I've been fortunate enough to not have to deal with loss much in my life. It was really only two years ago, when my Pop-Pop passed away in December 2009, that I truly felt the impact of a loss. My Pop-Pop was, and continues to be, a guiding force in my life. He instilled in me many of the values that I hold to this day, including how to treat other people. He helped me accomplish things in my life that most people could only dream of accomplishing, and I owe my much of my success to him. I couldn't write about it at the time, because I felt that any words that I could possibly put down on paper would only trivialize the immense impact he had on my life, and that remains true to this day. In a similar vein, there are no words that I can express that could possibly come anywhere close in scope to capturing the impact Joe Paterno has had on thousands of lives, including in some small part my own, but I'm going to try anyway.
I wouldn't be getting married this April if it weren't for Joe Paterno. Ok, perhaps that's a stretch, but humor me for a minute here. Before Joe Paterno arrived at Penn State it was a cow college in the middle of acres upon acres of farmland in central Pennsylvania. There wasn't much that was appealing about the place, unless your future was in agriculture and you had no particular interest in doing anything interesting for four years. At the time of his death this morning, Penn State has become a school of 50,000+ students strong with the largest alumni base in the country, a school which is a leading academic institution that is well-respected among some of the greater universities of this country. This transformation certainly isn't simply because of Joe Paterno, but he played a significant part in it.
When I was a senior in high school I had many difficult choices to make regarding the college that I was going to pick. I eventually ended up at Penn State, not because of football, but because of academics, and while Joe Paterno certainly wasn't teaching Atmospheric Dynamics, his influence is a large part of Penn State's standing as an academic institution. He has donated millions and millions of dollars to the school, including a sum that allowed the unversity to build a world-class library that bears his name. His success as a football coach and his status as a symbol of the unversity is also a very large reason that alumni and benefactors have donated BILLIONS of dollars to the university. Without Joe Paterno's influence Penn State would not be the academic institution that it is today, and there's a rather fair chance that I wouldn't have become a student there, where I went on to meet some of my best friends, including the love of my life. For having even the slightest influence in my fate, I thank Joe Paterno.
How does a football coach, whose job is to win football games and championships, change the entire nature of a university? It doesn't seem possible on the surface, but anyone who went to Penn State knows just how much Joe Paterno's life indirectly or directly impacted everyone who ever stepped foot on campus. I'd argue that there are very few schools that have fostered the sort of pride that people have in their university that students and alumni of Penn State have. Joe Paterno played a very large part in the cultivation of that pride. To us, he was a symbol of good, a man who refused to compromise academic integrity for academic success. His "Grand Experiment" is still very much alive today, with Penn State's football team graduating far more seniors than the average program, particularly for minorities. He won football games, ok he won a LOT of football games, but that was secondary. Whenever he recruited student athletes he emphasized that they were coming to Penn State not only to further their football careers, but also to further their education. He was a equally a teacher and a football coach, and I think he'd rather be remembered as the former as opposed to the latter.
I do think that it's important not to deify Joe Paterno, however, and remember that he wasn't only a symbol, he was also a human being. He was a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a great-grandfather. He was a man, and as for all men he was prone to the same failings to which we all are prone. It's easy to put trust in the wrong people, and in Joe Paterno's case that misplaced trust is now a stain on his otherwise sterling legacy. People might get angry at me for mentioning this on the day of his death, and I can understand why, but I think it's important to remember Joe Paterno's humanity. I'll remember it as part of a lesson that in reality there are no perfect people, and even the greatest human beings are prone to mistakes, and those mistakes can sometimes be hurtful to others. However, it is from our own mistakes and the mistakes of others that we must learn so that we can go forward with our lives and use what we've learned for positive gains. In that situation I also learned a little bit about myself, as I rushed to judge Joe Paterno for his failings without taking time to consider and understand the situation fully. I was angry, and I had refused, even until now, to refer to him as "JoePa" because I felt like I couldn't call him a nickname. I used the phrase "shame on Joe Paterno", and a friend of mine said "no, shame on you", which angered me at the time, but now seems a prescient remark as I remain ashamed for the way I rushed to judge a man who is not only a hero and an idol to thousands, but remains a hero and an idol to me. I know now that it's important not to judge without strong consideration for all sides of the matter, and that's something that I will try to take with me as I go on in life.
In the end, I do think that Joe Paterno will be justly remembered for all of the good that he did and the positive impacts that he had on thousands of lives. I know that when I think of Joe Paterno 20 years from now, I'll look back fondly at my days at Penn State, and I'll thank him for helping to making that great school what it is today. I'll also still go to football games at Beaver Stadium, and I do hope it remains Beaver Stadium and not Paterno Stadium, or Paterno Field at Beaver Stadium. Penn State is the only school in the world where the stadium is named after a university president while the library is named after the school's greatest head coach, and I can only imagine that's exactly how Joe Paterno would want it. He said it himself, "They ask me what I'd like written about me when I die. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach." Well, let me be the among the many to write that Joe Paterno was not just a good fotball coach, he was a man who made Penn State a better place, and I, and everyone else who has been fortunate enough to call themselves an alumnus of that great institution, owe him our heartfelt thanks for it.
Rest in Peace Joe Pa. We are, and forever will be, Penn State.