Father’s Day Suite: Joe Paterno and Stories of Fatherhood

Fatherhood and fathering serve as strong themes in the narrative strand of the scandal surrounding former Penn State University football coach Jerry Sandusky’s trial where he stands accused of 52 counts of sexually abusing ten boys. Luke Dittrich writes a brilliant article about fatherhood and this scandal in the June/July 2012 issue of Esquire. Dittrich’s article, “In the Ruins of a Blue and White Empire,” approaches the Sandusky scandal through the lens of two of the central sons involved in this story: Jay Paterno, Joe Paterno’s son, and Victim #1, a fatherless boy.

Jay Paterno and Victim #1 couldn’t be more different. Jay paterno has had many doors opened to him because of who his father was. Victim #1 has only entered into a chamber of horrors as a result of the father he didn’t have. Interestingly though, Jay Paterno appears to cast himself and his father as victims. Their victimization comes as a result of accusations that Joe Paterno, the legendary coach, helped Sandusky commit his crimes by not doing more to stop him. From my reading of Dittrich’s article, Jay seems to think that his father’s legacy should remain untarnished and that he be considered blameless in these horrible events. He’s not alone in his beliefs. Victim #1 has been unfairly targeted for bringing shame upon Paterno’s legacy. People blame him for forcing them to see their idol as a man.

I always loved my father; most of the time I liked him; occasionally I feared him; and sometimes I was disappointed by him. I never idolized him. I was always hyperaware of my father’s limitations. I came closest to idolizing my grandfather. My relationship with my father prepared me to be a cautious admirer of any potential idol. Having a father who would call and say he was going to do something with you and never show and promise gifts that he would never give helped to keep me clear-eyed about a man’s limitations. But if I ever forgot, my mother and my grandmother always reminded me to keep guard against blind worship.

Before I knew my grandfather, he had been an alcoholic and my mother never seemed to forgive him for it. She was always a little bit cool towards him and he seemed to accept that from her. My grandmother didn’t seem quite so impressed by my grandfather either. I would watch my mother and my grandmother ignore my grandpa’s teasing; not go to him for advice like everyone else seemed to; want him to “hush up Charlie, and just be quiet.” One time, my grandfather was on the porch regaling us with stories of his horn playing days when he was a boy in Louisville, Kentucky. My grandmother must have crept to the door as he was telling his tale and called me inside when she had had enough. “I want to tell you something,” she might have said as a way to begin. “Your grandfather played the sorriest horn you ever wanted to hear,” she said without a doubt. I remember wondering why she had done that. Why not let me believe my grandfather could have been as good as Charlie Parker? For years since I’ve thought about that moment and I decided that my grandmother wanted me to know that men, even the ones we deeply love, have limitations.

Former assistant coach Mike McQueary taking the stand for the prosecution yesterday at the Sandusky trial and his role in this case has consistently framed for me the position of actual men versus idols.  McQueary saw Sandusky showering with one of the boys and his reporting of the events to Paterno set off a string of events that eventually led to Paterno’s firing and now Sandusky’s trial. Instead of rushing in to save the boy from what he thought was an assault, McQueary caused some commotion to alert Sandusky to his presence before leaving the locker room. After composing himself, McQueary called his father for counsel and his father advised him to tell Coach Paterno. For me, McQueary’s actions firmly place him in the world where men reside. Men have limitations. They too can come undone by the horrible things they encounter in the world. The disappointment that many seem to find in McQueary’s failure to be a better hero for the poor child being assaulted stems from a failure to accept experience in human terms. Human beings have limits–even the one’s we try and turn into idols.

Trapped between an idol and a monster, Victim #1 has caught hell from adults and students alike in the small town Pennsylvania community that identifies him. As you consider the fact that the Paterno family received a call from the President of the United States on the day of Joe Paterno’s funeral and that a large number of people want to rename major streets after the Coach, you wonder how Victim #1 understands his own value. According to Dittrich, Victim #1 penned an essay about heroes where he wrote , “I’m glad I’m a hero. I save myself all the time.” His outlook holds promise. At least he thinks of himself as someone worth saving.

