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John Black: The Man Behind The Football Letter for 42 Years and Counting

by on October 12, 2017 5:00 AM

I knew I would be in the presence of Nittany Valley greatness when I scheduled an interview with John Black, a legendary figure among Penn State alumni.

Black is now serving in his 42nd year as the writer of The Football Letter, sent weekly during gridiron season to most of the Penn State Alumni Association’s 175,000 members. What John Black doesn’t know about Penn State football is simply not worth knowing.

I first met John and his lovely wife, Veda Kay, briefly at a 1972 event sponsored by Acacia, the fraternity to which he and I belong. I followed his career and read his work over the years, but I never really got to know him. So, as I sat down recently to talk with John in the Blacks’ Park Forest Village home, I felt curious about the source of his success.

But as we talked, the concept of “success” seemed relatively unimportant. As successful as John Black has been, I sensed that’s not the key to understanding him. Instead, I realized that the “goodness” of John Black overshadows his “greatness.” A former Marine who has worked so many years within the aura of a prominent athletic program, John could be forgiven for going macho and trumpeting his achievements. But whenever I asked him about his experiences or accomplishments, he responded with comments about other people.

For example, I asked John to describe his excitement in January of 1983, when Penn State won its first national football championship. He responded by sadly noting that Ridge Riley, his predecessor with The Football Letter, had passed away before the Lions achieved this milestone.

When I asked him to describe his most thrilling connection to Penn State football, he answered by highlighting the accomplishments of student-athletes like John Urschel, who recently retired from the NFL to focus on Ph.D. studies at M.I.T.

And even when I took our conversation way back to the early 1960s and The Daily Collegian newspaper (after two years of sportswriting, John became editor-in-chief), he quickly talked about other people. Rather than focus on his work as editor-in-chief of Penn State’s student paper, he acknowledged that “I did a decent job,” but then spoke about the two well-qualified women who lost out to him in the competition for that position. “It always bothered me,” he said, “that there may have been prejudice against having a female editor.”

That’s when I truly appreciated the heart of John Black. You see, I remember the 1960s, and I don’t think most men during that decade thought twice about being chosen over women for key positions. Even the Blue Band of those days would enter Beaver Stadium with a jubilant introduction like this: “And now—the 200-member, all-male, Penn State Blue Band!”  

John Black's senior entry in the 1962 La Vie yearbook. Image via La Vie / Penn State University Libraries Archive


Ridge Riley gave birth to The Football Letter in 1938 when he was the director of the Alumni Association, and he was its only writer until his death in 1976. No one could have fit the role better than “Mr. Penn State,” a bundle of energy and Penn State pride. At least no one until Riley’s death thrust John Black into the position. Black was an obvious choice due to his knowledge of football -- he briefly played quarterback at Penn State and later covered the Lions for the Collegian before he became that newspaper’s editor-in-chief.

And so the product of Lancaster’s J.P. McCaskey High School and 1962 graduate of Penn State put his hand to the Alumni Association’s typewriter in August of 1976. He and Veda Kay were married on July 31, 1965; the couple has their three grown children and eight grandchildren. The following are highlights of my conversation with John in early October:

When you first started doing The Football Letter, what were your expectations?

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Black: I thought I would do it for a few years. Ridge, of course, originated it and wrote it until the day that he died. The last letter that he wrote covered the Penn State loss to Alabama, 13-6, in the Sugar Bowl which was played on December 31, 1975. When we all got back from the bowl trip, he brought his letter to the alumni office that morning and asked me to proofread it. That night, he was at Joe Paterno’s house, talking to Joe about the 1975 season. Ridge was writing his book, Road to Number One.  Well, it was all completed except the last chapter which was about the ‘75 season. And he had a heart attack in Joe’s living room and died — January 5, 1976.

Ridge did the letter for 38 years, and now you’re in your 42nd. So how does that make you feel?

Black: Like an old man. I’ve enjoyed doing it. It’s interesting, it kept me involved with Penn State football and gave me another opportunity to interact with alumni at away games as well as home games. I just never saw any reason to stop.

What’s kept you motivated into your fifth decade with The Football Letter? That’s a long haul.

