Historically Speaking: The Tragic Death of Joe Paterno

By John B. Manbeck
A Brooklyn Historian
Special to the Brooklyn Eagle

Flatbush-born Joe Paterno died this week after being scandalized for the Penn State child sex imbroglio fostered by Jerry Sandusky. Now Sandusky can take credit for the death of the 85-year-old Paterno as well as ruining the lives of many boys.

When I wrote a column here back on November 17, suggesting that Paterno was a scapegoat and was not guilty until all the facts were in, I was criticized that I had defended a sex pervert. Not so. I’m sure Sandusky eventually will go down as the alleged criminal he is but other parties out there are guiltier than Paterno ever was.

Initially, the media suggested that Paterno shared Sandusky’s guilt and that Paterno’s supporters were only martyring a papier-mâché symbol. Along with Paterno, the president, deans and coaches — including his son — tumbled. Dick Weiss claimed Paterno showed “a callous disregard for a child.” Eddie Mayrose, in this paper, stated that “everything we believed about Head Coach Joe Paterno was a sham.” Ross Douthat of the Times wrote a column titled “The Devil and Joe Paterno.” What will their eulogies read? Now that Paterno is safely dead, the self-serving, praiseing comments are flying in.

 Suddenly the story is changing. Columnists admit he didn’t do enough, rather than nothing. Pete Thamel in the Times wrote that Paterno “did more than any one person to help the university” but, ultimately, not enough. But nobody did enough. That’s how it is with an oversized institution such as Penn State or even the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, particularly when it would be a political inconvenience to expose all the facts.

The Washington Post interviewed Paterno at his hospital bedside and quoted him that he felt helpless and didn’t know which way to turn. Before he died, The New York Times ran an exemplary feature on Jan. 19 interviewing 13 of the 32 Penn State trustees who fired him, asking their second thoughts about the case. Basically, the general opinion was that they acted too quickly and crudely; they fired him over the phone, not having enough fortitude to face him. They also indicated that they were not informed by the university administration and blindsided by the attorney general’s office.

This, I feel, is where the fault lies. Penn State is a state institution, a mammoth one. The governor sits on the board of trustees as a de facto representative. He does not need to be in attendance but his influence can be felt. He can be on a speaker phone as he was when the trustees met.

The Pennsylvania governor’s name is Tom Corbett. He is a Republican and happens to be married to the former Susan Manbeck (no known relation). Before being elected to office, he served as the state’s attorney general. In hindsight, he expressed condolences to the Paterno family, citing Joe’s record as the football coach and his generosity to the university. He is quoted saying that Paterno met adversity with “grace and forbearance; his place in our state’s history is secure.”

Is this the same man who pressured the board to fire Paterno? Paterno was blamed for failures of the administration and trustees, claimed Paterno’s lawyer, because the university was guilty of keeping a lid on the Sandusky case. Three investigations had been started — with the campus police, with the Centre County district attorney, and with the child welfare board. Even the local newspaper had a journalistic responsibility. They were all squelched, possibly due to pressure, educational or political.

The grand jury investigation began while Corbett was attorney general in 2009 and so Corbett had intimate knowledge of the case before it went public. Now it has been reported in The Pocono Record that Corbett approved a $3 million grant for Sandusky’s charity for indigent boys, The Second Mile, and that board members of the charity had contribiuted to his gubernatorial campaign.
Why does it seem that politicians never act in the best interests of the public, but only for their personal gain? Why does it appear that sacrificing Joe Paterno to the media wolves is more beneficial to the governor than to an 85-year-old Brooklyn native — or to Penn State?

When I mentioned the governor’s culpability to my strongest critic, a former journalist, Professor Dave Reed, he replied, “He should be in jail.”

“But,” I replied, “if we put all the crooked politicians in jail, who would run the country?”

The university administration is trying its darndest to duct tape the damage with crisis control town meetings across the state, hoping to counteract a group attempting to replace the trustee leadership. But they admit they’re failing because alumni are critical of the board’s actions and motives. The Chicago Tribune cited an alumnus who thought that the principles taught by the classically literate Paterno were not practiced by Penn State.

An online Esquire report by a former Penn State college newspaper editor reported that Paterno badgered Penn State trustees to upgrade the school’s library with a $200 million fund-raising campaign and, Thamel reported, he raised $150,000 to save the university’s classics department. Did they hold these deeds against him?

But the agonies will continue. Joe Paterno died of lung cancer but certainly the ill-conceived actions of the Penn State administration and trustees hastened his demise. Paterno’s widow felt he “deserved better.” Would his death have been postponed had he left on his own terms, asked Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum. Who knows? Dan Wetzel on Yahoo had this to say: “He was still this guy out of Brooklyn, with a thick accent and even thicker glasses. He was humble, he was approachable.” And there will probably never be another like JoePa.

Paterno’s self-created epitaph appears on a plaque behind the Penn State statue of him outside Beaver Stadium: “I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach.”

© 2012 John B. Manbeck
[email protected]

Jan. 25, 2012