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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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