On a storybook campus, bleeding blue and white
STATE COLLEGE, Pa.—If only it were possible to block out the world's harshest realities -- the way the people of Happy Valley have done for decades now -- this week's crystalline skies might have set the scene for one more perfect chapter in local lore.
A glorious sun bathed Mount Nittany's fading foliage in a rusty glow. Hundreds of Penn State students gathered once again in the protective shadows of Beaver Stadium, pitching 81 tents in the instant colony called Paternoville. Another Big Game lay just ahead.
But when Ed Temple, class of `70, put down the convertible top of his meticulously restored 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air this week and set out for a drive around the stadium, he came to mourn.
In the back seat of a car usually reserved for alumni parades, Temple propped up a life-sized cardboard cutout of Joe Paterno, benevolent ruler of this valley for nearly half a century -- but now the ex-football coach, fired this week in the midst of a spiraling scandal centered on allegations of child sex abuse by one of his former assistants.
In the front seat, Temple's dachshund, Snoopy, gazed out at the passing campus from his master's lap. "Unlike a human, this guy will never lie to you or deceive you," Temple said, stroking the dog's head.
With an edge heard in the voices of many Penn Staters, Temple -- raised in this town that has long celebrated its seclusion -- recalled life in the House that Joe Built. At first, the phrase was just a reference to the stadium, which packs in 107,000 on autumn Saturdays to revel in the words of the Alma Mater: "May no act of ours bring shame, to one heart that loves thy name."
But Temple went on to describe the tree-lined brick campus and the Valley itself as an oasis "sort of like Disneyland," one that has long drawn on a seemingly bottomless well of virtue and trust to sustain a family far bigger than any ordinary household could ever contain.
Now, trying to explain how it feels to be a part of that family, Temple, who is 65, reached for a parable of his own experience. Years ago, he said, his father, a local merchant and real estate developer, was sent to federal prison for four years after being convicted of tax evasion and mail fraud. Decades later, in a town where many people stay forever, Temple is certain some still cringe when he gives his name. Because of one man's deeds, he says, the family's identity is forever tarnished.
"That taints you for the rest of your life," Temple said, turning back to the scandal that has sundered Penn State's carefully constructed sense of self.
"We all have to live with that now."
The American landscape is sprinkled with picturesque college towns. And many are places where football reigns, victory machines whose glories stir the soul and rake in dollars.
For years, though, Penn State has cast itself as a singular storybook place. Like other schools, it thrived on a culture of football. But to bleed blue and white, Penn Staters promised themselves, was about much more than a game.
It meant putting individual identity aside for the greater glory, an ethic symbolized by the jerseys players wear that, unlike those of many teams, bear no name besides that of the school. It was about a unique bond, founded on knowing that your fellow Nittany Lions were your family and the coach in the Coke-bottle glasses and rolled up pants known affectionately as "JoePa," your trusted patriarch. It was about doing things the right way.
"Success with honor," they called it. It was a slogan, sure, but one to be believed.
That can all seem like so much hazy nostalgia now, following former Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky's arrest on charges of molesting eight boys and allegations that Paterno, Penn State President Graham Spanier and other officials were told about one such incident in 2002, yet never went to the police.
But understanding the unique role that Penn State and its hometown assigned themselves in American collegiate life helps make sense of, if not the tragedy, then at least the tears and the outrage it has unleashed.
When Paterno became head coach in 1966 after 16 years as an assistant, he announced a "Grand Experiment" -- a self-appointed mission for the program and the university to prove that athletic success and academic achievement could go hand-in-hand.
Some outsiders found it self-righteous. But over the years, the Nittany Lions garnered two national championships and numerous bowl victories, all while fielding squads that consistently posted among the highest graduation rates of any top-ranked program.
That identity was cemented when the 1986 squad triumphed over a No. 1 University of Miami team for the national championship. The Miami squad spent the days before the game dressed in battle fatigues, earning them a reputation as rogues. Penn State's players arrived in suits and ties, led by a coach dubbed St. Joe.
"It was the Christians versus the infidels," said Ron Smith, a retired Penn State professor of sports history. "It's not hard to have a culture of doing right. But to be righteous about it, when something goes wrong ..."
The Penn State way made admirers of many who started out as critics.
But nobody bought into the legend like those who lived it. Paterno's program generated loyalty and money that were instrumental in turning a school once focused on agriculture into one of the nation's biggest and most respected research universities and a highly sought destination. Penn State's alumni association, with more than 165,000 members, is the largest in the world. When the Lion Ambassadors lead tours through campus, the call-and-response cheers that still erupt spontaneously across the lawns demand the attention of any visitor.
"WE ARE...," one student will shout. The response is forceful, immediate and heartfelt -- and often draws a chorus of voices from hundreds of feet away: "PENN STATE!!"
Penn State's geography proved the ideal hothouse for nurturing its self-identity. Until new highways were paved in recent years, State College remained difficult to reach, hours removed from either Pittsburgh or Philadelphia and tucked between folds in the brooding Appalachian ridges. Getting to Penn State is "a camping trip," Indiana University's irascible basketball coach Bob Knight once said. "There is nothing for about 100 miles."
But people here have long seen that remoteness as a virtue.
"Happy Valley," reads a T-shirt for sale in one of the memorabilia shops that line College Avenue. "Livin' the Dream Since 1855. It Doesn't Get any Better."
