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Joe Paterno and State College

by on January 27, 2012 7:50 AM

This week, Mike Poorman is writing a series of columns chronicling the impact of Joe Paterno over the 34 years Poorman has written about and been
a part of Penn State.

Tuesday: Joe Paterno & The Penn State Students

Wednesday: Joe Paterno & The Interviews

Thursday: Joe Paterno & The Paterno Class

Friday: Joe Paterno & State College

Joe Paterno was Penn State. But he was of State College.

It is where he resided in 1950, his first year in town, when he set up shop in the basement of Steve and Ginger Suhey.

And it is where he lived for 60 of the next 61 years of his life.

Save for a single season in 1951, when he lived on campus in McKee Hall to look after the football players, State College was his residence -- and his home.

“From 1952 to 1962, Joe Paterno was the man who came to dinner and never left,” Jim O’Hora once said. He was Joe’s mentor, defensive coordinator, assistant coach and Dutch uncle.

O’Hora was also Joe’s landlord. For a decade, Paterno lived with the O’Hora family, kids and all, with his own bedroom and bathroom, even moving with them when they built a new house.

In 1962, soon after Jim finally told Joe it was time go off on his own, Joe married Sue Pohland. And State College became the place where they raised five children and hosted generations of Penn State football players and their parents, donors and friends.

Their house stands at the end of McKee Street north of campus, the last one on the left, the road ending in a dead-end that empties onto Sunset Park, with no houses to the back or to the right. Eventually, everyone knew where Joe lived. In State College.

Joe would walk to work in Rec Hall, for many years toiling in a non-descript room off the indoor running track. It was seven blocks from Joe’s house to Rec, cutting through Hort Woods. Being a brisk walker, he could maneuver the commute in less than a dozen minutes.

The Paternos almost left State College several times, for towns like New Haven, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Boston. But they stayed. In State College.

State College was where Joe Paterno became a man, his own man. He’d eat spaghetti for under a buck at The Tavern, when Jace and Ralph owned it and the Beskett twins, Joe and Andy, ran it.

State College was where Joe could come into The Corner Room, grab a seat around the big, round wooden table behind the thick pillar in the front dining room. There he’d sit with the regulars from both town and campus, drinking coffee and having conversation with professors and merchants who formed the core of a small college town.

Joe’s town.

Gown lived in town those days. The HUB wasn’t one-stop shopping, in the 1950s East Halls and Beaver Stadium were not yet at the edge of the world, and downtown State College was made for grocery shopping and hardware stores and newsstands. It was a place for a regular Joe.

                                                * * * * *

The Corner Room was where Joe retreated decades later, on an afternoon not too long before perhaps his closest friend in his later years, former Merrill Lynch chairman Bill Schreyer, passed away.

The two friends, both in their 80s, grabbed a seat at Table No. 1, a booth with high-back blue cushions next to the revolving doors. The place was slow -- it around 3 o’clock, between lunch and dinner. The waitress snuck upstairs to get them beverages a bit stronger than a university-issued Pepsi.

Folks walked in and did a double-take, but left the men alone (“Who’s that with Joe Paterno?”), while students lingered outside the window, feigning phone calls while actually sneakily snapping pictures.

The chairman had built a financial empire that eventually crumbled after he retired, but his tens of millions built a honors college, rebuilt a president’s house and were the foundation of many good works. The coach? He built a football team and a good bit of a university.

In 1855, the year Farmers High School was formed, Jacks Roadhouse first appeared at the corner of College and Allen. It was the crossroads of town – if there had actually been a town. State College was incorporated in 1896.

The borough of State College has a population of 42,034, according to the 2010 U.S Census. Counting the surrounding townships, which with the borough comprise the Centre Region, the population swells to all of 92,000. That’s equal to the population of Vacaville, Calif.

Right, I never heard of it, either. Until now. We would have, though, if Joe Paterno had lived there.

In tiny State College, Joe and his wife Sue stood out, but were never stand-offish. You could often see Sue shopping at Weis or Joe walking the old railroad bed behind his house or in neighborhoods like Greenbriar and Saybrook three miles west of his house.

Joe and his wife Sue were good citizens, and no doubt Sue will continue to be so. They were key supporters of what became the Catholic student center, as well as Special Olympics and Centre Volunteers In Medicine, among many others.

They even gave $1 million to help build a new wing of the Mount Nittany Medical Center – the very hospital in which Paterno was treated for cancer and ultimately passed away.

They more than paid their civic dues.

                                                * * * * *

Joe was State College’s cartographer. In the words of an inebriated professor who was stumbling along Allen several years ago (not me!), “Joe Paterno mapped this town. He mapped it!”

In Paterno’s 62 years here, the borough has retained that small town feel, especially right by the campus.

I once asked Joe what he thought of the growth along the Atherton Street corridor and all the new neighborhoods. “I know the ‘Old State College,’ “ he said, “like the ‘Old San Antonio.’ ”

State College was Joe’s comfort zone, for decades. He could walk among the people and be one of them. Certainly that wasn’t often the case in recent years -- alumni and visitors, especially, were excited by a Joe Sighting. But, for many of the locals, while Joe was a welcome fixture, they weren’t fixated on him.

A good dozen years ago, I was downtown one morning during spring break. The sun was out, but not many people. Joe was coming out of Graham’s – this was the “new” Graham’s, the one that sold Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. He had on a pair of sneakers and a blue windbreaker. In his arms was a stack of newspapers, the New York Times on top, I believe. The two-inch armful of papers wasn’t rare; I’d seen him come and go his football office in the same manner.

Well, Joe and I got to talking – about the weather and how nice and quiet things were for a change – and then…

“Joe, Joe,” someone shouted. The ranks were closing in on him.

“Hey,” he said. “Gotta go.”

And he took off posthaste, up Allen and across campus and back to College Heights.

                                                * * * * *

It was years later, then, that he and Schreyer were at Table No. 1.

The conversation was spirited – but wasn’t it always with Joe? Both men were leaned over, engaged in serious discussion. They pointed their fingers at each other, driving home their ideas.

It was friendly, though, the kind of exchange of ideas that Joe no doubt had in that very same room a half-century before.

With Joe Paterno, some things never changed.

Until now.

 



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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