Bellefonte Residents Can't Predict What Tuesday Will Bring
BELLEFONTE, Pa. — From the steps of the county courthouse, the blinding sun was about to dip below the downtown shops and houses and creep into darkness.
An elderly man walked down Allegheny Street wearing a flannel coat and a plain, dirty hat with the words “Bellefonte, Pa.” stitched in red letters.
As the weekend approached, one of the final days of normalcy for the residents of the quaint Victorian town on the outskirts of State College was coming to a close.
It was a few days before the preliminary hearing of the Sandusky child-sex-abuse scandal would cascade down the steep hills of town. The hearing is on Tuesday and it will swallow up life in Bellefonte like a tsunami. There was already one satellite truck parked outside the courthouse on Friday. Thankfully, the locals say, just one.
What the town really wants is to remain obscure, remain the prideful town that gently welcomes the influx of young and new without the social problems and chaos that is tagged to any major university.
But the townspeople know that is impossible.
“This will be like having the president drive up through here and be shot in a little town of Bellefonte,” a life-long resident said.
Preparations are already underway. Residents were made aware of road closures and parking procedures. Some shops are treating this like a holiday and closing their doors all together. But look hard at the faces of the 6,000 inhabitants. There is anger, fright, bewilderment. They’ve watched the town 10 miles down the road figuratively burn to the ground.
They hope and pray theirs does not, too.
* * *
The day hasn’t yet reached noon and the white smoke sails through the air at American Legion Post 33. A few men are seated at the bar, glasses half full with beer. Before there’s even time to find a seat, the bartender circles over.
“Talk to Paul,” she says. The tattoo on the right side of her neck is sticking out more than anything else in her appearance. “He’ll answer all your questions.”
Paul Witmer, 64, has been the president of the Legion post for the last five years. A native of Bellefonte, he left to serve in the Air Force for four and a half years as a security policeman and a member of the K-9 core stationed in Okinawa during the Vietnam War. That was his first time out of Pennsylvania and one of the few times he even left the old Victorian town.
But he was drawn back, just like all his friends. This was the place where as a teen he would take his girl to the old State Theatre to catch a late-afternoon movie and then walk a few blocks to the YMCA for the Saturday-night dance. These were the people he spent 36 years delivering mail to as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, ordinary people with sons, daughters and dogs. Or so he thought. Because if the Jerry Sandusky child-sex-abuse scandal has taught him anything, it’s that even the friendliest of folks can practice evil.
Witmer knows this to be true because he’s seen it.
Before Sandusky adopted Matt Heichel, the youngest of the family's six adopted children, Witmer coached Heichel and his brother Ronald in teener league baseball. Sandusky would drop the boys off for practice or games — sometimes staying to quietly watch — and pick them up when it was over. Conversations rarely lasted beyond greetings, but Witmer always referred to Jerry as Mr. Sandusky out of courtesy.
“Their parents never saw them play a ballgame,” Witmer said of the Heichel boys, both outfielders. “They actually weren’t bad boys. They were typical teen-agers. They came and I pitied them for coming from the type of family they came from.”
Last March, Ronald Heichel was convicted on charges, including first-degree murder, in the August 2009 shooting of a Centre Hall man.
Witmer shrugs his shoulders. He is dressed in a flannel jacket that zips up, black shoes, jeans and glasses sitting on the bridge of his nose. As county seat, Bellefonte has seen men who have committed terrible crimes inhabit its streets and ride right into the heart of town, where the courthouse straddles the steep hill that overlooks the downtown shops.
The streets surrounding the courthouse will be closed off, reserved for media only starting at 6 o'clock on Monday night. The Centre County sheriff’s office added extra benches and seats into the largest of four courtrooms, which seats about 200, and an overflow of media will squeeze into an annex building adjacent to the courthouse.
