I don’t know about you, but I’m getting weary of COVID-19 statistics. Of course, I am praying for those who are infected and I am rooting for those trying to create a vaccine. But I’ve already seen enough COVID stats to last me for a lifetime. Let’s just say the curve that measures my interest in virus numbers could not get much flatter.
But there’s one kind of coronavirus talk that still holds my attention—the stories of those who are successfully coping with life despite the restrictions, cancellations and overall dreariness caused by COVID-19. Their positivity helps keep me going, so I decided to contact three of my favorite subjects from previous columns. None of these individuals has contracted the virus, but all of them—like you and me—have to deal with all kinds of related hassles. Here’s how they’re doing as they cope with life in the era of COVID-19.
KYLA IRWIN: GOING PRO IN GERMANY
As I reported in my April 17 column, State College native Kyla Irwin endured a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad time in early March. Hoping to help boost her fifth-ranked University of Connecticut Huskies to a national basketball championship, Irwin first broke a finger in practice on March 6. Then, on March 8 in the semifinals of her conference tournament, she fell to the floor and suffered breaks to her elbow and her ulna. She underwent surgery the next day, March 9.
What else could go wrong? You guessed it: On March 12, COVID-19 caused the official cancellation of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. Now the all-time leading scorer for State College High School basketball would not only be denied the chance to play in the Women’s March Madness. Now, as her college career closed, she was also denied the opportunity to root for her team.
“It was overwhelming,” said Irwin, a part-time starter as a senior for legendary coach Geno Auriemma. “It was hard to swallow each pill individually. There were a lot of nights where I just cried. It was very defeating—how my senior year ended and I wasn’t able to finish it out.”
But summer provided rest, physical healing (“I’m totally healed; my range of motion is great”) and some wonderful family time for the UConn graduate. The COVID pandemic barred her from group workouts or scrimmages, but that was OK. After six weeks of recovery from surgery this spring, she needed time for solo practice—“just getting back into the rhythm of shooting and dribbling and all that stuff.”
Suddenly, as summer drew to a close, Irwin had good news to report. She had signed a contract with the SNP BasCats USC Heidelberg of the German women’s professional basketball league. She traveled to Germany on Saturday; she’ll start practice Sept. 11 and her season opens Oct. 24.
“It’s going to be really exciting, being away for a while and in a different environment and culture,” Irwin said just prior to her departure from State College. “I am very excited. I can’t believe I’m living out one of my childhood dreams (pro basketball). I feel very fortunate to be in the position that I’m in.”
JOHN BLACK: MARCHING ON WITH THE FOOTBALL LETTER
He’s the guy who’s always good to go, the stalwart who always produces great copy about Penn State football for members of the Penn State Alumni Association. And even though the Nittany Lion gridders may not play for a while, John Black will begin his 45th year of writing The Football Letter, a publication that has traditionally been sent to members of the Penn State Alumni Association.
No football this fall? Or at least not until later this fall…or winter? No problem. Black will continue to write The Football Letter, but for now, it will offer a different menu of stories and it will go to a broader audience than ever. The letter will be sent via email each Saturday to all Penn State alumni—not just Alumni Association members—for whom the association has an email address. Parents and friends who are past members can also receive the publication if the association has their email addresses. (Here’s the link for those who need to provide such an address.)
With no football games to cover at present, the veteran journalist will instead produce a different kind of letter. In addition to feature stories about the football program, he will also offer updates on Penn State and on its services to alumni. As one example, he told me that he’ll highlight the Alumni Career Services program because it is “critically important right now with so many people losing jobs during the pandemic.”
Black will also participate in a 30-minute online show, “The Football Letter Live,” that will be streamed every Thursday at 8 pm, from Sept. 3 through Nov. 5. Paul Clifford, the chief executive officer of the Alumni Association, will host the show and Black will join him each week.
“Just to be involved in a live, virtual program will be exciting new territory for me,” said Black. “Again, it’s a way to maintain contact with interested alumni.” (Penn Staters can register for the entire season of shows on the association’s website. Or each show will be livestreamed to the Alumni Association Facebook page.)
John Black is entering his 45th year of writing The Football Letter, and he’ll need a new approach this year. Photo courtesy of the Penn State Alumni Association Football Letter.
