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

In light of former federal judge and director of the F.B.I. Louis J. Freeh’s investigation into the Penn State scandal and the release of the findings, I decided to re-post my thoughts on the matter. I’ll be curious to read your reaction to my piece given these findings.

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)

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