Surprised to reach Sue’s mother on the McKee Street phone, Joe called the hospital and learned that baby No. 5 had arrived.

Pressed for time between practice and his TV show, Joe hustled to the hospital in hopes of getting time with Sue and the baby. But the obstetrician asked for a bunch of autographs, not just for his kids but also for their friends. That favor for a football fan in a white coat cost Joe some precious time. As a result, he had to hurriedly leave the hospital after a quick hug for Sue and no chance to see the baby.

The venerable football coach walked onto the TV set a bit late, but when host Jim Tarman playfully asked why, Joe announced the arrival of the baby. And then Sue, watching on a little television set in her hospital room, got a big surprise. Although she and Joe had agreed on the name “Thomas Jeffrey Paterno,” she suddenly heard her husband tell everyone in TV land the name of the baby: “George Scott Paterno.”

Why the change? “His brother was George, and he never had any kids,” says Sue. “So Joe decided it while driving between here and there. And we had talked about the name Scott. I liked Scott Alan, but you don’t want initials ‘SAP’ on your suitcase.” What did she say to Joe after his surprise announcement? “That’s OK, honey.”


The Paterno family in 1972. Photo courtesy Jay Paterno

A NEAR TRAGEDY

Sue could handle most situations with her energy and warm personality. But at a point in 1977, she was forced to rely on nothing but grit and round-the-clock prayer. Driving toward a game in Syracuse on October 14, her van was intercepted by Pennsylvania State Police. She and some assistant coaches’ wives were then told to follow police to the nearest barracks. There, Sue was instructed to call Joe, and she heard his anguished voice explain that 11-year-old David was hospitalized after a terrible fall off a trampoline at school. “Hurry up,” said Joe. “I don’t know how much time we have.”   

Indeed, when Sue arrived at the I.C.U. in Danville’s Geisinger Hospital, she saw that David’s situation was grave. Having fractured his skull, he was in a coma from which he would not emerge for seven days. During that period, the Paternos were restricted to 15-minute visits each hour but encouraged during those visits to speak loudly as a stimulus to David’s recovery.  

“We prayed for 45 minutes, we visited for 15 minutes,” says Sue. “We prayed for 45, we visited for 15. Joe had told the doctors to keep him alive until he knew where he was; then he would fight.”

After a week during which he nearly perished, David opened his eyes and spoke. His voice was altered by a tracheotomy pipe but his first words—“I need your prayers”—could be clearly heard. Not only was his immediate survival a miracle, but he amazed everyone by staging a total recovery. Said the doctor, “You know, Sue, I’m not a religious man but you owe this to the man upstairs.” Responded Sue, “You were a big help but, yes, I think God had a lot to do with it.”

TIMES OF STRESS

As perhaps only a mom will understand, Sue’s own recovery from David’s experience was a lengthy one. “I really wasn’t OK,” she says of her experience during the months that followed. “It took about nine or 10 months and then I felt it (the stress) just leave me. It was amazing. I called my mother and said, ‘I think I’m normal again.’”

When asked how the Paternos handled requests for photos of the children or public appearances by the children, her answer was just “No.” And then she elaborated. A series of death threats against Joe and his loved ones came into their home phone during the mid-1970s. Police took the matter seriously, and the FBI provided assistance. Nothing ever happened to the family and no evildoer was ever apprehended, but, Sue says, “It was a big threat. It was really horrible.”

Sue answered such a call not too long after David’s return from the hospital. One can only imagine her emotions when she heard that nefarious voice while still recovering from the trauma of David’s accident. “You were lucky this time,” said the voice. “You won’t be so lucky next time.”

TOUGH LOVE

Although she was all about nurture, encouragement and fun, Sue could be a tough mom when necessary. “They didn’t like being disciplined, obviously,” she notes. “I remember asking them to clean up the playroom, all five of them. But they didn’t want to clean it up, so they decided they wanted to run away. And it was winter.

“I said, ‘That’s fine, but no, you can’t take your snow suits.’ And they were getting food out of the refrigerator and making sandwiches. I said, ‘No, no, that’s my food. If you’re going to run away, you have to get your own food.’ After a half hour of this, they were ready to clean the playroom.”

Sue looks askance at any cut-and-dried formula for parental effectiveness. As she puts it, “Everyone tries to tell you (parents) what to do.  You have to have all these things assigned. But maybe that doesn’t work. Every family has to find out what works in their situation. I grew up in a family where my dad was home every night at a certain time; we ate at the same time every night. But with Joe, I had to learn that we ate whenever—one night at 7:30, one night at 7.”

HELPING STUDENTS WIN

Given the challenges of raising five kids and undergirding her husband’s work, some might wonder how Sue could find time to tutor athletes who struggled in school. But her mentality was that “you can always make time for something.” And she was determined to help fulfill Joe’s goal of fielding a championship team with players who were getting a quality education. “You tell parents that the education is the most important thing,” she says, “so you’d better make sure they get that.”

One particular player who shall remain nameless presented extra challenges. He came from a difficult background with a father who had gone to jail on drug charges. His academic background was weak. And he didn’t always plan ahead for his school deadlines. But Sue sacrificed in order to add him to a list of four others she was already tutoring. And she sacrificed again to help him on February 14, which was a double holiday of Valentine’s Day and her birthday. Rather than enjoying a nice restaurant meal with Joe as they had planned, Sue helped save the player from a last-minute academic crisis. “Joe and I ordered a pizza,” says Sue, and you can tell she really didn’t mind too much in light of the need.

But Sue did make one later demand of this player. Because he left school early for professional football, it appeared he might be the first of her tutored players to fail to graduate. When Sue saw him later at a Penn State game, she said, “You owe me six credits (all that he needed for graduation).” A few years later, after the player’s NFL career had ended, the Paternos were thrilled to receive an invitation to his graduation.

CELEBRATING MOTHER’S DAY

Asked how she’ll celebrate this year’s Mother’s Day (also the 57th anniversary of her marriage to Joe), Sue said that the family doesn’t plan details very far ahead. “We’ll be together, that much we know,” said the woman who now answers to “Grandma Cookie.”

Family togetherness is her greatest value and highest source of pride. “We’ve had tragedy,” says the long-time State College resident. “But the kids are all dealing with it together. I’m proud that they’re all close. It’s been extremely difficult, but everybody’s helped each other and me. That’s what you want in the end, to stay together.”  

Asked if she had any words of instruction or encouragement for the mothers of Happy Valley, Sue said this: “Enjoy your kids; enjoy your families. It takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it.  Mostly, let them know you love them.”



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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