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Shelly: How to judge the legacy of Joe Paterno?

Penn State coach Joe Paterno walks off the

Penn State coach Joe Paterno walks off the field after warmups, before Penn State's NCAA college football game against Northwestern in Evanston, Ill. Photo Credit: AP, 2011

As a tidal wave of condemnation washed over the grave of Joe Paterno last week, Penn State Trustee Kenneth Frazier appealed for perspective.

"There's a lot about his life that's worth emulating," Frazier told an NPR reporter. "... I don't think any one of us wants to be judged by the worst things we've done. You have to take some time, measure and distance to think about how we will measure Joe Paterno's entire life and entire work." For most people, in most circumstances, I would agree wholeheartedly. All of us are the sum of our parts. A tax fraud conviction doesn't wipe out a lifetime of good works. Neither does a single ostentatious act of charity erase the fact that somebody has been a brutish lout.

But the situation with Paterno is different. Everything is magnified.

He was a living legend. Saint Joe. Winningest Division I college football coach ever.

He coached for 44 years without a hint of impropriety. Most of his players graduated; some were true scholars.

He expanded Penn State's library. He nurtured its humanities curriculum.

And then he turned up at the heart of perhaps the biggest scandal ever to befall a university.

Paterno knew that a mother had reported in 1998 that assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had showered with her son in a Penn State locker room. Years later, Paterno lied about that to a grand jury. Days before his death this spring, he repeated the lie to a reporter.

In 2001, when a distraught coaching assistant told Paterno he'd seen Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy in the shower, Paterno discouraged Penn State's top administrators from calling authorities. This we know from the report made public by former FBI director Louis Freeh.

Because of Paterno, Sandusky was able to assault other youths. He roamed the Penn State campus for nearly a decade and frequented its athletic facilities, sometimes with children in tow. The living legend saw it all and did nothing.

And therein lies his legacy problem. The worst things he did caused great harm. They are so dark and terrible that the sum of Paterno's life looks less like Saint Joe and more like hypocrisy.

Time and distance can transform perceptions. They can turn a murderer and thug into a romantic character. Think Jesse James. They can temper scandal with achievement. Think Richard Nixon. But can they remove the tag of hypocrite? I have my doubts.

Dean Davison is a communications expert in Kansas City who has spent a career helping clients and companies build, protect and sometimes repair their reputations.

Paterno's great failing was an act of omission, Davison observed.

"He didn't stand up when, given his reputation and his standing, he could have changed the course of what was going on. He could have changed the arc of that story." In every story, there are defining moments. Sometimes we see them coming and often they fly out of the blue. Either way, reputations and even legacies are shaped by the way people respond.

Baseball umpire Steve Palermo was honored at last week's All Star Game in Kansas City because 21 years ago he ran to the rescue of two waitresses being mugged in a parking lot. He paid a price - a bullet in his spinal cord - and today walks with a cane and a brace. But in a defining moment he rose to the occasion, and that is his legacy.

Paterno didn't know it at the time, but his defining moment was the day in 2001 when Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant coach, told him he'd seen Sandusky in the shower sexually assaulting a child who appeared to be about 10 years old.

Paterno did nothing. Worse, he stopped others from doing something.

He blew his defining moment and that will be his legacy.

Most of us aren't legacy conscious. At the end of the day, it's enough to be true to ourselves and on good terms with the people in our lives who matter. But it behooves us all to be on the lookout for a defining moment. Because, if only in our own small circles, we may be remembered for how we respond.

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or by email at Distributed by MCT Information Services.