Black: I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s another way to maintain contact with alumni. Ridge started it with the idea of one loyal alum talking to another alum about Saturday’s game. He tried to have that personal flavor, as an alumnus on campus, the eyes and ears of those who maybe didn’t see the game. Of course, when he started it in 1938, there would be 10,000 or 15,000 people at a home game. I try to maintain that idea — the eyes and ears here at the game. Hopefully, each alumnus who reads it feels like he’s having a private conversation with me about the game.

You played for Penn State one year, correct?

Black: I didn’t really play. I went out for football.

Did you see the field during varsity action?

Black:  No, no. I was behind Richie Lucas (runner-up for the 1959 Heisman Trophy), Don Jonas (future star in the Canadian Football League, Galen Hall (eventual head coach at University of Florida) and Wally Brewster (a freshman who never broke into the lineup). I only played in spring practice. I saw that my time could be better spent as a sportswriter. But I did play in the Blue-White game of 1959.

You’ve had Penn State football connections for all these years. Can you mention any constants that have gone all the way from Rip Engle to Joe Paterno to Bill O’Brien to James Franklin?

Black: I feel that we’ve always played with legitimate student-athletes who were getting a good education. And if they did not maintain their academics, they didn’t play. That was Rip’s philosophy, that was Joe’s philosophy — the spring I was on the team, he was the quarterback coach — and I felt he was always what he professed to be, an educator. Bill O’Brien, of course, came here from the pros, but he required his kids to go to class and maintain their grades — despite the sanctions that were handed out and left him very short-handed. Then when Coach Franklin was selected to succeed Bill O’Brien, I was very appreciative of the fact that he was coming from Vanderbilt where he competed in Division 1-A football with legitimate student-athletes. Vanderbilt has an excellent academic reputation; they had to be good students.

What would you say has been your most thrilling experience in being connected to Penn State football?

Black: Well… seeing Penn State help to produce a John Urschel, who’s such a great scholar and yet was an excellent football player. Seeing us produce other top football players who were also Academic All-Americans, post-graduate scholarship winners, Academic All-Big 10 selections. I certainly got a great thrill out of the 1986 team’s win in the Fiesta Bowl over Miami. Even more so because they had been portrayed — I’m not trying to denigrate somebody else — but they had been portrayed as a football-only team that had a very arrogant attitude. And we could be the boys in the white hats. To the credit of the fans in that area (Phoenix), sitting in that stadium, you had the feeling that anybody who was not an alum or directly connected to the Miami team was rooting for Penn State. There were some members of that Miami team who were excellent students, but that was not the general image of the team.

John Black. Photo by Bill Horlacher

What was the most difficult or painful experience that you had to report?

Black: I guess that would be the game right after the presentment of the grand jury back in November of 2011. Our first game after that was Nebraska, we lost to Nebraska. That was the most difficult. But I tried to concentrate on the positive. I thought there was a great expression on the field between the two teams, circling together for a moment of prayer before the start of the game. That was a wonderful expression, I thought, by both teams.

I think the university and the State College community was blindsided by the Sandusky situation. He’d been such an upstanding member of the community, and he was so revered for the non-profit charity that he put together to benefit young people. And there are some people who still don’t believe he was guilty. And I don’t know whether he was or not, but I can only accept the judgment of the court. And maintain my love and loyalty and support for the university and for the people who come after… to see that the university as a whole does the right thing, that the athletic teams do the right thing, that the Greek system does the right thing.

How much longer do you think you’ll write The Football Letter?

Black: I don’t know. Hopefully not to the day I die as Ridge did. But Ridge was only 70 when he died; I’m already 80 which is a sobering fact. I guess I’ll continue to do it as long as we have a readership which enjoys receiving it and as long as the Alumni Association thinks it is a worthwhile publication and as long as I still have the health and enjoy doing it.

Do you have a hunch? Do you have a target — 5 more years, 10 more years, 15?

Black:  I doubt that it will be 10. Hopefully, it might be five, but it might not be that long. How much longer the Lord gives me, who knows?

Do you have an athletic hope or dream? Like one more national championship?

Black: Certainly. Certainly, I’d love to see at least another national championship. I wouldn’t limit it to one. If I go another five years, I hope I see five more.

What would you really like to leave as your legacy after 40-plus years of writing The Football Letter?

Black: I’d like to leave the legacy of a devoted fan and loyal alum who took a great interest in the football team and how they represented the university and how they played to the best of their ability and gave us so many years of great pleasure. And how, with all of this, the game of football — sports in general — are merely one representation of the university and not the primary purpose for which the university exists.

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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