Just a Glimpse of Paterno, but It’s Meant So Much
From our intern, Emily Kaplan:
On a cool September Saturday, as Penn State was dismantling an unmemorable FBS opponent, I stood outside the visitors’ locker room at Beaver Stadium late in the fourth quarter. I do this every game. I’m a stringer for The Associated Press, and one of my main football duties is gathering postgame info from the visiting team.
As I waited for the visiting coach’s press conference, gripping my steno notebook in one hand and pen in the other, I heard a rumbling from around the corner. The next thing I knew, Joe Paterno was five feet in front of me in the passenger seat of a golf cart.
Paterno looked at me. Through his Coke-bottle glasses, it appeared, his eyes were fixated on my notebook. As his driver scooted away, Paterno shrugged his shoulders, crocked his head to the side, and smiled as if to say, “Sorry, little girl, I can’t give an autograph right now. I have to go to my press conference.”
It’s funny. As I remember that moment now I can’t help but think: “What if that wasn’t what he meant?” It makes a great story, but what if I made it all up? What if he actually wasn’t staring at my notebook? What if he just shrugged because he had an itch?
Truth is, I didn’t know Paterno. Most current students at Penn State didn’t, either.
Sure, I knew all about him. I’ve read countless features and biographies on the boy from Brooklyn who became a scholar at Brown and legend in State College. I was there for his 400th win. I knocked on his door just minutes after he was fired by the Board of Trustees, one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a journalist — and a human.
Heck, I even took a course — the now defunct Joe Paterno & The Media Class — and spent hours dissecting and analyzing old transcripts and video clips, understanding how he evaded yet manipulated reporters over the years. I learned how he became a man for whom a university built a statue — while he was still living. And nobody seemed to have a problem with it.
When I recall my time at Penn State to my kids one day, I’ll tell them I got only a glimpse of Joe Paterno. It was the end. The last chapter; a tragedy. But the man I knew only from afar meant so much to me. I think my peers could say the same. Images of Sunday night’s candlelight vigil can attest to that. We didn’t know Paterno personally. But we did know him as the collective father figure over this university.
Despite everything that has unfolded in the last few months, it’s hard to argue that he set a standard and created a way of life. The Penn State way.
On Sunday morning, I sat in the back row of the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center for Mass. It was my first time ever going to church. I had already been up for four hours, on call for the AP for any breaking news. They sent me to the service — which Sue and Joe would sometimes attend — to get the vibe on campus. Midway through, the priest asked everyone for a moment of prayer for the Paterno family. Not long after, I glanced down at my Blackberry. An email from my editor. “JoePa dead — confirmed” was the subject. There was no body of the message.
I snuck out the back door of the church. My heart dropped. I needed a break from being a journalist for just one minute. I needed to be alone.
I’ve said this time and again after the scandal broke: If it weren’t for Paterno and his Grand Experiment, Penn State might still be an agriculture school and I might not be here.
No, I didn’t know Joe Paterno. But I appreciated him. When Paterno arrived in State College in 1950, he had no intentions of staying. But he stayed — and brought us all here with him.
Emily Kaplan, intern