Sunday, January 29, 2012

Joe Paterno

Verdi’s Nabucco is playing in the background.  My fountain pen—used for first drafts of homilies and lectures—is full.  Thoughts about JoePa have been passing through my mind since I learned of his death  last Sunday morning at the end of  holy hour and benediction during which I found myself praying for him and his family.  

Joe went to Penn State as an assistant to head coach Rip Engel in 1950, the year after I was born, and became head coach in 1966, just before I was accepted at the University Park Campus, though I delayed matriculating until 1968.  Thus, when he died I could understand more fully the common plaint of twenty-somethings in 2005 who, upon Pope John Paul II’s death, said, “But he was the only pope I ever knew!”  Coach Paterno's death of metastatic lung cancer at age 85 was no surprise.  After seeing a few of the photos taken between the time of his diagnosis and death it was obvious that he was quite ill. 

This past Thursday afternoon I watched the two and one-half hour memorial service.  The a cappella rendition of the Alma Mater by the Men’s Glee Club and the lone trumpeter slowly playing Hail to the Lions that began and ended the service respectively, were very emotional moments.  In between the unadorned musical offerings was a series of speakers, mostly former football players representing each of the six decades, or partial decades, during which JoePa was head coach, but also including the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, a student who was one of the initial Paterno Fellows in the Honors College, and, most memorably, Phil Knight, the founder and president of Nike and the only speaker not directly affiliated with the University.  Each of the speakers revealed yet another facet of a most remarkable man.  Everyone, it seems, has a JoePa story.  Thus, I want to share mine.  It proved to a much younger me that a man I had admired since I watched him and his wife Sue bring the kids to Mass every Sunday on campus was as genuine under great pressure as he was in his very public life. 

During my residency in internal medicine one of the five Paterno children suffered a severe injury after falling off of a trampoline, was airlifted to Geisinger, and placed on ventilator support in the ICU.  None of this was confidential as it was covered by the PA papers.  I was on ICU service that month.  During the hospitalization Coach and Mrs. Paterno never tried to overstay the visiting time of the first 15 minutes of each hour nor did they try to sneak the other kids in, all of whom were below the permitted visiting age.  This behavior stood in marked contrast to the family of a locally well-connected man in a cubicle across the unit who were immovable obstacles at the bedside.  Intrusive and insensitive football fans were being rather obnoxious in asking JoePa if he planned on coaching the game at Syracuse that coming Saturday (no).  The staff took the initiative to give the family a private waiting room in one of the exam rooms at the other end of the hall so that they wouldn’t have to endure this kind of behavior.  They did not ask for it.

One night while I was on call for the unit the child developed some difficulty that was going to require an urgent procedure.  It was about 3 AM but it couldn’t wait until later in the morning.  After I called the attending docs, but before they arrived, I called the Paternos at their room in the inn near the hospital.  They arrived in about five minutes.  (Yes, I had to dial the number more than once because I was shaking.)  When they arrived Mrs. Paterno went into the room and I began to explain to Coach Paterno what needed to be done, why and that we would need signed permission.  Though I offered to let him wait until the staff docs came in he said there was no need.  In his Brooklyn accent he said something to the effect of Doctor, you’re doing a fine job.  We trust you know what has to be done.  And he signed the papers. 

There was no, “Are you an intern?” or “I wanna talk to the doctor in charge.”  Just a thank you.  And he addressed me as Doctor.  That meant a lot, particularly as at the time I had dark hair that brushed the base of my neck and, if not pulled to the side would have obscured most of my vision, was wearing a rumpled scrub after 20 hours with no sleep, and smelt of stale cigarette smoke (I had not yet quit).  The staff docs arrived, procedure was done and all turned out well in the end. 

For several years before that people would carp that Joe Paterno’s public face was just an image.  No. It wasn’t.  At 3 AM with a sick child in ICU there was no need to maintain an image.  He could have, and many would have, thrown a complete animal act that a young second-year internal medicine resident was seeking permission for a procedure before the “real docs” had arrived (I was not going to be doing the procedure as it was surgical).  There was no image.  Just a good man who trusted those who knew what had to be done.  It was an unforgettable moment.

