A Heartfelt Goodbye
Father Matthew Laffey of the Penn State Catholic Center set the tone—and provided a broad outline of Joe Paterno’s life—in his opening prayer. “Thank you for this man. … How fortunate this corner of your kingdom has been.”
The details came slowly over the next two hours Thursday afternoon, as speakers at A Memorial for Joe painted pictures of the man who helped to build—and became largely synonymous with—Penn State.
We met the competitive Joe. “The bigger the game, the quieter he was in practice,” said Todd Blackledge, quarterback of the 1982 national championship team. “But the gleam in his eyes told the story.”
The literary Joe, who never called Susan Welch, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, anything other than “Dean,” who donated millions of dollars to the library, and who clearly passed that love of literature on to his son. Here’s who Jay Paterno quoted in his closing eulogy: Sophocles, William Blatty, U2, John Adams, John Ruskin, Tennessee Williams, Martin Luther King Jr., and Arthur Ashe.
The funny Joe, so quick with a one-liner, who told Jimmy Cefalo’s mother on a recruiting visit, “Your pasta is better than Mrs. Cappelletti’s.”
The Joe in his final weeks, fired during the first heated days of the Sandusky scandal, then diagnosed with lung cancer. “Faced with obstacles and changes that would have left a lesser man bitter, he showed his truest spirit and his truest self,” Jay said. “Despite all that had happened to him, he never wavered in his belief and his dream of Penn State. He told me he wanted to use his remaining time on earth to see Penn State to continue to thrive. He never spoke ill, and never wanted anyone to feel badly for him.”
And the hard-to-imagine party animal Joe, who played a “swaying palm tree” in one skit on the annual Nike coaches trip, company chairman Phil Knight said, and who didn’t blink when Rick Neuheisel, playing guitar, asked him to duet on “Wild Thing.” It became an annual tradition, with Gary Patterson of TCU eventually replacing Neuheisel. Said Knight: “Twenty-one days from now, when we’re in Hawaii, there will be a tremendous void on talent night.”
We saw glimpses of the less grandfatherly, not-so-humorous Joe, too. No one excels at anything without being driven, and driven isn’t always nice. That was evident. All-America running back Charlie Pittman: “He worked hard to recruit me to Penn State, and it seemed to my young eyes that he worked even harder to break my spirit.” Christian Morrone, whose career was ended by multiple knee surgeries but who went on to a career in public service: “He made me a part of his staff whether I liked it or not, and trust me, I didn’t like it.”
Both men, of course, appreciate now how hard they were pushed.
The stories went on, and on, and on, with Paterno Fellow Lauren Perrotti remembering how when she thanked him for sponsoring the liberal arts program that gave her opportunities to travel and study, he thanked her, instead, and the first president of Paternoville, Jeff Bast, explaining how Joe hadn’t just recruiting the Todd Blackledges and the Charlie Pittmans: “He recruited the Rays, the Joshes, the Laurens, the Nicoles, enter your name here. He recruited all of us.”
The Sophocles quote, which Jay cited early in his eulogy, was particularly beautiful and seemed to sum up the afternoon: One must wait until the evening to truly see how magnificent the day has been.
“My father, Joseph Vincent Paterno, never wanted to look back, to be seated in the evening reflecting on the day past. Once something was done, it was on to the next challenge. Well, Dad, you have no choice. The evening has arrived, and whether you like it or not, there are many here that have and will continue to reflect on the magnificent daylight of your life.”
While he was speaking, Joe’s wife, Sue, and the four other Paterno children—Diana, Mary Kay, David, Scott—were crying. By the time Jay finished, Sue’s face was in her hands as she wept.
Which brings me to one final point. The talk at my 6 a.m. yoga class Thursday was about how gracious the Paterno family has been in allowing the public time and space to mourn with them, and I’ve overheard several such conversations this week. Several speakers thanked them. I know they spoke for everyone in the Penn State community.
Lori Shontz, senior editor
P.S. Almost everyone left the memorial talking about Phil Knight, who brought the crowd in the Bryce Jordan center to its feet, cheering, with an impassioned defense of Paterno’s actions regarding Jerry Sandusky. You can watch on this video from students in the College of Communications.
Entry filed under: Bryce Jordan Center, Campus events, College of Communications, College of the Liberal Arts, Joe Paterno. Tags: Charlie Pittman, Christian Morrone, Father Matthew Laffey, Jay Paterno, Jeff Bast, Jimmy Cefalo, Joe Paterno, Lauren Perrotti, Mike Mauti, Phil Knight, Sue Paterno, Susan Welch, Todd Blackledge.