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Tributes to Paterno highlight influence of wife

Sue Paterno, center, wife of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, consoles her grandson as they leave a memorial service for Joe at Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pa., Thursday Jan. 26, 2012. A capacity crowd of more than 12,000 packed the Bryce Jordan Center for one more tribute to Paterno, the Hall of Fame football coach who died Sunday from lung cancer. Sue Paterno, center, wife of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, consoles her grandson as they leave a memorial service for Joe at Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pa., Thursday Jan. 26, 2012. A capacity crowd of more than 12,000 packed the Bryce Jordan Center for one more tribute to Paterno, the Hall of Fame football coach who died Sunday from lung cancer. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
By Genaro C. Armas
Associated Press / January 28, 2012
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa.—For decades, Joe Paterno was the public face of Penn State. For almost as long, his near-constant companion, wife Sue, seemingly wielded as much influence.

As tributes flowed this week for the late Hall of Fame coach, the extent of Sue Paterno's sway on her husband, the football program and the university became obvious, for those watching in or outside of Happy Valley.

She served as a host to potential recruits at the family home, a tutor to players, a counselor to concerned parents who entrusted their football-playing sons to her husband, and a prodigious fundraiser for the university and charitable organizations.

While a bronze statue outside Beaver Stadium memorializes the legacy of the winningest coach in major college football, it was Sue Paterno who was her husband's rock.

"For my dad, he never doubted my mother," their son Jay said at Thursday's memorial service for his father. "My mother had it all and continues to have it all. He could do his job and we could share him with Penn State because he knew my mother was in complete command on the home front."

Through the recent months of scandal that engulfed the university and a week's worth of private and public memorials for Penn State's longtime coach, other lasting images of Sue Paterno have emerged:

--She showed her spunk by coming to her husband's defense with a quick callback to a trustee after Joe Paterno was unceremoniously fired via a phone call. "After 61 years he deserved better," Sue Paterno said according to The Washington Post. Then, she hung up.

--A short time after being dismissed, she stood arm in arm with her husband as they stepped outside their modest State College home and greeted hundreds of well-wishers.

--And at the end of an emotional week in State College, Sue Paterno appeared composed, only occasionally fighting back tears, with her arms around some of her grandchildren as about 12,000 people gathered for public memorial. She rose from her seat and joined in a standing ovation as speakers defended his legacy against criticism that he failed to do more when told about an alleged child sexual assault involving one of his former assistants.

The Paternos were about as close to royalty as you can get in Happy Valley -- a modest first family of college football.

"They went everywhere together," former quarterback Daryll Clark said this week. "They were one and one."

Joe Paterno died Sunday at age 85, less than three months after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

"Joe Paterno indeed had an indomitable will with one exception: when his will ran counter to that of his wife and my mother," Jay Paterno said in a light moment from the memorial service for the man who became lovingly known around town as "JoePa."

Save for a few moments, 71-year-old Sue Paterno looked composed for a widow who just lost her husband under already emotional circumstances. Their family announced Paterno had been diagnosed with cancer just 10 days after he was ousted on Nov. 9 as Penn State coach following 46 seasons.

Sue and Joe Paterno were side by side on the family's front walk the night of the dismissal as he tried to console fans upset that he had been fired in the aftermath of child sex abuse charges against retired assistant Jerry Sandusky.

She joined the rest of the crowd at the memorial service giving Phil Knight a standing ovation after the Nike founder and CEO gave the most impassioned defense yet of her husband's legacy in the wake of the firing.

Appearing to nearly tear up at times, she otherwise looked poised during the emotional service that included several video tributes to Paterno, who amassed 409 victories.

Despite their recognition, they led lives similar to others who worked at Penn State. They raised five children in a ranch home next to a local park. There's no fence lining the front yard and no gates guarding the driveway.

The family's phone number is listed in the phone book. It was a way, Sue Paterno has said, for families of players to reach them in an emergency.

Besides tutoring players and helping to counsel players' parents, Sue Paterno was a prodigious fundraiser for the university library that bears the family's name -- it was, after all, where Joe and Sue met, when he was an assistant coach and she a freshman at the school.

He had a degree in English literature from Brown. She was an English student.

Outside of football, they rarely spent a moment apart.

"Besides Joe coaching and being at the football building, those two were inseparable," Clark said. He said the Paternos treated him as if he were one of their own children.

Sue Paterno baked spreads of cookies and desserts when the family hosted recruiting visits. Current and former players still rave about them.

At the memorial service, former receiver Kenny Jackson recounted a conversation Sue Paterno had with his family while he was being recruited. She reinforced the themes Joe Paterno promoted in his "grand experiment" of placing as much emphasis on academics as athletics.

"Sue only promised two things: the first, Kenny will go to class; second, he will get a quality education," Jackson said. "That's all she said. She never talked about anything else but my education. So I thank you Sue. ... You always made sure that was the first priority."

And she's responsible for perhaps one of the most lasting game-day memories of Joe Paterno.

Back in the late `60s, Sue Paterno suggested he raise the cuffs on his pants so mud wouldn't get on his wool slacks while coaching. It wasn't as much a concern when JoePa switched to his trademark khakis -- but Sue Paterno said her husband kept rolling them up anyway as a superstition.

"People don't realize how much she's done for this place," Joe Paterno said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2009. "I've said many times that they won't have any problems replacing me, but if they can find a coach's wife like Sue, they'll hit the jackpot."

The Paternos became renowned in the community for their generosity. They championed Special Olympics and THON, the Penn State student-organized dance marathon charity that raises millions of dollars annually for childhood cancer research and treatment.

They've contributed more than $4 million to the university during his tenure, including $3.5 million in 1998 to endow faculty positions and scholarships, and support two building projects.

Minus endorsements outside his university contract, Paterno made just more than $1 million a year, a relative bargain for a coach with two national championships.

Three years ago, the Paternos pledged $1 million to help build a new wing at Mount Nittany Medical Center, the State College hospital where Joe Paterno died Sunday.

There were no flowers or balloons in the room, Scott Paterno said -- not Joe's style. He suspected his mother had them redirected to other patients in the hospital.

Joe Paterno died less than three months after the emergence of the stunning scandal that led to his dismissal. University trustees ousted him Nov. 9, four days after charges were first filed against Sandusky. He is out on bail and awaiting trial after denying the allegations.

Paterno was a witness before a state grand jury investigating Sandusky, and authorities have said he was not a target of the probe. Paterno had testified he had relayed a 2002 abuse allegation passed on by a graduate assistant to campus superiors, fulfilling his legal obligation.

School trustees in recent weeks have cited, in part, Paterno's failure to fulfill a moral duty to tell police outside the university as a reason for his dismissal.

A tenure of more than six decades with the football program, including 15 years as an assistant before being promoted to head coach, had come to an end in early November. The cancer diagnosis came several days later.

Sue Paterno was constantly at her husband's side, Scott Paterno said.

One of Scott Paterno's lasting memories from the last few months, as his father fought illness, was the picture of his parents sitting at a table at home, surrounded by their children and 17 grandchildren on Dec. 21 as they celebrated his 85th birthday.

"She's got his hand on him and they're sitting there looking around and they've got their smiles on their faces," Scott Paterno said. "Just two of the most happy and contented people looking around the house, looking at their children and their grandchildren and it was like `You know, this is what our life is, this is what we built.'"

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