Witmer will open his lot to allow 14 police cars to park. Here is a man who doesn’t drink, the father of two sons and a daughter who bought him a cellphone when his wife passed away with cancer in 2002 because they wanted to make sure he was OK. He hasn’t read the grand-jury report because he doesn’t own a computer, and his stream of information comes from TV reports and short newspaper articles because he’s not much of a reader. So even though Witmer blurts out an emphatic “No” when asked if he’ll make the short walk up the block to check out the scene on Tuesday, he can’t avoid it.
How can he? He once ejected Mike McQueary and his father when he was umpiring teener-league games for arguing a call at first base, giving them five minutes to leave or threatening the team must forfeit. Years later, he refereed high school football games at State High when McQueary was the quarterback, before both knees had to be replaced and doctors advised him to retire. Recently, he’s been left watching McQueary on TV, oftentimes seeing McQueary's red cheeks match the color of his hair.
But if Witmer came across McQueary today, everything would be different. It was McQueary who walked into the Lasch Building at night and, according to some reports, testified he saw Sandusky raping a boy in the shower. It was McQueary who did not stop it and went straight to his father, according to the grand-jury report.
Witmer lets out a sigh. He isn't sure if Tuesday could've been avoided had McQueary, the police or anyone else acted differently so many years ago. But there's no turning back now. It's coming, whether he's ready or not.
“I have my own opinions and stuff, and until I see what goes on I’m just gonna keep them to myself," Witmer said. "I just wanna wait and see how everything comes out. There’s a lot of stuff that’s not been in that report. There’s so many questions I’d have. If I was actually somebody that got into this, there are tons of questions I’d like to be able to ask people.
“But I’m just a man in Bellefonte. That’s all I am.”
* * *
The buzz of the coffee grinder swallows all intimacy in the cozy coffee shop tucked underneath the main street in Bellefonte, a block down the hill from the courthouse. Inside, John Douglas, 31, is reading the business section of a newspaper while snacking on a cheeseburger wrap that’s on the lunch special menu.
Douglas is an Arizona native who moved to Bellefonte three and a half years ago when his wife left her teaching job in Arizona to become a professor in Penn State’s College of Education. A contractor, he built his home in Bellefonte because it was less expensive than State College. Douglas frequently drives two miles into town to sit at this table inside Cool Beans, exactly the type of place that embodies the town.
Coffee bags line the crowded walls. Christmas lights and decorations hang in the windows and are scattered around the two-room café. “This is what’s nice about a town like Bellefonte,” he said. “Starbucks won’t ever survive in Bellefonte.”
In fact, the only place in the town that may give Douglas more joy is a few buildings up the street. Don’t be fooled; it’s certainly not the courthouse, even though he calls America's justice system one of the nation's most beautiful things. Douglas' favorite building is the last one on the left before you reach the courthouse -- it's the local YMCA, where twice a week for two hours he takes his 5-year-old daughter, Claire, to gymnastics lessons.
But Claire won’t be going to gymnastics on Tuesday. The YMCA won’t even bother opening. The Y is closing its doors because the national media will take up all the parking. And John’s not happy.
“The fact the national media is gonna swarm into this town and close it down for the people that live here, that pisses me off,” he said, his bright blue eyes widening. “Big time.”
A few blocks away in the Centre County Library, a 75-year-old retired dairy farmer named Victor Lutz is not nearly as upset. He’s content spending his first time in this library sitting by the door reading Alaska Magazine while his girlfriend uses the computer.
Victor once left the farm shortly after he graduated high school to work a job running heavy equipment that helped build Interstate 80, now one of the main roads the media will use to get to Bellefonte and the State College area. On Saturdays in the fall, he would sit beside his radio and listen to Fran Fisher broadcast Penn State football games. There was that one time he was lucky enough to get tickets to Beaver Stadium. It was for a game against Texas A&M in September 1979, when Jerry Sandusky was only in his third year as defensive coordinator.
Victor comes into Bellefonte only to use the bank, pick up groceries or shop. His plan for Tuesday?
“For me not to come to Bellefonte," he said.
Victor won’t be the only one. Douglas won’t bother driving into town to get coffee at his favorite café because parking will be a mess. He says he’ll stay home, perhaps work out and watch TV — just not coverage of the hearing.