See Also: 

Reading with My Father: Slim’s Table Interlude (onPenn State)

27 thoughts on “Father’s Day Suite: Joe Paterno and Stories of Fatherhood

  1. Apparently, once again someone has decided to drag the Paterno name through the mud just to milk the name for financial gain/generating publicity. Hmmmm, I’ll write an article about fatherhood. Wait, no one will find it interesting but if I throw the Paterno name into the title and try to make Joe Paterno and Penn State responsibile for the actions of a pedophile, the district attorney that failed to prosecute, the guidance counselor that blew off the victim, the Second Mile and child services that failed to investigate in 1998, etc., etc., then it will get all kinds of attention. The Penn State community did not support the victims ?? How about all the money raised by the PSU community for RAINN?? WE ARE Penn State but we are also parents and NO ONE condones, if true, the actions of Sanduskey. Our support and outrage for the unconscionable actions towards Joe Pa does not negate support for the victims. Joe Paterno and the rest of the Paterno family need to be left alone. Joe Paterno’s ONLY limitation was he that was such an honorable and amazing person himself that he was blind to the limitations of orhers so he placed his trust in people that did not deserve it (Curley, Shultz, etc) and did not do THEIR jobs. Joe Pa’s job was to coach football. He did that exceptionally well and still found time to also be a mentor, a philanthropist, and so much more.

    1. Dear Michelle Ann Leonard,

      Thank you for commenting. Let me assure you, I have not earned a single dime from anything that I have written on my blog. If there is an advertisement on this site, it is most certainly something that comes from the host, WordPress, and not a corporation that has sought me out. Too, I started this blog after suffering a series of personal losses; one of which included my father. I have used the blog to explore some of the thoughts that I have had about my father and his legacy through this site. My first efforts were chronicled in a series called “Reading with My Father.” As I have continued making my father’s life since his death an extension of my life, my writing has become a conduit for doing so. As this month is one where we celebrate fathers, I decided to post, at least once a week, a piece that contemplates some element of the idea that interested me. Several months back, I wrote about Jerry Sandusky as an interlude to my “Reading with My Father Series” and so when I read the piece this month in Esquire, it continued something that I had already been considering so I decided to reflect on it for my “Father’s Day Suite.”

      I like sports a great deal. I actually competed in the SEC and I am a loyal fan of “The Big Blue Nation.” I am from Ohio so if my Cats aren’t in contention, I pay attention to Ohio State…and the Big Ten in general. I like Joe Paterno. My father did too. He represented old school values the we liked (which is why I used the logo of the Penn State helmet in my post–Classic). Thus, my decision to write about Joe Paterno was genuine. EMM

      1. Mr. Monroe: Sorry about your loss. I had no real male role model in my life except Joe Pa. For me, I not only revered Joe Paterno’s “old school values” but I also used them as a symbolic male role model “father” therefore I react quite viscerally to people trying to tear down this remarkable man because of the failures of those around him (that he trusted would do the right thing because that is what he always did) and the sickness of Sanduskey.

        1. Thank you for your kind words.

          One of the things that I try to do with my blog is to extend the conversations that I remembered taking place on my family’s front porch. My grandfather’s careful, thoughtful reflections brought people to him and he seemed to offer them fresh perspectives on how to think about their lives and their dilemmas. Using my blog as an extension of my front porch means that I am not invested in being mean-spirited. My effort to think about Joe Paterno and this case involving Jerry Sandusky provided me with an opportunity to consider the men that I loved in the face of their imperfections and considered how that informed a broader interpretation.