Visiting campus this week, 1974 graduate Dwight Bowie reminisced about the weekly "Gentle Thursday" gatherings of his youth, when students flocked to the lawn in front of Old Main's clock tower for "a little bit of smoking, a little bit of drinking and much music."
What amazes Bowie, now that he's older and aware of the events then taking place at other campuses around the country, is that he recalls virtually no anti-Vietnam protests at Penn State.
"It was like some things didn't seem to touch here," said Bowie, now an insurance executive who lives in Keene, N.H.
But for those who live in town -- the children of university employees, the graduates who never leave, the many alumni who return to retire here -- the Penn State way is much more than gauzy memories. In this town, where revered leaders were also friends and colleagues and neighbors, this week's revelations are a betrayal.
Sitting on the steps of Old Main Wednesday holding up a yellow legal pad with the word "HEAL," written in 4-inch high letters, doctoral student Peter Buckland recalled his childhood as the son of an English professor and an academic adviser.
Buckland spoke of afternoons playing with friends in Sunset Park, where they'd frequently see Paterno -- whose name and number are still in the local phone directory -- on solitary strolls. Mike McQueary, the assistant coach who went to Paterno in 2002 after seeing Sandusky in the locker room showers allegedly molesting a 10-year-old boy, was a year ahead of Buckland at State College Area High School. When Buckland's father died last August, 3 of every 4 mourners were people he knew from Penn State.
"You have this identity with this thing and it's bigger than you," said Buckland, who is 35, married to a fellow Penn State graduate and the father of a 4-year-old. The thought of child abuse being allowed to continue on the campus where he grew up makes it "frankly difficult for me -- because I've been here so much -- to separate what has happened to this place from myself."
Lou Prato, a 1959 alumnus who has written several books about Penn State sports history and was the first director of the university's All-Sports Museum, describes the valley as a cocoon and says that has intensified the shock.
"This goes beyond football. What's going to happen to this town? Because football has been this town," Prato said, his voice polished in the manner of a man who spent years in broadcasting.
"How did it happen here?" he continues. "This is like a nightmare, it really is. This is like your mother died."
Prato's voice cracks and tears begin to well.
"I'm sorry," he says.
All across campus -- from the plaza in front of the Paterno Library to the umbrella-shaded tables outside the Creamery with its Peachy Paterno ice cream to the tents pitched across the concrete below the stadium -- the people who count themselves as members of the Penn State family search for a way to explain the way they feel inside.
The sex abuse allegations, several said, have fueled a sense of betrayal like the one they imagine many Roman Catholics feel in the wake of the scandal involving pedophile priests. Only here, the anger is confined to one community.
Others compared it to the loss of trust in leaders that followed Watergate or the surrender of security that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"It's over," some said, shaking their heads.
David Schwartz, a senior from Doylestown, majoring in energy business and finance, recalled the adrenaline rush of his first visit on yet another perfect fall day six years ago when the campus rang with cheers. Penn State's football team, coming off two losing seasons, was resurgent and on its way to a victory in the Orange Bowl.
"I just couldn't imagine going to a better school than this," Schwartz said, gazing across College Avenue to the green lawns of campus. "What was obviously a source of our pride is now a shattered identity."
Liz Gallagher, a business major from Scranton, laughed, recalling how she announced to her parents in seventh grade that she planned to go to Penn State. When she goes home, her high school friends always shake their heads when she rhapsodizes about her college choice. What is it about that place? they ask. It's about friendships, she tells them, but it's also more.
By way of example she points out that this is the annual "Integrity Week," at the business school, where every student is asked to sign a pledge to do the right thing in both their academic and future professional lives. Gallagher is certain that, even now, that spirit endures.
"Everybody's thinking you can't tear that legacy down," Gallagher said. "One person can't do that to us. We're going to show the world."
But many others are just as certain that the Penn State fairytale has been forever rewritten.
Prato compares Happy Valley now to Bedford Falls, the mythical town from the Jimmy Stewart movie, "It's a Wonderful Life." In the film, a protective angel shows Stewart, a savings-and-loan manager who doubts his own self-worth, just how much his tight-knit town would suffer without him. Now State College is having its Bedford Falls moment -- except that there is no angel to take it back to the way things were before, Prato said.
Still, close your eyes and breathe in the smell of turning leaves, and Penn State can still summon storybook memories.
On an afternoon of splendid fall sunshine Wednesday -- in the hours between Paterno's announcement that he would retire at season's end and university trustees' decision to fire him immediately -- Kathleen Karpov stepped outside to chat with a neighbor and to take measure of the moment in her hometown.
Karpov, a native of State College whose family bought a weekend place six years ago directly across McKee Street from Paterno's modest ranch-style house, sighed as television news crews paced the sidewalk bordering her lawn, cameras pointed at Paterno's doorstep.
She spoke fondly about growing up the Penn State way, about her family's happiness when they found this house, about the anticipation she and her husband have long shared to one day retire to a place where the most respected members of the community are your family, friends and neighbors.
"I think our entire town is bleeding blue and white," Karpov said.
That catchphrase, she recalled, used to have such a positive ring to it.
"Right now, it's the pain that we feel."
Adam Geller is a New York-based national writer for The Associated Press. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org.