Douglas has seen enough of the saturation and sensationalism. Yawn. What happened at Penn State was par for the course, he said, comparing Penn State to any other big corporation like IBM or Google. The only difference is that the product is higher education. Douglas spent a couple semesters at Arizona State University, but didn’t graduate. He saw too many of his friends attend college with the expectation that a degree would guarantee suburbia and children, not the thousands of dollars of debt they’re struggling to manage.
He takes a sip of water and finishes his wrap. Douglas, who also has an 8-year-old son named Harrison, did not read the grand-jury report because he doesn’t want to be biased.
“The kids he took advantage of didn’t have a father, and I hold some snobby views that what happens to your kids is what you let happen to your kids,” he said. “If I raised my kids right and do things as good parents, the chances of my kids being put in that situation are very, very slim, and the chances my kids don’t know what to do are even less.
“It doesn’t mean I don’t care about it. But I’m not emotionally attached.”
* * *
It all started with a phone call.
Arlene Milton returned home from church to a phone call from Ron Wiser, a well-known local entrepreneur, who gave her two and a half hours to decide if she wanted to own the deli on the main drag of town.
“I’ll call you at 10:30. You tell me yes or no,” said Wiser, who bought up the whole block of retail space and stopped running the deli after 15 years for financial reasons.
“Ron, I can try it,” Milton replied.
And that’s how the daughter of two dairy farmers got out of the family business and realized her dream of running her own restaurant. Here she is in bright red shoes, stockings and a black skirt that hangs down to her knees, slabbing mayo on a ham and turkey club sandwich toasted on 12-grain bread. The shop is completely empty, except for a group of four men taking their lunch break, so your eyes tend to gravitate to the walls where, oddly, wooden tennis rackets, wooden baseball bats, violins and banjos hang.
A worker locks the door at 2:30 to end another normal day at the deli. Soon, Arlene slides into the booth, orange hair sticking up from her forehead to accentuate her round face even more.
She's not nearly as upset as John Douglas. Business will be booming Tuesday, she said. But...
“A lot of us are upset about this,” she said. "Just because he’s from Penn State, why should we throw the rug out for him when he has created this problem? He destroyed so many lives, not only just the kids, and God help those poor little kids, but they’re not kids anymore. But he destroyed Penn State’s image.
“And why they let him go freely like they have left him is beyond me. Because if it was you or I, it would’ve never happen. We’d have been slapped in [jail] so quickly we wouldn’t know what happened.”
The closest she ever got to Joe Paterno was a phone call from his wife, Sue, asking her to help clean the house Fridays before football games. That speaks as much to the reputation Arlene has built up as any. But she couldn’t afford to leave the business — not even for a day. Every dollar counts. It’s why she greets you with a warm smile and offers you to take a seat anywhere inside to wait for her to bring your order over when it’s ready.
Now hear Arlene’s voice get low, her eyes locked into yours. She’s about to explain the genetics of the town.
“We won’t take a back seat to nobody," she shared. "That’s the attitude. If they think [the media’s] gonna come in here and do this and do that to Bellefonte, they got another guess coming.”
Of course, that isn’t true. Arlene will open her deli at 5 a.m. on Tuesday -- three hours earlier than usual -- and lay out a breakfast buffet of coffee, doughnuts, eggs, toast and more for the rush of media expected to descend on the town hours before Sandusky arrives in court.
It will be a scene unlike any she’s ever seen in nine years since accepting Ron Wiser’s offer and in her 63 years of living in Bellefonte. She hopes to gather a couple extra hands to help serve and make orders. She can’t afford to hire anybody and pay wages, so her cousin, Pat, and her sister-in-law’s mother, Virginia, typically volunteer. Arlene’s daughter handles the booking and makes sure the bills are paid. Her daughter and her husband were already packing up items and ingredients on Friday in preparation for Tuesday’s storm.
“In my mind, I’m just, I’m just, ah God,” she says, convoluted thoughts racing around that even she can't comprehend. “I just wish in a way the day was over.”