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To Speak for the Dead

by on January 26, 2017 5:01 AM

(Related Column: Columnist Bill Horlacher remembers a fleeting but unforgettable encounter with Joe Paterno)

There may be no more difficult task in public speaking than to speak for the dead, particularly editing and delivering the eulogy of a parent who left behind a long life of love and teaching. Battling the immediate emotions is challenging enough, but thoughtful reflection reveals the vast number of important individual moments that made you the person you have become. How do you encapsulate it all and explain what that life meant to you in a short amount of time?

Deciding what to include seems difficult until you start deciding what you have to leave out.

Five years ago today, I stood at a podium at the Bryce Jordan Center to eulogize Joe Paterno -- a husband, a father, a friend, a coach, an honest critic and a grandfather. At that moment, seven former players spanning six decades of football; Dean of Penn State’s College of Liberal Arts Susan Welch; Jeff Bast, the first mayor of Paternoville; Lauren Perotti, a scholar from the Paterno Fellows program; Father Matthew Laffey; and Nike CEO Phil Knight had all spoken so eloquently about a man that impacted so many people’s lives. It was a tough group to follow to say the least.

But like any child who gets to speak for a deceased parent it is an honor of a lifetime —an unwanted honor — but an honor all the same. Because we were fortunate to have a father who lived a long, full life, we certainly can’t complain. Because we knew the end was coming we were also fortunate that we could let go having left nothing unsaid.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote “I can accept all of the economy of life and all of human activities and human nature except one — grief.”

Grief is something we all face and it comes in uneven doses. My heart goes out to people who never knew one or both parents or those who lost a parent at a young age. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain of losing a child, or losing someone unexpectedly. In those instances grief can be magnified with the guilt of an unresolved issue or just the wish to say one more thing or tell them they loved them one more time.

No matter the circumstances of your life the reality of losing a beloved parent is the same. A void opens when you lose that parent’s advice, support or just that voice known to you from your first moments on earth. At times you want to pick up the phone and talk to them, or to get an honest critic’s perspective on something you want to do with your life. It may be as simple as having someone wiser knowingly bear witness to your youthful imperfections when you complain about your kids.

Even five years later there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my Dad. As with all who’ve lost a parent or parents, we hold onto the lessons and laughs in our memories until our time on Earth comes to an end. We hope to convey the same warmth, the same love and some of the memories and lessons we gathered from our parents to share with our own children or with others who knew them. In sharing, we hope to keep alive the radiance of our parents’ lives to illuminate our children’s paths on their lives’ journeys.

No matter our strength the loss remains and we find sustaining grace in our families, friends and faith, or in art, literature or music that speaks to the human condition. In a stanza from a Bruce Springsteen song he talks about a friend of his wife who passed too young. He recalled how often he’d seen her face through the window as she passed under an outdoor lamp on her way to the back door. He wrote these lyrics to convey those emotions.

“Now there’s a loss that can never be replaced,

A destination that can never be reached,

A light you’ll never find in another’s face,

A sea whose distance cannot be breached”

For all of us who’ve lost parents, we still see the light we found in our parents’ faces, the smile that told us of the depth of their love for us. They may be across “a sea whose distance cannot be breached,” yet even as days turn to years our hearts carry their immortal memories with us.

Years after they’ve passed and the words of a eulogy are forgotten, we are their legacy and we carry them forward. The actions of our lives are the words that best speak for the dead.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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My Unforgettable Glimpse of JoePa
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by Bill Horlacher
My Unforgettable Glimpse of JoePa
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