I spent four of the best years of my life at Penn State University.
State College, Pa., and the area around it are known as Happy Valley, and my contemporaries referred to it as “the town you never leave.” We knew countless graduates who stayed on long after receiving a diploma, unable to make a break from their fast friends and from the bucolic benevolence that envelops the campus and the town.
Joe Paterno lived just a short walk from our dormitory, and it was not unusual to see the living legend strolling by the tennis courts on his way to the heart of campus.
Happy Valley was a cocoon, and the Kool-Aid was administered intravenously.
But today alums are pondering where it all went wrong, wondering how at least eight young boys could be molested by an alleged serial predator while university administrators and coaches worried more about the reputation of their precious institution than the welfare of the victims.
The buck stops with Paterno. It’s clear that in 2002 he knew, at the very least, that his longtime friend and assistant coach was accused of preying on young boys. It’s a joke for anyone to defend Joe-Pa by saying that he informed his superiors and that his responsibility ended there; Joe Paterno owned that campus, and it followed his storied aw-shucks philosophy anywhere he wanted it to go.
Right now dear old PSU is in a terrible place, disgraced as an institution and remaining stubbornly silent, circling its corrupt wagons and plotting the legal strategy.
I was never a fan of Paterno. We tangled twice during my stay in Happy Valley, over his decision to tear out the indoor ice rink so his players could practice out of the elements, and over his refusal to allow the college daily’s sports writer, a female, to have access to his players after games.
In every human soul there is a dark place where corruption can take root and grow, and that growth is very often nurtured by three things: money, secrecy and ego. All three contributed to the horrific scandal at Penn State, from the millions of dollars generated by the football program to the coach who ruled a university to Old Main’s cloistered approach to governance.
The culture — some would say cult — that grew around Joe Paterno and Penn State football infused the administration, and the results damaged at least eight young men beyond repair. It always happens when people begin to believe that institutions are more important than individuals. And it’s precisely why we have a country founded on the idea that open and transparent government keeps corruption at bay.
Whether it’s a small fire-protection district in Conifer, county government at the Taj Mahal or the county library board, sunshine is the best antidote to potential corruption. I learned that at Penn State. And now I’m wondering if some of the people who taught it to me really believed it.
Doug Bell is the editor of the Courier.