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Three Years After Joe Paterno's Death, State College Reflects on His Legacy

by on January 22, 2015 6:00 AM

Three years after the death of Joe Paterno, the life and legacy of the former Penn State head football coach still inspires passionate and disparate opinions.

Paterno passed away Jan. 22, 2012 after a battle with lung cancer a few months after he was forced out of his job in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

Current Penn State sophomore and lifelong State College resident Ed Goodall lived through the tide of strong emotions that swept through State College when the Sandusky scandal broke. And, rightly or wrongly, Paterno was at the center of many of those emotions.

"I watched, from 2003 to 2011, when Joe Paterno was literally like a hero in this town," Goodall recalls. "And not just as a football coach, but as a humanitarian, and as someone who always instilled good values in his players."

Once the scandal broke and questions were raised about the extent to which Paterno was or wasn't involved in an alleged cover up, public perception began to shift. Goodall says many in State College stood ardently by Paterno's side, but he saw that many people who weren't from State College originally were less supportive, even condemning.

Caroline Gummo, marketing director for the Family Clothesline, recalls one particularly popular t-shirt from that troubled time. Playing on a well-know Penn State phrase, the shirt read "We are... pissed off." 

According to Gummo, part of the anger the shirt was expressing was directed at the firing of Joe Paterno, and the sanctions imposed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association that removed 111 of his 409 football wins from the official record. But much of the anger was also directed at Sandusky and the fact children had been abused and hurt by someone they had trusted.

"From the very beginning, we made our stance clear," Gummo says. "We support Paterno, and the team and the players that were a part of those wins."

The 111 wins have now been restored to the official NCAA record, thanks to a settlement in the lawsuit against the NCAA brought by two Pennsylvania elected officials. The settlement and the restoration of the wins were announced last Friday -- less than a week before the three year anniversary of Paterno's death. There is no shortage of people who feel that reversal was wrong. Critics say it's an affront to Sandusky's victims.

But Paterno's supporters think the coaching legend was wrongly implicated from the beginning.

"It seems like the return of the wins is well-timed," says recent Penn State graduate Evan Fisher. "Three years after his death, we're finally able to celebrate him fully again."

He isn't the only one that feels that way.

Gummo says the Family Clothesline has seen an increase in sales of Paterno-themed merchandise since the settlement last week. She says that "immediately following the announcement of the wins being restored," the Family Clothesline got right to work on a new "409" shirt design. Though the new design only hit shelves yesterday, Gummo says it's already a popular item.

Much like the Family Clothesline, the McLanahan's Penn State Room never stopped carrying Paterno-themed merchandise. Manager Jennifer Schoch says that after the wins were stripped from the record, the store issued a 409-themed t-shirt with the words: "You can't change history, Legends live forever."

A new, more celebratory design just hit the McLanahan's selves on Wednesday, featuring an image Paterno's iconic black-shoes-and-white-socks combination in front of a large 409 logo. "Legendary," it states simply.

Schoch says McLanahan's issued the new design to meet an existing customer demand in response to a sentiment that already existed in State College -- one of support for Joe Paterno.

Fisher says that support never left the community, but the recent turn of events with the NCAA has strengthened many people's opinions. He says that a person's death can often overshadow their life, which would have been a "real shame" if Paterno's many contributions to Penn State were forgotten.

However, Paterno's legacy and those of his record-breaking coaching career are still the subject of debate and disagreement. When the Penn State hockey team recently wore "409" stickers on their helmets, Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour initially called the move "inappropriate and insensitive" on social media. She quickly apologized for the remark, and has also expressed her excitement at the official return of Paterno's wins.

How Penn State will chose to recognize the life of Joe Paterno is also still a subject of debate. After the settlement with the NCAA, Penn State President Eric Barron said in a news conference there will be "a time and place" to discuss if and how Penn State will honor Paterno. Whether that will include the return of the much-asked-about statue of Paterno to its former home outside Beaver Stadium has yet to be seen.

There are also other things that aren't clear.

Goodall recognizes that not everyone views Paterno in a positive light. He says the public perception of Paterno is complex and multi-faceted, varying from person to person and from place to place. Despite his many years in town, Goodall says he never knew the man personally, and realizes that he does not have the insight to talk about what should or shouldn't have been done about the Sandusky scandal.

"Who [Joe Paterno] was as a person and what he may or may not have done on a particular day are two different things," Goodall says. "No one is perfect."

He says that the incidents that swirled around the coach near the end of his life may have had some negative outcomes, but it's important not to overlook the positive ones: Penn State has undergone numerous institutional changes in the pursuit of ethical reporting and preventing child abuse in the future, "but now it's the NCAA's turn to undergo some changes."

Fisher also notes that the NCAA's $60 million fine -- one of the sanctions imposed in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal -- is being used to prevent child abuse all across Pennsylvania, which he thinks will have a positive impact on many lives. Despite all that's changed in State College, Fisher says the return of the wins "is bringing back a more positive remembrance [of Paterno]."

"That man was the heart and soul of Penn State," Fisher says.


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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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