The Meaning of Joe Paterno’s Fall: Excerpts From ‘Death Comes to Happy Valley’

In these excerpts from his new book, Death Comes to Happy Valley: Penn State and the Tragic Legacy of Joe Paterno, Jonathan Mahler looks at Paterno’s fall and at his campus legacy after his death.

The following excerpts are taken from Death Comes to Happy Valley: Penn State and the Tragic Legacy of Joe Paterno by Jonathan Mahler, published by and available as an Amazon Kindle Single.

First excerpt:

Had Mike McQueary been explicit with Paterno about what he’d seen? It’s hard to imagine a young graduate assistant describing the scene in full detail—the boy against the wall of the shower room, Sandusky holding him around the waist from behind, the rhythmic slapping sounds—to a 75-year-old coaching icon. At the same time, it’s even harder to accept Paterno’s explanation that he’d never even heard of “rape and a man.” Paterno was a practicing Catholic, and this was 2002, when the Church’s sex scandals were front-page news just about every day. Against this backdrop, and given his stature as a moral hero, a reputation he had done nothing to discourage, how could he have done the absolute minimum, discharging his legal obligation to notify his nominal superior and then returning to football? And how could he have never even followed up to see what had happened?

Even Paterno, pained at the spectacle of his legacy dissolving in front of him, acknowledged that he had failed in his moment of truth. “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more,” he said after the story broke in November 2011. By the time he made this admission, Paterno’s story had devolved from an epic tale into a modern tragedy. As it all unraveled, he seemed to resemble less his hero Aeneas, building a new nation—Penn State Nation—in Happy Valley, than King Lear, clinging stubbornly to the throne when he no longer had the judgment required to remain in it, then succumbing to the grief and anguish that accompanied the collapse of everything he had so painstakingly built.

Second excerpt:

During the 1930s, when State College’s fertile terrain and remote location protected it from the worst ravages of the Great Depression, it became known as “Happy Valley.” The nickname fell out of use for many decades but was revived in the 1970s, when Penn State’s rising football program—motto: “Success with Honor”—first started throwing off the mythic glow that would bathe this quaint college town for years to come, until it was abruptly extinguished by last fall’s child sex-abuse scandal.

As you exit the interstate and drive toward the Penn State campus on University Drive, the first thing you see is the home of the Nittany Lions—depending on your perspective, the massive, battleship-gray structure either enhancing or disrupting this pastoral landscape … When I visited Penn State in early December, the dozens of news crews that had flooded into State College to cover the scandal had disappeared. The makeshift shrine on Paterno’s lawn was gone, too, along with the Porta-Potty provided by the town for the reporters and photographers who’d been stationed outside around the clock. Eight hundred forty McKee Street, the home that Paterno and his wife had purchased in 1969 for $58,000, was once again just a nondescript ranch house, tastefully adorned with Christmas lights and indistinguishable from the rest of the modest homes lining this quiet block. Paterno himself had gone underground with lung cancer, the ailing, deposed ruler retreating into his bunker while his critics and loyalists fought over what he had and hadn’t done, and over how he should be remembered.

For its part, Penn State’s administration intended to open a new, post-Paterno chapter in the school’s history. Campus stores would not be restocking their shelves after selling out existing merchandise bearing the Coach’s likeness. The university’s new president, Rodney Erickson, hosted the first “town hall” meeting in the school’s 156-year history, opening the proceedings by announcing that it was time to “move forward.” It was not clear, though, that Penn State’s students were ready to move forward, or really that they had even begun to wrestle with the questions that seemed to be at the crux of the scandal, at least as it concerned their legendary coach: Had Paterno not really grasped the severity of what had taken place in his team’s showers? Had the graduate assistant who told him what he’d witnessed been too uncomfortable to describe the scene in all its horrifying detail? Or was Paterno not the man he claimed to be? Had he been corrupted by his power? Did he put the reputation of his football program over the welfare of a ten-year-old child?

One morning in State College not long after Paterno had been dismissed, I sat in on an undergraduate course called Joe Paterno, Communications, and the Media—better known simply as “JoePa Class.” The course is taught by Mike Poorman, a Penn State alumnus who also serves as the faculty adviser to “Paternoville,” the tent city outside Beaver Stadium populated by hundreds of students who camp out for days to make sure they’re among the first to pass through Gate A when it opens. On the day I attended, Poorman was lecturing about what he considered to be Paterno’s seven most important speeches. Toward the end of the period, he zeroed in on one passage in particular, drawn from Paterno’s 1973 commencement address at Penn State: “Now if each of us is easily seduced by expedience, by selfishness, by ambition regardless of any cost to our principles, then the spectacle we see in Watergate will surely mark the end of this grand experiment in democracy … So I warn you: Don’t underestimate the world. It can corrupt quickly and it can corrupt completely.”

Poorman paused briefly before asking his students what they thought of this statement in light of recent events. Were there any connections to be drawn? When no one replied, he offered a hint: “These are Joe’s core values he’s talking about: individual responsibility.”

More silence followed. “Am I leading you to water and you don’t want to drink?” Poorman asked.