Joe Paterno has died at age 85. He leaves behind an immense, yet immeasurable legacy. The tiny cow college he came to in 1950 has blossomed into a world class research and academic institution, partially built on the name brand established by Paterno's football teams. He and his wife, Sue, raised millions of dollars for Penn State and a vast array of charitable organizations. A massive, five-story addition to the campus library bears his name thanks to a multi-million dollar donation to Penn State. In the modern football factory world, his players graduated at a rate far beyond that of nearly all other programs. In the staid bureaucracy of college football, he urged and achieved reform.
Behind Joe Paterno's Beaver Stadium statue are the words, "Educator, Coach, Humanitarian." They really could have been arranged in any order. Yes, he won a few football games, and the grand scope of Paterno's educational and humanitarian achievements was not possible without his blossoming football program. It not only changed the lives of those who passed through it, but also of those who were just lucky enough to be around it for few hours on a Saturday afternoon. It brought together people of all types, forging friendships that otherwise never would have existed. It made us feel bigger than we actually were. Paterno believed that his players could succeed on the field and in the classroom. When ordinary students could overcome their starstruck feelings to say hello, Paterno would ask if they were studying and going to class. He believed in all of us, whether we knew it or not.
There are some people that, for whatever reason, never seem like they could ever die. The last time I felt like this, Fred "Mister" Rogers had died in 2003. I was 28 years old, just slightly past my days of watching PBS children's programming. Yet, I never considered a world without Mister Rogers walking through the front door with his huge smile, singing "won't you be my neighbor?", and changing into his cardigan and sneakers. This would happen forever, regardless of the year on the calendar or whether I was sitting in front of the television. It was constant, comfortable, and all that millions of us had ever known.
Joe Paterno would always be there for us too, as an unlikely combination of Fred Rogers and fellow Brooklynite Vince Lombardi. His hair would always be dark and his eyeglasses comically thick. He would run out the tunnel for roughly a dozen Saturdays each autumn, wearing a tie, black shoes, and rolled up khaki pants. Paterno would inevitably show up for spring practices, still looking 20 years younger than his actual age and happily shooting down frivolous media questions like clay pigeons. This had to happen because it had always happened. Just like Fred Rogers, Paterno's presence was reassuring even when times were bad, just like Mr. Rogers' trademark song and cardigan. It was all we had ever known, and a world without him seemed incomprehensible.
Paterno's wisdom, charity, and success -- these are the things that will be remembered. The scandal associated with Jerry Sandusky will remain a murky, dark chapter in an expansive 61-year career and life spent doing so much good for so many people in Happy Valley and beyond. However, this is a day to celebrate, and perhaps even be jealous of a life exquisitely lived on its own terms. A young man from Brooklyn made a choice in 1950 to be a poorly paid assistant coach at a tiny outpost in central Pennsylvania. The course of a university and the lives of millions became undeniably richer for his decision, and regardless of the last few months, Joe Paterno left our little corner of the world an infinitely better place than he found it.