The following is a tribute to Joe Paterno from a good friend of mine, Meghan Gaffney. Even though I only knew her on campus my freshman year, which was her senior year, we still stayed in touch. After all, the only other person who believes me when I tell people i petted a cougar in the back seat of car is a valuable friend. And she believes me because she was there, and she pet it too. Unlike myself, and my friend Dan, Meg did not grow up in a Penn State household. The following is her reflection.
When I arrived on campus in August 2002, I didn’t know a thing about football or Penn State. Being a first generation college student, I did not grow up surrounded by Joe’s legacy. In fact, I confused the Palmer Art Museum for the Lion Shrine and could not identify Old Main in my first few weeks here. I did know that Penn State had an undeniable school spirit and a prestigious academic reputation. When my parents asked me to choose a state school, I wanted the best. My acceptance arrived without a campus tour or any knowledge of the fight songs. My first visit was for FTCAP in July 2002. I could not believe the size of the stadium, and I thought the Nittany Lion mascot was hideous. I had a lot to learn.
As Penn Staters, we often say that the experience is about, “becoming part of a place that becomes a part of us.” My shift into a blue-and-white-bleeding, Nittany-Lion-loving, JoePa-admiring person was a slow one. I must have missed the signs and symbols during FTCAP, and was largely unfamiliar with the people and things that are important to the Penn State community. I felt overwhelmed in the first semester.
My first football season at Beaver Stadium was interesting. Without any knowledge of the sport, I spent most of my time in the stands chanting for the Nittany Lion, perfecting my own touchdown roar, asking questions of my knowledgeable friends, and marveling over the way Joe always led the pack of players as they took the field. In the meantime, I visited a luau-themed library event and learned that our football coach had also funding the beautiful Paterno Library. I attended masses on campus and heard about the donation Joe and Sue Paterno made to the construction of the in-progress Pasquerilla Spiritual Center. I recounted my experiences on campus to my parents and grandparents, who were excited to hear about the far-reaching impact of the Paterno family’s contributions at Penn State. As it turns out, they knew who he was, but they thought he was “just a football coach.” I felt proud to change their perspective. I also felt honored to be one of the benefactors of the Paterno family’s influence, as we all were.
I saw Joe everywhere- not physically, but in the fabric of my new home. His image was on shirts, in store fronts, and in cardboard cutouts (both life size and desk size.) I heard the way my peers spoke of him with respect and admiration, even though the team slumped during my first few years here. I sampled his ice cream flavor in the dining commons and hoped for a glimpse of him in his simple home when I visited Sunset Park for events with my sorority.
In February 2003, I was a moraler for THON and in the middle of a shift when Joe surprised the crowd by showing up in Rec Hall. It took him forever to make his way through the crowd to the stage. People wanted to touch him, take pictures with him, or simply exchange hellos. He was patient, smiling, and approachable as he wove through the dance floor. When he got to the stage, the crowd fell silent. Even now, I get goosebumps thinking of the many experiences I had in Joe’s presence where literally thousands of people stood still in absolute silence listened. At pep rallies, THON, first-year programs, Football Eve… somehow everyone knew to listen when JoePa spoke. And he never let us down. He united us and inspired us. He shared wisdom gained through lived experience- a truly amazing gift.
When Joe spoke to us as a community, we felt the love he had for the things we all have in common. Somehow, we felt his love for each of us. He encouraged us to be excellent people. He emphasized his love for our great university. He made us all feel proud of the experiences we shared. Hearing those sentiments from Joe Paterno was special, because he chose us. Generations of living and working here, falling in love with this institution as we all had, and he stayed. He chose to share in our lives and to educate us. In his humility, he never would have believed how much we all learned from him. Time and time again, though, hearing him share his joy and pride in us was like gaining the approval of a beloved grandfather. He was larger than life.
My senior fall felt electric on campus. The team had lived up to expectations and JoePa was restored to glory with the successful season. Everywhere I went, the campus was emblazoned with the message, “WE ARE BACK.” Joe’s joyful expression accompanied those words all over town. I lived among the athletes and felt the palpable excitement every single day. One afternoon, I walked from Nittany Apartments across Hastings, and a car pulled up to the stop sign. I looked up and froze. Smiling like a child and waving my hands in a way that probably looked the opposite of casual, I stood in the middle of the crosswalk blocking the driver’s way. The driver was Joe Paterno. He smiled, in a way that said he was appreciative of my nerdiness, and he waved back- one full, strong hand in the air to me. I smiled for the rest of the day. I told everyone I knew. I smile even now and how exciting that simple moment was in my life as a Penn Stater.
I saw him at the Rose Bowl pep rally. I saw him at Football Eve when I made my joyful return to Penn State as a staff member in 2008. I saw him at countless Rallies in the Valley, at Be A Part From the Start, and walking along Curtain in June 2011 eating an ice cream cone for breakfast. I never met him personally. Given that fact, my emotions hardly make sense.
So what does losing him mean to me? To us, as a collective Penn State family? The loss is immeasurable. Even in his absence, he remains. He is the symbol of our spirit. He is the man who could so eloquently express what we feel about Penn State. He is the educator who remained because his loyalty won out over “greater” opportunities. He is a faithful father, grandfather and coach to our community. He is a role model of what so many of us want to find in love. And in all his greatness, he is human. In his final weeks with us, he taught us about humility, and apologizing for mistakes. He asked us to continue to work hard.
We mourned this week for ourselves, for the only thing we’ve ever known, and for the Paterno family. As it has been said so many times before, I want to say it once more, from me. Thank you, Sue, and the rest of the Paternos, for giving each of us time with a man who has helped to shape our values and unite us as a Penn State family. You must be so proud of the legacy he leaves us. I promise we’ll tell everyone about him. We will make sure his legacy lives on.
The lights of Beaver Stadium do not shine into the sky tonight, but the unity and beauty that surrounded us this week as we grieved will remain for a long, long time. What an appropriate final act, JoePa. Thanks for reminding us that together, we care about our community. Together, no matter what, WE ARE…PENN STATE.