          I didn’t write this in my post but it must have been clear from what I wrote that I wanted Joe Paterno to have performed more heroically than what he did. I wanted him to call a press conference and announce to the world years ago why he was barring Jerry Sandusky from Penn State facilities and from using his association with the Program. I wanted a grander response–like the one that he had in the face of the breaking scandal. The fact that he didn’t run and hide showed the kind of character that made him remarkable. Apparently, when Jay complained to him about the reporters camping out and asking questions about what Joe Paterno knew, the old man’s response was, “they’re just doing their jobs.” That’s a helluva response. He wasn’t interested in being left alone. He was man enough to face the consequences of what he had done. For me, this just shows how complicated this conversation is and should be about the relationship between humanity and heroics. Because Paterno was “man enough,” he could handle a conversation about his possible limitations and ever the teacher, I think he would have accepted using this occasion as a context for thinking about how we enhance our own responses to moments that seem to call for heroics. No? EMM

          1. Re: “I wanted him to call a press conference and announce to the world years ago why he was barring Jerry Sandusky from Penn State facilities and from using his association with the Program.” Joe Paterno was NOT responsible for barring Sandusky from the Penn State facilities and he did NOT force Sandusky into retirement. The fact that Sandusky had access to the facilities in the first place was a result of retirement negotiations between Sandusky, his lawyer (who also represented The Second Mile)l and Penn State administration. Despite what anyone believes, Joe is NOT responsible for any of this. Also, Joe Paterno TRIED to hold his regular press conference as usual the week this story broke and he was barred from doing so by Penn State’s Board of Trustees. He gave his final interview from bed where he was so weak that he was unable to sit up. He wanted to tell his side of the story. He acknowledged that he didn’t feel competent to deal with the situation and that he reported the information he was given to those he felt more equipped to handle it. He acknowledged his humanity!

            1. Yeah, my point about heroism is that it would have defied arrangements and negotiations; bucking the system–you know? I guess a part of what I’m suggestion about my interpretation is that it would have required Paterno to enact my vision of his power and authority that he may not have held the same view of himself; especially in light of his humility. Because from my point of view, his iconic status could have yielded any change he would have wanted with Penn State Football…maybe that’s unfair. You hear this kind of talk in sports circles now about top athletes getting coaches fired. We’ve heard it with the Orlando Magic; LeBron James with Cleveland. I saw Paterno as capable of making any change he would have wanted at Penn State. No?

              As far as after the scandal broke, I thought Paterno was the man. And I do agree with you about him showing his humanity…actually, it’s been my point about him all along: he was a man…and all men have limitations 🙂 EMM

              1. I think for you to judge a man’s actions because of YOUR vision is completely unfair! Joe Paterno had the “iconic status” you talk about because of the kind of man he was not because he had power from winning some football games and titles. People respected him because of his high ideals. They respected him because of what he required of his players. His vision was “success with honor” and he required that of himself and his team. He challenged, not only his team, but every student at Penn State to strive for excellence in life and in academics. Read “Captains Letters to Joe”. You’ll get a sense of the kind of coaching the players received. They don’t talk about “x’s and o’s”, defensive strategies, blocking, passing or kicking. They talk about being on time, the importance of the way you present yourself in public, how it isn’t enough to just pass a course but to challenge yourself academically, the importance of putting family first. Talk to former students and their chance meetings with Joe Paterno on campus. He would always stop, get your name, ask what you were reading or studying. You felt like he had a real interest in YOU and your success, and I believe he did! If you had the opportunity to run into him again, he’d remember your name. You’ll hear these same stories over and over and over. THOSE ARE THE REASONS for Joe Paterno’s “iconic status” and “power”. Whether or not Joe Paterno was capable of making “any change he would’ve wanted at Penn State” is immaterial because he never wanted the kind of power to make administrative decisions for the university. He wanted to be a coach, and a mentor, and he did a hell of a job at both.

