Penn State community strives to move forward

Fans in the student section react after Nebraska

Fans in the student section react after Nebraska defeated Penn State, 17-14. (Nov. 12, 2011) (Credit: AP )

What Penn State is searching for, now that Joe Paterno has been fired and the "success with honor'' football motto sounds ironic, is its identity -- even as the student section passionately and repeatedly declared at the conclusion of Saturday's final home game with its familiar echoing chant, "We are . . . Penn State.''

Does that mean Penn Staters most relate to the Board of Trustees' ability last week to speak truth to the most powerful man at the school -- Paterno -- by putting the moral issue of sexually abused children above a business enterprise -- football -- that brought $53 million in profit last year?

Do Penn Staters feel a betrayal of Paterno, whose decades of winning without scandal and putting his money where his mouth was on educational matters are overshadowed by his apparent lack of action against accused pedophile Jerry Sandusky?

Are they to be seen as the angry few who vandalized property upon hearing the news of Paterno's dismissal last Wednesday night? Or as the 10,000 who silently attended a candlelight vigil two nights later for the Sandusky victims?

To assign any single trait to the Penn State community during last week's numbing series of events would be a fool's errand. Not even Penn State individuals knew which emotions to feel. Except they are convinced they should not be seen as state penn.

The Penn State community fully understands that, to the outside world, the school name has been synonymous with football and, unavoidably, with Paterno. They are, in a sweeping generalization, worshippers at the temple of the gridiron, with overflow crowds turning out for every home game.

Not only is enormous Beaver Stadium the most obvious campus landmark, but there also is that statue of Paterno, reinforcing a religious aspect. And the zeal suddenly appears misguided with the revelations that Sandusky, for years Paterno's top assistant, allegedly abused children, and Paterno, according to a grand jury indictment, did nothing more about it than report an incident to the athletic director.

"I've been pretty frustrated,'' said Lisa Hines, a Penn State junior from Arlington, Va., studying politics. The Friday night candle vigil "was how I want the world to see Penn State,'' she said. "I don't think the riots represent Penn State at all.''

Football, she said, "is not why I came to Penn State at all. I came here because of the spirit and energy of the university. Football didn't factor in at all. It was just an added bonus.''

But football -- and especially Paterno's influence -- ran so deep that when the Board of Trustees voted unanimously to fire Paterno, the board president, Steve Garban, wasn't the member who made the wrenching announcement. Garban had played for Paterno at Penn State, as had so many of Paterno's staff.

Garrett Shawley, a freshman from Bellefonte, Pa., just 10 miles from the Penn State campus, said that his first reaction to Paterno's firing was "anger. But the day after, I went outside, it was the quietest I've even seen the campus. It was a sad feeling. Probably 'shock' is the best way to describe it, and I'd better not go farther than that.''

Shawley was among those handing out candles at the vigil, although, like Hines, he is among the 21,000 students -- roughly half of the entire student body -- who have tickets to the games. He enrolled at Penn State not just for the football identification, he said, but "because I grew up just down the road and I've been coming here forever. My grandparents went to Penn State. I just love this place.''

At the vigil, the gathered students, faculty and alumni were reminded that Penn State is among the leading colleges in philanthropy, and they were counseled by former Penn State football star Lavar Arrington that "the most important thing is not being knocked down, but getting back up.'' During the hour-long vigil in freezing cold, the word "football'' never was mentioned.

Sarah Knutson, a junior from Atlantic City studying philosophy who was raising money for Paws of Friendship, a campus organization that brings stuffed toys to children in foster care, said she was "angry that Jon Stewart called Penn State students 'stupid' '' because of last Wednesday night's disturbance.

By Thursday, many professors were using their classes for group therapy sessions. "It was great because a lot of people had mixed feelings,'' said Renee Cravotta, a sophomore from Pittsburgh. "But the majority of people feel that everyone supports the victims.''

At Saturday's football game against Nebraska, many voiced their support for Paterno. Not a few argued that, given all the good Paterno had done at the school, he should have been allowed to coach that one last home game. Others considered a larger picture.

"The board acted swiftly, which is the best thing,'' said 1967 grad Jules Cwanger, who called himself "devastated'' by the Sandusky news. "I'm happy. To prolong it would only mean more frustration, and the news media has really ostracized this community.''

The Paterno statue remains, of course. But to Cwanger's son-in-law, Nehemiah Ichiloz, "Once you start to expect perfection from anybody, you're going to fail. So we need to understand that, although the school stands for perfect ideals, people can't live up to them.''

Of course, Penn State is people.