Even with those two opportunities in front of him, Black might still have felt devastated over the lack of football this fall. After all, he began writing The Football Letter in 1976, so he’s been its on-the-spot correspondent at all the games, home and away, for 44 years. (Ridge Riley began the publication in 1938, and he produced it until his death in January of 1976.)
In Black’s mind, however, The Football Letter has never been about him or his span of service. It’s always been about the alumni and about the university.
“It’s been a way for me to maintain contact with so many alumni who I’ve known over the years,” said Black, a 1962 graduate who served as editor-in-chief of the Daily Collegian. “Sharing the same kind of experience we’ve all had, developing the same kind of love and affinity for the university.”
Black admits he’ll miss attending Nittany Lion athletic events—football and other sports—but he is focused on a much greater loss.
“What I grieve the most,” said the 83-year old native of Lancaster County, “are the 170,000 Americans who have been lost to the virus and the loved ones of theirs who have gone through a great trauma.”
Asked to describe his current outlook on life, Black said, “My key feeling is gratitude. Gratitude for the life we’ve had (he and his wife, Veda Kay have been married for 55 years) and the great opportunities we’ve had to enjoy the life that the good Lord has given us. So we’ll work through this current situation to the best of our abilities and enjoy as many years as the Lord deems appropriate for us. We are very fortunate that the two of us and our children and grandchildren have avoided contracting the virus.”
TODD MINER: PEDALING WITH POSITIVITY
He’s the pedicab driver you see all around our community—on campus and downtown. Todd Miner is the owner and chief operator of Vamos! Lion Chariot, a unique source of what he calls, “transportainment.” And to my wife and me, there’s no transportainment like a ride in a “Lion Chariot” as Todd or another driver pedals you around town to the sounds of your favorite music and the friendly greetings of pedestrians.
As you might imagine, however, Todd’s business has taken a big hit from COVID-19. He says his revenue has plunged at least 80% compared to recent years, and this is primarily due to the cancellation of big events like the Blue-White Game, 4th Fest and the Arts Festival.
And the biggest potential cancellation of all, Penn State football, is right around the corner. For Todd, the Nittany Lions’ home games represent a large chunk of business revenue, but they are also big days for his personal enjoyment.
“It’s just a good time where you are interacting with people who are in a great mood,” he told me recently. “You’re excited because they’re excited to be here. Anyone who’s been to a Penn State game knows that it’s one of the greatest shows on earth and it’s just wonderful to be part of it. So this could feel sort of like a year without Christmas.”
He misses State College’s big events but Todd Miner, shown here in 2019, still enjoys the chance to provide tours of campus and community. (Photo by Bill Horlacher)
With his revenues down, Miner took advantage of the federal Paycheck Protection Program to help pay the bills. And he decided to spend more time at his parents’ home near Buffalo.
“I very much enjoy time with my family,” he said, “and I love the water there, the Great Lakes in particular. I’ve always enjoyed swimming, so it was a bummer when all the pools closed up for COVID this spring. But in coming up to Buffalo, I discovered a new love—open water swimming. I logged many miles of swimming in the open waters of Lake Erie and to tell you the truth, I don’t know if I want to go back to the pool.”
Now that school has resumed for the fall, Todd has begun to give more campus tours to alumni, visitors, newly-arrived freshmen and prospective students for next school year. (Those interested in tours can contact Miner at vamoslion.com.) He earned two degrees at Penn State and he served for 15 years in the school’s Weather Communications Group, so he happily describes his love for the university and urges young people to apply for admission.
Earlier this week, Todd and his employee, Brian, provided a two chariot tour for a visiting family from Maryland.
“The purpose of their visit,” explained the 30-year resident of State College, “was to show Penn State to their three boys including a high school senior who is getting ready to apply to colleges. Well, we had a phenomenal time on the 90-minute tour. The family let us know several times how grateful they were for the tour and the chance to see Penn State in this special way.
“When I mentioned to the high school senior, Jack, that I hoped we’d see him on campus next year as a freshman, his response was, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be seeing me!’ ”
And that was all it took to lift Todd’s spirits for another day.
“Mission accomplished,” he said. “We are!”