                1. But to Ism2’s point, there is a difference between the responsibility that you want and the responsibility that you must take. So I don’t think it’s an immaterial element of this case to think through the coach’s role in intervening so as to remove Sandusky from having an association with Penn State Football.
                  Have you been following the storyline about LaVar Arrington? He’s troubled by his own unwitting role in Sandusky’s treachery. Arrington seems to suggest that no one, except the boys themselves, can plead innocent here. It seemed to me that Joe Paterno thought the same thing. EMM

                  1. LaVar Arrington isn’t “troubled”……he’s creeped out! He knows that he came in contact with one of these boys, he knows that he had absolutely no role in the actions of Sandusky and he places absolutely no blame on Joe Paterno. His anger is directed toward the accused and Penn State’s Board of Trustees. The bottom line is that Joe Paterno had no first hand knowledge of Sandusky’s behavior. When given a second hand account of possible inappropriate behavior, he followed university policy and Pennsylvania State law in reporting the ALLEGATIONS to his superiors. Only with the benefit of hindsight, which you and the rest of us all have, would he have done things differently. That doesn’t make him an irresponsible or bad man. It doesn’t indicate that he was trying to cover for anyone. it doesn’t even mean he did anything wrong. Maya Angelou says, “You did what you knew how to do and when you knew better, you did better”. Those are very wise words from a very wise woman. Mr. Monroe, I am truly sorry the loss of your father and I appreciate that you are attempting to better understand the relationship between fathers/sons, children/idols, etc. But I find it incredibly inconsiderate for you to write this piece during this particular week as the Paterno children and grandchildren prepare to celebrate their first Father’s Day without their father and grandfather. He deserves respect. They deserve respect. I will comment no further.

                    1. I have treated this subject and the interlocutors involved in this discussion with respect. Given the fact of Sandusky’s trial taking place at this moment, it doesn’t seem to be beyond the scope of public concern to be addressing these issues at the moment.

                      Nonetheless, I have appreciated the time and attention that you invested in expressing your views here. Thank you, EMM

                    2. Linda, I believe it is time to stop wasting all of our efforts on an obviously closed mind. Apparently the State of Pa (that allowed Sandusky to adopt 1/2 dozen kids), child services (that interviewed a victim), President Bush (that lauded Sandusky’s charity), the District Attorney, the janitor that directly witnessed abuse, the Attorney General (now Governor), the guidance counselor and high school coach that saw abuse and still told the kid Sandusky, would not do such a thing, etc., etc, have NO RESPONSIBILTY for stopping Sandusky but by golly Joe with his superhuman ability to see the evil workings in the mind of a sick man just because they worked together should have been able to prevent all of this heartache. It’s sad that all of you anti-Paterno people accuse us of being “blinded” by our admiration of a man who demonstrated “Success with Honor” yet you are the ones that attribute Joe Pa with some kind of miraculous ability to know more than the “experts” that Sandusky fooled. I guess none of you have ever second-guessed a decision you ever made when you had the ability to look at it WITH HINDSIGHT and realizd with new information given to you in the present you would have made a different decision. Obviously all of you have made perfect decisions in your life and have never hurt anyone in your life. All I can say is I’m not Catholic so I will not have to wear a necklace with your saintly image on it.

            2. Yes, Paterno was responsible. It is his charge to keep the young men in his charge safe and he failed to do so. When I send my child out into the world I expect those with keys to do their best to keep the likes of Sandusky out of the facility. To allow a known child abuser access to your facility and grant him recruiting priviliges makes all the with supervisory status responsible.

              As a father, I try to impress lessons of responsibility as often as possible. For me, there is nothing more deserving of idolizing than for a man to carry full responsibility for his actions or in Joe Paterno’s case, lack of action. No one is “trying to drag Paterno’s name through the mud.” He did that himself. The same character that he demanded from his student-athletes should have led him to pursue further help from the authories.

