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Joe Paterno and The Penn State Student

by on January 23, 2012 11:36 PM

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 a man of the students.

And a man for all semesters.

Penn State students flocked to him, believed in him, revered him. And saw him up close, almost every day, for six decades.

Joe may not have given the media much access. But when it came to the students on the University Park campus, and all around town, Paterno was perpetually approachable.

From the HUB to Hotel State College, Will Rogers had nothing on Joe Paterno.

He treated students as individuals, and we have the integers to prove it.

In the very first class of “Joe Paterno, Communications & The Media” every fall, students were assigned to write a one-page essay on “Joe Paterno & I.” They were to write about any personal dealings with Paterno. The class then compared the reality of those experiences against the perceptions and portrayals of Paterno by the media.

The idea was to establish a benchmark for personal reporting vs. views of Paterno through the iPhones of the media, the branding of PR czars, the blurry lens of a fawning network and the artificiality of his 2,321st press conference.

Not surprising was that with one consistent exception (when Joe was behind the wheel, students agreed, he was all the rage), the students’ dealings with Paterno were legendary.

Surprising was the sheer number of students who met, talked, visited and were personally affected by Paterno.

Over the course of the course’s four years, the results were consistent: Without fail, between 35 and 48 percent of the students in each class had crossed paths with Paterno – up close and personal -- and their takeaway was nearly always incredibly favorable.

Here’s the math: Out of nearly 250 kids in class from 2008-2011, 107 had a personal JoePa moment.

We’re not talking football games or pep rallies or THON appearances, all awe-inspiring for tens of thousands of students. We’re talking students being invited into Joe’s house after singing carols, or sitting down at the Creamery with a Peachy Paterno ice cream cone while the treat’s namesake did the same.

It’s an amazing list, these kids connecting with the Old Codger. To refresh my memory, I pulled out my PowerPoints from the past four years. This is what the students reported themselves, all in essay form (this is college, after all):

Joe gave students high-fives and handshakes. Stopped to chat at the beach and often beseeched kids to study. He winked, he nodded, he smiled. He asked for help finding peas at Wegmans and answered pleas for photos and autographs. He danced with a coed and escorted not one, but two of them home from campus at night.

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Joe helped a student whose car broke down and gave pep talks at other teams’ practices. He loaned a student his coat and brought pizza after pizza to Paternoville. Cheerleaders were invited inside the last house on the left on North McKee Street. And so was a rag-tag band of frat brothers.

Joe was an equal-opportunity legend.

Lest we forget: Sue, too, was often there – opening her house and sharing her home and her husband.

Beginning in 1950, Paterno morphed from a cocky assistant to a fresh head coach to national figure to hero to icon to grandfather to legend to near-myth – and then, a mere mortal. 

But the Penn State students always knew he was a regular Joe, warts, big nose, over-sized glasses and all. To them, Joe was low-tech but high touch.

In many ways, he was simply Joe. It’s not a myth, not apocryphal: Paterno walked among the students, often stopping to talk, as he went to and from his office (first to Rec Hall and then to his office at the east end of campus), downtown and on countless sidewalks, trails and neighborhood streets while on his brisk walks around the community.

PATERNO: HIS STORY

Scratch a couple of students and nearly half have A Joe Story.

One student shared photos of the time her dad – accompanied by the entire family – visited with Joe in his office for more than an hour, as the coach served cookies and soda. Joe had never met the man before. The girl’s father had cancer and died a few weeks after the visit. She said it was the family’s one shining moment of his terminal illness.

Joe would call sick parents, ill undergrads in recovery and at least one student journalist whose performance in a press conference made the coach sick to the stomach.

It was about five years ago and the kid, usually a very good student, wasn’t prepared and asked Paterno – easily old enough to be his grandfather – a stupid question. Joe called him out, made him look silly. Everyone felt bad for the kid. Everyone but Joe.

The student gathered himself and the next day wrote Joe a note, apologizing for being unprepared and wondering if he had any advice. The student hand-delivered it to Paterno’s office. (OK, I prompted the kid to do write the wrong, having a pretty good idea how it would play out.)

A day later, Joe’s assistant called. The coach wanted to meet the reporter. Well, both of them were busy – this was in the midst of fall classes – and they couldn’t pick a time that worked for both. (I said to the kid, “Really?!”) So Joe picked up the phone and called the budding and bungling journalist. It was early in the morning – “I was in my robe,” the student told me later, “and Joe Paterno was on phone.”

There’s a happy ending. The two talked for 20 or so minutes, recapping a bit what happened in the depresser but focusing more on the lesson learned and the responsibilities of being a journalist, no matter what your age.

THE PROF IS IN THE PUDDING

People say they don’t know what Joe would have done had he retired years ago. They said – and he did, too, I know – that he might be lost without football.

I disagree. Joe would have been lost without kids, without students, without youth, without teaching. So, after football -- if there had been that for Joe Paterno -- he would have been a helluva professor, a lecturer nonpareil.

Years ago, I used to take my sports writing class to Paterno’s Tuesday press conference. And he would talk to the kids after meeting the press, in the bowels of the cold and quiet Beaver Stadium. I remember one such session. The students were gathered around the old coach, in a circle – a huddle of sorts. And as he talked to them about their future careers, he kept on turning, his gaze locking in on one student then the next.

He pointed, he scolded, he gesticulated, he Joetisculated. “Get it right,” he implored. “It isn’t easy, you guys. Newspapers are a lot of work.”

All of media was newspapers to him. “You guys” meant women, too. At the end of a score’s worth of minutes, here was the lesson, and he meant it:

“If you’re not going to put in the work, if you really don’t care about it, do something else. You have to love it – because I know there’s not a lot of money in it.”

Paterno shook his head, nodding his black-haired noggin a bit as he sometimes did when he made a point he particularly liked.

The students got it. They got Joe Paterno.

And he most certainly got them.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football 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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