I could go on.  But the many articulate speakers at the memorial service said it better than I can.  Among the “best,” and this is a matter of splitting hairs, was Phil Knight.  Like almost all of the speakers he had moments when he struggled to maintain his composure.  As soon as he finished I e-mailed my alumna niece, who had worked at Nike for quite a few years and knew him, that he had just done the combined equivalent of a bottom of the ninth grand slam, a buzzer beater in the NCAA finals and the most exquisite Hail Mary one could imagine (or better yet, he had recreated Jack Giftopolous’ end-zone interception of the Vinnie Testaverde pass that gave Penn State its second national championship) when he named the elephant in the room, took square aim and shot.  He ended the segment of his memorial talk, visibly angry with, “We will see who the real trustee is.”  The audience roared its approval and rose to its feet.  So did I.  In my room.  In response to an image on a computer screen.

I remain mystified by, and angry about, the actions of the BOT.  No matter what you don’t “fire” a man of his caliber and reputation, a man whose contribution to Penn State cannot be measured, via a phone call.  Were a physician to call one of the trustees to say, “Hey, can you take a message.  Your wife’s breast biopsy reveals an aggressive cancer.  Call the office to set up an appointment some time next week.  Bye.”  the fallout would be dramatic and swift.  Acting in the best cover your ass mode, apparently a trend in what we call academia today, the trustees proved to be ball-less and feckless. 

Even further beneath contempt, or infra dig as the Jesuit educated (Brooklyn Prep) coach would have understood, were, and are, the some of the sportswriters on ESPN and a variety of newspapers.  Judgmental.  Hypermoralistic.  Poorly informed.  And trying to win a Pulitzer.  They attacked like sharks.  Why?  The psychiatrist is me suspects a combination of envy for a man whose accomplishments will be remembered long after they’ve missed their last deadline (a library named after a football coach?), difficulty confronting their own errors in judgment, secret and suspected, and probably most significantly, their problems in dealing with authority, particularly that of their own fathers, and thus railing, like spoiled teenagers, against a man who did not hesitate to tell us how it was to be done on the football field, off the playing field (that 1986 game against Miami that included aforementioned interception proved that) and in the classroom. 

I had season tickets for 28 years.  I gave them up more than five years ago.  I hadn’t been to a game in a long time before that as my siblings used them.  Life is now changed.  There is a new coach.  It will be tough to adjust to a man who will probably not roll his pants cuffs up.  But adjust we will.  The memories, on the other hand, will endure.  Watching JoePa run out onto the field during some of the signature wins, the day (I was a student) when a player showboated in the end-zone by spiking the ball and doing a bit of a hip swivel.  Paterno was screaming at the guy even before he reached the end-zone.  It wasn’t pretty.  But the more private memories are even more valuable.  Seeing him rein in one or two of the kids who wanted to dance in the aisle at Mass, the occasional sightings on the campus, and, most particularly, the night he made a young resident realize that he was, in fact, a Doctor.  
While looking at photos the other day I realized that I took quite a few shots of empty boats.  Some were sitting on the water waiting to be used.  Others in Australia, were in storage for the winter.  The image of an empty boat is evocative.  Jesus calming the storm at sea.  Jesus, in Luke's Gospel, speaking to the crowds while standing in a boat a bit of a distance from the shore.  And a University without the man who brought it into tremendous prominence.

The first two were downloaded from the Centre Daily Times.  

The first half-boat is part of a sculpture installation at a peace garden in Puli, Taiwan.  It fascinated me then and continues to fascinate.
The next is a group of boats docked for the winter in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia.
The red canoe is sitting on a dock in the marina in Port Lincoln, South Australia.
The next few are photos of boats in a "dry dock" in Coffin Bay, South Australia. 

Finally some boats in the Mekong Delta that are waiting to be called into action. 

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

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