The passing of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno this past weekend presented many people with a problem. Yes, Paterno was a towering figure in college football and in Pennsylvania, and former players, broadcasters, and coaches testified to the good he did. Yet there was also no escaping the fact that in the last ten weeks of his life he had to confront a major mistake he made in the past, that of not doing more to protect young boys from the alleged misconduct of a former assistant coach who remained a presence on campus. No, the Sandusky saga is not over yet, but even Paterno reflected in his last days that he regretted he did not do more to stop Sandusky. One has to keep in mind that when we hear how much Paterno did to turn college boys into men that he also did not intervene to protect younger boys who will have to deal with a different sort of legacy. Indeed, in some corners the intensity of the outcry might lead one to believe that it was Paterno, not Sandusky, who committed these alleged acts.
So what do we make of Joe Paterno? How do we come to terms with the entire man and assess his impact on the people around him? Biographers face this challenge all the time. Good ones understand that their job is not to appease hero-worshippers or wild critics, but to put everything together and let the chips fall where they may.
If there’s one thing that should be evident, it is that it is impossible to assess most people in a dispassionate way at the time of their death. In most cases folks naturally want to pay tribute to the deceased; while some outspoken critics will voice their views, often the result sounds a bit insensitive and inappropriate, even when the criticisms have merit. True, when someone viewed as evil by many people dies, the outpouring of jubilation and at times satisfaction is also evident (recall the reaction to the news of Osama bin Laden’s death), but that, too, is not the best time for an overall assessment that displays an understanding of the course of his life.
I’ve been confronted by some of these very challenges when I’ve been contacted to comment on a death of a prominent political figure such as Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, two of the most polarizing figures of my lifetime as well as two of the most important presidents of the second half of the twentieth century. One must keep in mind that one is being asked not to cast one last posthumous vote for the departed, but to step away and try, usually in a few words, to make a more insightful comment that recognizes someone’s impact and importance. In the case of Paterno, you can see many people try to wrestle with how to react appropriately. As time passes, people will try to make sense of what the events of the last ten weeks mean to a career that spanned decades … and they will recall that many people were calling for Paterno to step down from his coaching position for years for various reasons. Paterno’s biographer faces quite a challenge.