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Joe Battista: A Quarter of a Century Well Spent

by on September 20, 2012 7:02 AM

On Aug. 28, 1987, I returned to Happy Valley after a five-year hiatus working in the real world to begin work as the head coach of the Penn State Icers club hockey team and assistant ice rink director. I told my parents I would give it five years and see if I could help get the hockey program to varsity status. If not, I would probably get out of coaching and get on with my life’s work (whatever the heck I thought that would be).

On Aug. 28, 2012, I celebrated 25 years of service to Dear Old State. It's hard to believe 25 years has gone by so fast. There have been so many fun, certainly challenging, always interesting, and mostly memorable moments at PSU.

As I look back at some of the funnier and more memorable moments in my 25 years at PSU, I am reminded of why this place is so special and always will be. It’s the people. I want to say thanks to all the folks who have helped me over the course of my career here at PSU. No one ever accomplishes anything significant by themselves, and I am certainly no exception. Former Penguins coach Bob Johnson always said “surround yourself with people who will make you better.” I have tried to live up to that challenge and can honestly say that I have been blessed with great friends and colleagues while here at Dear Old State.

I owe a lot to so many different people who have been my mentors, counselors, friends, and colleagues. But I have to give a special shout out to former club sports director Vance McCullough, former ice rink manager Larry Fies, and former associate athletic director, Herb Schmidt, for hiring me. They probably regret it and teased me many times throughout the years but they were always there for me and I will always be grateful.

After that, the list of people who influenced my life in significant ways started to grow exponentially (and I will apologize in advance for inadvertently leaving someone out). I became reacquainted with an old friend from my undergrad days, the former Heidi Smith, who became my wife in August of 1989. Her parents, Nellie (who has since passed away) and Smitty, retired to Happy Valley and my children were able to enjoy an amazing amount of time with their grandparents as a result. Smitty is a second father to me and there are few better human beings who have ever walked this earth. 

We also live in an amazing neighborhood filled with some wonderful people, especially Michelle, Wes, Jack, Mariel, and Nick; John, Cindy and Emma, Dr. O and Greta, Scott and Christine, and former next door neighbors, Ed and Marion Dornell (we miss you guys). I am so glad we resisted the temptation to move from our home and instead chose to add-on and renovate and keep our house a home.

My three kids mean the world to me and while I am not always the perfect dad, I have really enjoyed watching them grow up in such a terrific town. My daughter Brianna, a junior at PSU, is a gorgeous young lady, inside and out, (hey, cut me some slack here, she’s my “lil’ goil”) and a dad’s best friend. Jonathon, a freshman at PSU, is a tall glass of water and a really bright kid who is going to be a big success in the tech world. It’s been fun watching him mature into the young man he has become. Ryan, in his first year in Park Forest Middle School, is our sports kid who is totally into playing baseball, basketball, and golf and is doing really well in school. The kids have wonderful friends, many of whom have parents that have become great friends of ours as well.

We have made so many great friends, who are really like family, such as Ray Lombra and Paul Cohen, (the “Doc’s” to me) and their wives Bobbi and Sarah, the lovely Ruth Hussey, Paul and Rhoma Fatur, Norm and Sue Hutchison, Paul and Karen Cervellero, Tom and Sharyn Keegan, Kim and Grant Phillips, Dave and Lydia Grimm, Don Spencer, Vinnie Scalamogna, Don Boller, John Dufford, Scott Balboni, John Segursky, Tim Holdcroft, and all my other assistant coaches and staff, members of the booster club, and the HMA, and of course the hundreds of young men who I had the honor of coaching with the PSU Icers.

Winning six National Titles was pretty cool, but making some lifelong friends and watching the young guys’ blossom into productive adults was what really made it special (right, Dr. VJ Nardy?!!). I am so proud of what we were able to achieve as a hockey program and the Icer Family will always be at the very front of my most memorable moments at PSU.

To all my hockey buddies on the GeoHabs and from the wheezers and geezers (the older we get, the better we were!), thanks for making it fun to still lace’em up and to relive the glory days (well, sort of!).

In more recent years I have been blessed to have friends and mentors like Dick and Julie Bartolomea, Paul and Nancy Silvis, Rod and Mitch Kirsch, Cliff Benson, J.D. Hammond, Joyce Matthews, Doug Collins, Chris Bahr, RJ Gimbl, Dan and Michelle Delligatti, Greg Pilewicz, John and Jackie Hook, Steve and Eileen Smith, Jim and Janet Meister, Lindsay and David Stine, and of course, Terry and Kim Pegula, who made this hockey crazed alum’s life-long dream come true. Penn Staters through and through and among the best of what this university has produced in graduates, faculty and colleagues.