              1. NO ONE in Joe’s “charge” was harmed by Jerry Sandusky! No players, no Penn State students, no coaches were victims. The victims of these alleged crimes were from The Second Mile. Joe Paterno and Penn State have absolutely no connection to The Second Mile, except that some may have at times donated money because they believed that Jerry Sandusky was a good man and that the charity was a worthy cause. Access to the football facilities was given by Penn State administration in Jerry Sandusky’s retirement agreement. You are speculating, as are sooooo many others, that Jerry Sandusky was a “known” child molester. Joe said he had no knowledge of these allegations until MM came to him in 2001. Joe Paterno was not a liar! He was 85 years old when he passed away. He was 75 when he was first informed that there might be some inappropriate behavior on the part of JS. So is it your assertion that he became a liar in the last 10 years of his life despite the fact that he had lived with the utmost integrity until he was 75?? In his final interview, he didn’t sugar coat his actions or try to explain them away. He said he felt inadequate to deal with the situation. He said he passed along the information to those he felt were in a position to know what to do with it. It was one of the great sorrows of his life. “With the benefit of hindsight”, he wished he’d done more. HOW is that NOT taking responsibility?? The anger or disappointment currently directed at Joe Paterno belongs to The Second Mile, the guardians of the alleged victims, and Tom Corbett, as he cared more about becoming Governor than investigating an possible child molester. Let us also not forget the school principal, guidance counselor and coach who “dropped the ball”. And, although I honestly do not believe that Penn State administration “covered up” but rather seriously mishandled the information they were given, I think they all need to show the courage that Joe Paterno showed in his final days.

          2. In theory, I agree Joe was the type of person to welcome the opportunity to teach life lessons regardless if related to his limitations or not. The problem here is the perception of whether or not Joe Pa did or did not do all that he could with what he knew AT THAT TIME (2001 or 2002) when McQuery came to him. I believe 110% that Joe did everything he could with the info he had available to him and in light of the fact that our judicial system provides that we are innocent UNTIL proven guilty. I will reiterate that Joe Pa’s only mistake was believing in the people that ultimately failed to do THEIR jobs! Joe Pa’s heroism can be found in his testimony supporting McQuery’s testimony and not the University party line. If Joe Pa had said the same as Curley and Shultz (horsing around in the showers) and with no victim, do you really believe McQuery’s statements would have been given much weight ?

    2. @Michelle…I understood the article to highlight the idolization of “fathers” to the point of ignoring or missing their limitations. In this instance, reverence for a coach allowed the abuse of children. Simply “not condoning” child molestation isn’t enough. We need to see through the haze of Saturday euphoria and make ethical decisions. Morality and ethics took a back seat to fanhood for far too many, not excluding witnesses. Though we all (fathers) clearly have flaws or limitations, we have a responsibility to live up to the mythical status we have been granted by a culture and society that values patriarchs.

      1. Thank you for taking the time to comment. You raise a really interesting point about taking responsibility for “the mythical status” of fatherhood/patriarchy. It suggests that being ethical, particularly in this case, means enacting behavior consistent with the endowment of authority. We did not see that occurring on behalf of those boys. Responsible fatherhood/patriarchy was not shown. EMM

  2. Victim 1 did not even live in the same county as Penn State. If people have unfairly targeted him, they aren’t people from Penn State, and the overwhelming majority of Penn Staters would harshly condemn that. The people of Penn State have made it crystal clear how we feel about these victims: we have raised money, held vigils, and sent letters of support. I would not be at all surprised to find out that Victim 1 relocated to State College. Have you considered that possibility?

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I appreciate your time and careful attention.

      I have been thinking a great deal about what it would look like to offer fellowship and community to Victim #1 and the others; particularly what it would look like as an extension of the Paterno family’s own grieving and the support offered them. Interestingly, I think that the kind of exchange that we’re having fits within the scope of what community support looks like. That is to say, an on-going conversation about what it means to love and offer nurturance as a community would add to how our civic relationships get enhanced.

      I would imagine that your reference to “Penn Staters” extends far beyond the geographic territory wherein the school is located (as someone from the University of Kentucky’s “Big Blue Nation” I am someone who knows this terrain well). Thus, Victim #1’s status outside of the county where the school is located wouldn’t absolve him from feeling estranged from the embrace of the community you have identified. So to that end, how have “Penn Staters” addressed the protests over Paterno’s firing and how Sandusky’s victims felt implicated in the community’s judgement? I remember being struck by reports wherein several victims were quite worried that they would be seen as the cause for the firing. After the quote that I use from Dittrich citing Victim #1’s paper on heroes, he writes this about the young man: “He saved himself. He came forward, he told his story. He saved himself, and in saving himself, he saved others as well. And yes, in saving himself, this fatherless boy unwittingly brought down JoePa. He put an end to something. And he’s suffered the consequences.” I think what Dittrich wrote is an incredibly powerful chronicle of Victim’s #1 story. In addition to Victim #1 putting an end to Sandusky’s villainy, he also put an end to the way that “Penn Staters” must think of themselves through the legacy of Joe Paterno. In your view, has your community done a sufficient job of responding to this notion of loss as well as the victims roles in it? EMM

