Lately, I have been thinking hard about the meaning of legacy.
In the fall of 1996, my husband and I, newlyweds of only four months, picked up and moved from Iowa to State College, Pennsylvania, where he was entering his graduate program at Penn State. What we didn’t know was that we were entering a world where, for every Saturday in the autumn, the world stopped to watch football. Athletes, scientists, artists, every culture and creed took up the battle cry, “We are… Penn State!” This existence was foreign to us, theatre nerds who scoffed at the raucous and base nature of sport; we never had a clue whom had won what and could only tell if there was a home game when we couldn’t find a parking spot on campus.
But it was different in Happy Valley. We were living in the house that Joe built. Everyone there knew the Man, the Legend, the Inspiration. A close friend shot a commercial with him, declaring him, “lovely, humble and kind.” Even my own husband has a story, noting that on a particularly rainy day, he was driving across campus when he noticed Paterno walking purposefully through the rain, carrying a black umbrella, blocks away from the football complex. He could have easily driven from one side of campus to the next, but he was slogging through the rain like an undergrad without a car.
I watched closely as the Penn State football program imploded and exploded and incinerated this fall. I wrote about it, twice. I still feel outraged for the children involved, helpless and powerless and decidedly un-championed by people who simply should have known better. My opinion was set: everyone involved made heinous, immoral and criminal choices. Everyone.
And then Joe Paterno died this past weekend. And his legacy? His legacy…
Why does his legacy have the coda “stained,” “blemished,” and “tarnished?” Columnists toss around words like, “if not for” and “until.” Why does legacy have to be considered in terms of black and white?
I think legacy is more fluid, more limbic than the static permanence of ink on a page. Legacy can be viewed from a thousand angles, interpreted in more ways than tea leaves. What one leaves behind in this world is buffered by a thousand emotions, the actions one takes softened and molded into a sculpture of common design.
In other words, what Joe Paterno did or did not do will not change. He was, arguably, the best college football coach to stand on the field. He also made choices that led to the continued tragic abuse of children. Both are his legacy, neither is the footnote.
Joe Paterno was not unlike any other man. Good and bad don’t cancel each other out – take, for example, Abraham Lincoln. Yes, he is currently thought of as one of the most influential Presidents that these now United Stated have ever seen, but to keep these states united, the blood of too many Americans soaked the ground. Lincoln’s legacy isn’t marred by the American Civil War; it enveloped that and much, much more.
I am truly sorry that Joe Paterno’s family has lost a husband, father and grandfather. I know that there is a pall over Happy Valley. I also know that his death does little to ameliorate the suffering of Jerry Sandusky’s victims and their families. Is it possible, though, to both mourn a Man, a Legend, and Inspiration and feel fury over injustices that happened under his watch?
I think so, because the answer is not black and white, it is blue and white.