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Posts Tagged ‘Paterno’

English Prof.Debra Hawhee reads—with help from daughter Nora at the CATCH 22 marathon Credit: Ryan Jones Penn Stater Magazine

Penn State University, where I work, has been going through a hard time the past year. The Sandusky child abuse scandal cost us a university president and the reputation of iconic coach Joe Paterno, whose name was so dragged through the mud that he is now believed by a large proportion of the public to have molested children himself.

I think all that will be righted at some point, but until then, a couple of English professors are trying to show that Penn State is far more than a football school. In fact, the university, which was not much more than a cow college 40 years ago, now has top ten programs in a number of disciplines, including English. On Thursday this week, I walked across campus to a tent that was set up in front of the library where a marathon reading of Joseph Heller’s classic antiwar novel, Catch 22, was about to take place.

The campus was beautiful on a near-fall afternoon with the sun bright and a cool breeze. Students sat on the grass and there were cameras and camera phones snapping the scene. First up on the reading schedule that would extend through the night and into the next morning was a thin woman of indeterminate age, Sue Paterno, wife of the revered coach. We all moved up toward the tent to catch her reading, which was barely amplified. She began with a few throw away lines, smart aleck cracks that showed why she was still tough enough to make public appearances at close to 80 and after her and her husband’s name had been dragged through the mud.
She began to read that first great opening scene where Capt. Yossarian, a bombardier in WWII off the coast of Italy, is lying in a hospital bed censoring enlisted men’s letters home. It’s a book I’ve read at least half a dozen times, a great book in my opinion, the funniest thing I’ve ever read. They say that Joseph Heller began the book while he was teaching in the early fifties at Penn State. Maybe, at least he started it not long after he left. It doesn’t matter, we have the plaque along the beautiful mall to show for it.

After Sue ignored the timer that was supposed to end her 15 minutes and read on to the end of the chapter, the coach of the women’s basketball team stepped up to the microphone. Russ Rose has been the most successful women’s volleyball coach in the country over the past decade, with four straight national championships. He was there to show Penn State athletics’ support for scholarship, and he was followed by his team co-captain, Marika Racibarskas, a 6-foot tall athlete who read the complex sentences cheerfully and well.

Joe Paterno was an English major, like me, and he did a lot to make this university among the top fifty universities in the world, according to a recent survey. He said a great university needs a great library, and he donated his time and a large part of his fortune to see it happen. I could see the Paterno library from where I stood. I have a fondness, and protectiveness for English majors, as they are so often the butt of jokes. Maybe that’s why I so hate to see a really successful lover of literature and learning dragged down.

Joseph Heller and Joe Paterno came to the university at about the same time and from similar tough neighborhoods in New York. They both went on to Ivy League schools. They had a lot in common, but I don’t know if they ever met. But there was Sue Paterno reading the words of the boy from Brooklyn, a great writer on the green lawn of a still-great university. A guy who, when told by an interviewer that he had never written anything as good as Catch 22 again, replied “Who has?”

That’s a line Sue Paterno might say about her husband. “Take away all those wins, if you think it will make any difference. Who has been as good?” Not many, maybe nobody. And that’s the truth.

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The Scandal

The past two weeks Penn State has come to the attention of most every sentient being in the nation. I don’t know if the story of Penn State’s awfulness has leaked overseas yet, but it really must be a terrible place, filled with the worst kinds of people. So you would believe from the talking heads and print pundits.
These days when I drive onto campus I can feel a cloud of gloom pressing palpably down on the buildings, the football stadium, the students walking in their hoodies and knee high boots between classes. It’s hard to drive a block without seeing a blow-dried guy with a microphone standing outdoors in front of a video camera, ready to inform the world of the latest transgressions of this university that was until a few weeks ago held up as an example of old school virtues, embodied by an 84-year-old English major turned football coach.
Overlooked is the fact that over the past 20 years, this former agricultural college in the middle of forests and farms has become one of the top research universities in the country, behind only that handful of far more famous, and now less infamous schools, Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and three or four others.
Now news people parachute in like it’s a war zone, from Fox, MSNBC, even NPR, and they bemoan the power of big time college sports, or the size of the stadium, and make the students out to be mindless drones, following a cult of Joe Paterno, or a culture of secrecy that permeates the administration, who are now guilty for what was once considered a virtue, which is being loyal to their school.
Everything about this sorry scandal seems to indicate something larger about the culture to somebody, even though it’s all pure speculation at this point, and likely says nothing at all, except there are bad people who do bad things to vulnerable people. If this were Chicago, people would shrug and sigh.
But this is Happy Valley, some kind of model of Mayberry fifties innocence. Now everything is tarnished, even the least worldly professor among her tomes. Camera crews rush past the new state-of-the-art research building for one more shot of Beaver stadium. They miss the forest of intellectual excitement and scholarly passion in order to film the weeds of scandal.
We are a long way away from knowing who knew what and when did they know it. In the meantime, we have thrown a few, quite likely, good men to the media wolves, and they are still hungry for more. I, too, feel a sense of guilt and shame for those who are always now called the “alleged” victims. And, by that token, so should you in Denver and Topeka and Seattle. It’s not only Penn State. We are all Penn State.

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A Fan’s Note

I’m not much of a football fan, but it’s hard not to get a little excited when the local football team is playing against the top ranked team in the country, which will happen this evening at seven, in Tuscaloosa, or wherever.  Penn State, ranked 18th, is playing Alabama, and the chances are the local boys will get a drubbing.  But who knows, the wily Penn State coach may pull some magic out of his hat.  He is, after all, an English major.

I don’t know Joe Paterno, Penn State’s legendary coach, but a friend of mine knew him pretty well and even wrote a book about him. Bernie Asbell mentioned Paterno’s literary side a couple of times to me, and I have to say it was a kick to think of the gruff coach, with his thick Brooklyn accent, reading the classics.  I was happy to add him to that long list of famous and successful English majors, which now is up to three, if you count the humorist Dave Barry and radio host Garrison Keillor.  There may be a few others, but if there are they are keeping the fact well hidden.

So tonight I’ll root for my fellow English major and hope he pulls something stunning out of an ancient Greek playbook, maybe that one by Thucydides.

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