Without all the great advice, guidance, and friendships made over the years, I would have never made it through the ups and downs, the good times and the tough times, and all of life’s biggest moments (marriage, three great kids, and the passing of loved ones). I really never expected to be here this long. I left a great job in a small “paradise” known as Culver Military Academy in Culver, Ind. (35 minutes southwest of Notre Dame) where almost daily I played golf on our own school owned course, water skied on Lake Maxincukee, played tennis, went horseback riding, and had my own keys to the ice rink.

New York Times Best Selling author and good friend John Bacon and I first met while coaching hockey at Culver (a prep school powerhouse) and John and I would play full ice one-on-one hockey until we couldn’t stand. He has a permanent scar on his leg where I gave him a pretty good slash! John is actually in town a lot these days writing a book on several Big Ten Football programs that are all going through unique periods of transition, including PSU.

I cannot go further without mentioning the events of the past nine months. I have watched good friends lose their jobs; families move away, friends and family members become estranged because of where they stood on the “scandal” that has rocked our Happy Valley. I will keep my thoughts private on the way I feel but suffice it to say I am proud to have known and worked with coach (Joe) Paterno, Tim Curley and President Graham Spanier. My memories of my time with them will always be more positive than negative because they were “in the Arena, where cold and timid souls dare not go”. While I had my share of differences with each of them over the years, I will subscribe to the theory that “a man is greater than his failings”.

I will also stand up and be counted among the thousands who were totally fooled by “he who shall remain nameless” and I am deeply saddened by the hurt he caused. My recollection of the Second Mile will still be mostly positive and the friendship that I still have to this day with my former Second Mile friend from the early '80s, ScottMartin, is something I will treasure forever. Scott and his wife and kids return to PSU annually and will always hold a special place in my heart. I know that while there were serious crimes committed, and my prayers continue to go out to the victims, there are the forgotten victims in this tragedy: All the kids who did benefit from the positive experiences of the Second Mile camps and programs. It will always be one of the great paradoxes of my life that an organization that helped so many could also harbor the horrors that we have all endured when they became known on that sad day in November 2011.

Enough of the ugly, let’s focus on the good, the fact that we are still a world class institution with amazing people and tremendous offerings. May we all be able, in our own way, to come to peace with what has happened and use it to forever shine a light on child abuse and to serve as a constant reminder that we must stay vigilant in our commitment to the safety of all kids.

So I got my cool looking PSU rocking chair, the 25 year plaque, and some hilarious cards from friends and co-workers on the 28th. I asked not to have a party but to instead have the portion of the cost of the party donated to United Way or THON. But the surprise party was very much appreciated. A special thanks to all those able to attend the impromptu, surprise, 25 year "mustache" ceremony (with a special thanks to Sandi Segursky and her daughter Taryn for their efforts and creativity). Note in the photo that everyone was wearing “Joeba Mustaches” even though mine got the ceremonial shaving when Ryan’s baseball team made it to states for Little League.

As I walk around the Pegula Ice Arena construction site these days, I realize that dreams can come true, that passion and persistence do matter, that life will have its ups and downs, and that nothing great ever happened without a lot of help and support from others! To Coach Gadowsky and his staff (especially Billy D.), Coach Brandwene and his staff, and the staff at the ice rink, while I may be the biggest “PITA” in the world at times, know that I am always there for you as we enter the new “Ice Age” at Penn State. The future is so bright for your teams and the spanking new facility and I can’t wait until the first time we all get to don our blades and cut into the fresh ice at Pegula Ice Arena.

In closing I have to give a special thanks to my parents Joe and Angie. Without your sacrifices I would never have had the chance to be among the first in our family to attend college and I can’t think of a better place to have been dropped off as an 18 year old! It seems as though I never left.

Thanks for coming along on this mostly fun, sometimes frustrating, and certainly never dull, ride for the past quarter century.

Joe Battista has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities since 1978. He is best known for his effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley and in the building of Pegula Ice Arena. “JoeBa” is the owner of PRAGMATIC Passion, LLC consulting, a professional speaker, success coach, and the vice president of the National Athletic and Professional Success Academy (NAPSA). He is the author of a new book, “The Power of Pragmatic Passion.” Joe lives in State College with his wife Heidi (PSU ’81 & ’83), daughter Brianna (PSU ’15), and son’s Jon (PSU ’16), and Ryan (State High Class of 2019).
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