      1. Amazing how everyone remembers the protest over Joe Pa’s firing (which represented anger at the BOT) and forgets about the Penn Staters rallied and started their own initiative to raise money for RAINN in support for he victims. Joe’s only words and thoughts (despite the unfairness of his own treatment) were prayers for the victims.

  3. Neither Jay, nor Joe Paterno, have ever considered themselves victims and they have said so publicly. Read the last interview conducted with Joe Paterno!!! And, the entire Penn State community is absolutely outraged at the allegations against Jerry Sandusky. No one blames these victims for what has happened…..we all blame the alleged monster! I don’t know where you get this information from but it’s horse pucky! Our hearts are bleeding for these children and what they allegedly endured and we want absolutely nothing more than to see justice done. You clearly are able to understand Mike McQueary’s humanity in his reaction to what he believes he saw. Why can’t you also understand that Joe Paterno and his family are human beings also and deserve the respect the Penn State community shows to them as well. They have been the epitome of dignity throughout this debacle as usual and deserve to be left to grieve for their patriarch.

    1. Dear Linda Berkland,

      Thank you for taking the time to respond. My reading of Jay Paterno’s sense of his victimization stems from my interpretation of the article that I cite from Esquire. I highly recommend the article. I agree with you about Jay Paterno’s own sense of himself as a victim but his belief that his father’s story aligns with biblical as well as American tales of being besieged by hysteria suggests a sense of victimization beyond what he claims.

      From my reading of the Dittrich article, Victim #1 has not felt supported by “the entire Penn State community.” Initially, that child wasn’t even believed by the school’s guidance counselor. The lack of support he received led him to change schools and from my understanding, he has no plans for remaining in this “community” now that he has graduated high school. That young man feels “blamed” despite the community’s intentions to hold Jerry Sandusky accountable for his monstrosity.

      Finally, I think I do see Joe Paterno’s humanity. In fact, one of the reasons why I wanted to write about him is because I think for a long time, I was so distracted by his legacy that I didn’t place him in the world where men reside; he was a legend. Thus, I placed him alongside Lou Holtz and Bobby Bowden as coaches who I think I elevated to a status beyond reproach. But they are not idols, they are men. Understanding them as men means that I can accept that they have limitations. To your point, I liked the way that Joe Paterno responded in the face of this scandal. He showed the kind of dignity that made him remarkable. EMM

      1. Thank you for your response to my comments. It is part of the testimony that the guidance counselor didn’t believe this student’s report. That absolutely breaks my heart! But that person isn’t Penn State. That person, however, is an outstanding example of how our society treats these kinds of allegations. This is a societal problem and until all of the finger pointing ceases, and people realize that NONE of these people intended to let these children down, we’re never going to get to the heart of the matter and fix the problem. I fully understand that perception is reality. If Victim #1 feels he hasn’t been supported then that is his truth and I pray for him. However your article, in my opinion, supports his perception by suggesting that “idolizing” Joe Paterno is more important to Penn Staters than supporting this victim – NOT TRUE! Joe Paterno is a legend, however he is not a God. He was a tremendous human being and, as a Penn Stater, i am very proud of all that he stood for. That in NO WAY diminishes my sympathy for the victims of these alleged crimes.

        1. I hear you. I like the attention you give to the tension that I find between “idolizing” and offering sympathy because I do think that that places the attention right where it needs to be. I think what I am interested in is humanizing the notion of legend. Thus, when we consider someone legendary, like the way my grandfather plays in my imagination, we can do so while also recognizing that they can also fall short of our expectation that they always perform heroically. Without this humanizing element, it seems to me that we do want to have our legends, our idols, to perform as Gods. No?

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