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January 22, 2012

Joseph Vincent Paterno Died Today, but his "Grand Experiment" Lives On!

By Walter Uhler

Joe Paterno had a great impact on my life and on the lives of the all the people who really knew what he was about.


I never had the honor to actually meet Joe Paterno. Once, during the early 1970s, we exchanged "Hellos!" as he hurried past me down the tree-lined pavement that takes you from the Pattee Library (now the "Pattee and Paterno Libraries") to College Avenue at Allen Street. I also saw him up close at a few of "our" football pep rallies in Rec Hall and at a larger pep rally held outside in sunny California, on the eve of "our" Rose Bowl game against the Oregon Ducks. Of course, I saw him at a distance as he paced the sidelines during the forty years that I have held season tickets to Penn State's home football games.

Nevertheless, during the forty years since my initial enrollment as an undergraduate student at Penn State, I've seen, heard and read so much about Joe Paterno that I could not avoid having my life vicariously enriched -- given our mutual love for Penn State and loyalty to Penn State -- by his great accomplishments. Too many times to count, Joe Paterno proved his commitment to "success with honor" long before that term became a marketing buzzword at my university.

While still an undergraduate student, I learned that Franco Harris -- one of Penn State's greatest running backs, later to become a football immortal with the Pittsburgh Steelers -- would not start in the Cotton Bowl, because he was late for practice. As one of his players recently recalled, being on time in Paterno's book meant being ten minutes early. Yet, Franco Harris, today, is one of Paterno's most visible and vocal defenders against the tawdry treatment he received on November 9, 2011 by Penn State's Board of Trustees.

I also remember John Cappelletti, Penn State's only Heisman Trophy winner, once saying that Joe Paterno's criticism of his performance on the practice field mad him so angry that sometimes, he wished he could line up against Paterno and run him over. Both of my sons, Terry and Matt, are Penn State grads and they share my wonder about the amazing turnabout made in adulthood by most of the Penn State football players who chafed under Paterno's strict work ethic and moral discipline while in school.

If you read the book, Captains' Letters to Paterno, you will see John Gerak write: "I write to express my sincere appreciation for your influence on my life. I did not fully appreciate your "influence' on me or my parents during my undergraduate years." What he especially didn't appreciate, was the phone call Paterno made to his parents, during which he said that their son had a disappointing semester (poor grades) probably caused by "drinking too much beer and hanging out with New Jersey guys." Reggie Givens wrote: "I came to Penn state a kid, and left a man"Like so many other former players, in the back of my head I will forever hear you fussing at me in that legendary "Joe Paterno' voice."

Wide receiver Terrell Golden remembers October 9th, 2004, when, as a substitute for an injured wide receiver, he caught a touchdown pass that sent the 110,000 fans cheering in jubilation. Golden was so excited, he drew a fifteen yard penalty for his excessive exuberance. "I go back to the bench amidst high fives and handshakes from teammates. Then I see you [Joe] coming towards me. I knew that this was my big break and you were coming to congratulate me. I couldn't have been more wrong; you reamed me out in front of 110,000 people and sat me for the rest of the game. That day I learned a great life lesson. Conduct yourself with class, don't try to draw attention to yourself (football's a team game) and act like you've been there before"Even if you haven't!"

Ron Heller writes about playing for Joe on the 1982 National Championship Team and about his subsequent move into the NFL. But, he vividly remembers the hand written letter his father received from Joe, in which Joe apologized to Heller's parents for "letting them down." How had he let them down? By failing to honor his promise to assure that Heller would earn his degree at Penn State. After Heller learned about that letter, he decided to go back and graduate from Penn State.

Tom Rafferty mentions how his mother, upon seeing Joe Paterno on TV, would call to remind him about the certified letter she once received from Joe. It said that if he caught her son skipping class one more time, he would be "tossed off" the team. John Schaffer recalls the many maxims preached by Coach Paterno: "You will face adversity, so what! Embrace it, pull up your pants and say, "C'mon lets go.'" Or "Accept blame, give credit." Isn't it quite comforting to know that Joe lived his last turbulent months and his last few hours according to those maxims?

As one who has spent much of his adult life engaged in scholarship or journalistic endeavors, I was most impressed by the letter that former captain Chuck Benjamin wrote to Paterno: "The day I met you at Cresskill High School in 1973. I knew that Penn State was the school for me. You saw my school books and noticed that among them was Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. Our very first conversation had to do with this novel and its protagonist, Raskolnikov. I was floored!

That letter resonates with me because -- as an undergraduate student at Penn State -- I too was floored when I learned that Paterno often quoted the following lines from Robert Browning's poem, Andrea del Sarto: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?"

What other university has a football coach who was raised on Virgil's Aeneid who could talk intelligently about Raskolnikov and who could wax poetically through Robert Browning? But, Paterno not only talked the talk, he walked the walk.

No, I'm not talking about the $4 million he and Sue donated to the library. Simply consider that "80 percent of Penn State football players graduate in six years or less (that number jumps to 87 percent if you don't include players who transfer or leave college to play professionally) and there is no difference in graduation rates between black and white Penn State players--which unfortunately is not true at other universities." These statistics place Penn State at number one among all the college football powers, when it comes to graduating its players. Thus, Joe Paterno's grand experiment not only lives on, it continues to resonate throughout the university!

Mr. Joseph Vincent Paterno, I've spent most of my life attempting to live according to your maxim: "You either get better or you get worse." Thus, I'm writing today, accompanied by a tall glass of wine and many tears, to thank you for your invaluable service to "our" Penn State university and for your incalculable impact on my life and life of my sons.

I believe, as CNBC reporter Darren Rovell wrote: "From what we know, Joe Paterno lived 99.99% of his adult life as a noble man. Some will remember the .01%." But I also believe that it was the national hysteria over that .01% that broke his heart and caused his death.

Authors Bio:
Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA).