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Patty Kleban: How it Works in Our Small Town of State College

by on November 24, 2011 10:10 AM

Get out your notebooks. I’m about to explain to the national media who have camped out in State College how it works in a small town.

To the big city news reporter, national news anchor or Internet blogger, it may be hard for you to understand:

State College is a small town.

Even though we have a major university here, for all intents and purposes, living here is more like Mayberry than The Big Apple.

In a small town, there are fewer numbers of people. That means that most of us know each other from schools, work, church or by living in the same neighborhoods. With fewer employers and limited industry, in small towns, many of us have ties to each other through our jobs.

We cheer for the same high school football team. We are treated at one local hospital and have the same doctors. We bake casseroles for new babies and for funerals. We serve on the same PTO committees, carpool to a limited number of youth sports organizations and shop at the same grocery stores. We work out at the same gyms and eat in the same restaurants.  

We raise money and volunteer for the same charities.

A friend of mine recently said, “If you live here over 10 years, you pretty much know everybody.” It is six degrees of separation, but on a smaller scale.

The phenomenon of “six degrees of separation” has been studied by researchers and pop culturists alike. The idea is that through interpersonal interaction, we are connected to everyone on the planet by only six handshakes.

For example, one of my high school friends is in the Air Force and, until recently, served as the navigator for Air Force One. He has had direct interactions with several presidents, including President Obama. Early in his presidency, President Obama went to England and met Queen Elizabeth.  Queen Elizabeth is Prince William’s grandmother. Prince William is married to Kate Middleton. Oops, that’s only five. I’m five handshakes away from the future Queen of England. Six to her sister, Pippa. 

Through one of my daughter’s sorority sisters, I think I’m four handshakes away from Snooki on The Jersey Shore.  

In a small town like State College, the number of handshakes drops to about one or two.

She works with my husband. Our kids go to the same elementary school. He graduated with my sister. His son is in my class at Penn State. That’s that guy from church. 

The recent attempts by the media to show a conspiratorial link between people who have donated or volunteered with The Second Mile and the alleged cover-up of what is being called the Penn State Scandal demonstrates the ignorance of people who don’t understand a small town.

Confession: I have volunteered for The Second Mile. For many years, the students in my leadership classes at Penn State have assisted with Second Mile programs to meet their community leadership assignment requirements.  My husband has played in The Second Mile golf tournament. Somewhere in my closet I have a Second Mile T-shirt.

I could also confess to those same relationships for Easter Seals, Coaches vs. Cancer and a number of other local charities. 

In a big city, the pool of potential supporters for any charity event or community effort is much bigger. In a small town, the same people end up being tapped for support.

This is how it works: I was asked to serve on the community board of a local charity by a friend I met when our kids were on the same high school sport team. As a result of sitting on the sidelines and selling hot dogs in the concession stand, we developed a friendship. Through that friendship, I became someone she contacted in her efforts to support a charity for which she feels committed. Through that friendship, she may be someone I call to ask for help when my kid is selling candy bars or is raising money for a school trip. I might contact her through her business to sponsor a team for a youth sports organization. If she ever runs for office, I would probably donate to her campaign.

In a small town, the same businesses and professionals -- a.k.a. neighbors -- are asked repeatedly for dollars, donations and other support. Similarly, if a candidate runs for office in a small town, the pool of potential donors to a campaign fund is limited.

With one major employer in this area, many of those who supported The Second Mile also have links to Penn State.

The media, in their efforts to keep the story fresh, are attempting to create all kinds of nefarious relationships between volunteers and donors to The Second Mile, Penn State, a cover-up and the evil actions of one man.  

It’s like saying “these people all eat carrots,” which means that anyone who eats carrots is suspect.

I have never met Jerry Sandusky although – two handshakes away – he was the “celebrity” assigned to my husband’s foursome in a charity golf tournament several years ago. As a volunteer for The Second Mile, I would have had no occasion to know about, reflect upon or cover up any of his behaviors. I supported The Second Mile because its programs and services have been an important in improving the lives of at-risk children. There are many, many others in State College who would say the same thing.

The real story is about very troubled man who, having already acknowledged grossly inappropriate behaviors, may have used innocent children to feel empowered.  

This scandal has had a ripple effect in our small town. It’s almost impossible to find someone who hasn’t been impacted. It likely means The Second Mile will no longer be available to help kids. Let’s hope its programs can find another home organization that will continue to serve our most vulnerable.

The national media may hang out on Old Main lawn for a while, but they will eventually move on to the next big scandal. Unfortunately, the satellite trucks and the reporters will probably come back to roost when and if there is a trial.    Somehow our town doesn’t seem as small anymore.

Today, as we reflect on this special holiday, let’s take the time to be thankful for all that is good in this world and to send prayers to those who are hurting or are in need. I wish you all a wonderful and safe holiday season. Happy Thanksgiving.


Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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