Let’s make one thing clear off the bat: This piece is not a judgment for or against the people of State College or Penn State. We’ve all read and watched plenty – probably too much, in fact – about the sexual-abuse scandal regarding the storied football program; we’ve all formulated opinions based on facts or allegations or emotions. That part of the story is essentially over, short of perhaps shaping future rules, laws or actions.
But Happy Valley hasn’t gone away, obviously, even as the media throng has moved on. That much was quietly yet overly clear – yes, a seemingly contradictory situation – during a weekend work visit, my first time there. I did not go out of my way to inspect every corner of campus or engage locals in discussion, casual or pointed. Instead, I just sort of walked around and observed – no assumptions, no judgments.
Beaver Stadium, massive, iconic and seemingly perched above the city, was lit up on this Friday night even as it was empty and quiet. The statue of late coach Joe Paterno has been taken down, but there are a smattering of signs in the parking lot, the most pointed reading: One Team. At least, it seemed pointed. But for all I know that’s part of a long-running or previously planned marketing campaign. Signs seemed to be everywhere, and I found it difficult to avoid reading into them, unsure if they were meant to mean much.
Some, clearly were. A majority of the businesses near campus displayed, “Proud to support Penn State football” signs in their front windows, including a clothing store that had an out-the-door line to meet a PSU player. A safety. I’d never heard of him.
“Proud to support Penn State academics” – that’s another popular sign. In some cases, it was posted next to the football message, coming across as a show of solidarity for all things PSU. But other businesses went only football or only academic. What to make of that? It’s doubtful the slogans were coined at the exact same moment so the existence of both gave off a competitive vibe.
However, those ideas required far less deciphering than the full-sized billboard set outside of town. “You can’t cover up 61 years of success with honor.” Frankly, I had to Google this because it tied my brain in knots. A PSU blog claims it was paid for an alum who was upset that the memory of Paterno was being erased around town.
While his image apparently isn’t as prominent as it once was, he’s hardly disappeared. The most recommended flavor at the world-famous, on-campus creamery: Peachy Paterno. Multiple people recommended it without so much as flinching at the name. So I tried it. And it was excellent, if conflicting. Admittedly, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought if sold under a different name.
Downtown, there’s a giant mural painted on the side of a building, celebrating key members of the community. Front and center: Paterno. Again, I doubt that’s new art yet it hasn’t been defaced or covered up, either.
At halftime of a Sunday afternoon women’s basketball game, Sue Paterno took the mic to make a presentation about the local Special Olympics chapter, to tell of its annual works and introduce some athletes. She was greeted by a standing ovation, more noise than the No. 11-ranked Nittany Lions received during the course of the contest.
To me, this wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad it was just … interesting. How does a city built around a school identified for its football program go about moving on after something like the Jerry Sandusky case? In different and almost abstract ways, apparently. I found it fascinating. Is it possible that this and other communities marked by scandal or heartbreak in the era of the 24-hour newscycle suffer from collective PTSD?
I genuinely enjoyed my short time in Happy Valley – the people, the mountainous scenery, the campus area, the food and drink were worth the trip. I’d welcome a return, in part to see if the myriad signs change over time.