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Saturday, November 12, 2011
A Penn State alumna on a community's heartbreak

By Erin Strout

It feels like a death in the family.

That's what I told one friend who asked me how I was feeling about this sickening week at my alma mater, Penn State University. I've bled blue and white since I was a small child, and when I woke up last Sunday, it felt like someone close had died. Since then, I've felt shock, denial, sadness … and then I got stuck on anger. This Saturday I had tears in my eyes watching on television from 3,000 miles away as the Nebraska and Penn State teams joined at midfield before kickoff to pray and reflect. And I feel selfish for allowing myself to wallow in my own grief, because at the root of this tragic episode are the victims who have been forced to relive horrific, unimaginable, despicable crimes they endured as children.

My Penn State story isn't unique for a kid who grew up in central Pennsylvania, where fall Saturdays are reserved for college football. I remember the thrill of the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, when Miami's Vinny Testaverde threw an interception into the end zone on fourth-and-goal with 18 seconds left, handing Penn State a national championship. I stayed up past bedtime to watch on an eight-inch television in my parents' bedroom while they hosted a bowl game party downstairs, and I can still hear the grown-ups' cheers rattling the walls when Testaverde threw that pick.

With a mother from western Pennsylvania and a father from the eastern side of the state, childhood Sundays presented an even Pittsburgh Steelers/Philadelphia Eagles divide that left me forever ambivalent about the National Football League. But allegiance to the Nittany Lions was never up for debate, and my loyalty was solidified well before the first day of kindergarten. Years later, although my high school guidance counselor and well-meaning mother both implored me to expand my college search, I knew in the same way you "just know" you've met your match. I had met mine early in life; I belonged at Penn State.

Shane McGregor
Penn State quarterback Shane McGregor takes a moment to himself after a 17-14 loss to the visiting Nebraska Cornhuskers.

There is a risk in sequestering yourself in a place called Happy Valley during your formative years. You're wrapped up in the traditions of a town that is miles and miles away from anywhere else. You absorb the culture, the ideals, the rituals, and the people -- making them your own, keeping them close to your heart, and allowing them to guide you through the rest of your life. And that feels like a fine thing to do when you are getting an education at a place that exemplifies most of what is good about a large American university. The justness of our course was personified by Joe Paterno, who for 61 years demanded that academics be prioritized over athletics. The Penn State way wasn't just talk; the infraction-free football program and the Paterno name adorning the library's edifice were just two examples of our mantra, "Success with Honor."

And so when I turned on the television this week and saw footage of administrators and coaches past and present accused of the unthinkable, I didn't just see mug shots. In Jerry Sandusky I saw the man who often stopped by my family's tailgates, in my undergrad years, to say hello. And then I saw the men accused of not reporting to the police what they knew about Sandusky's alleged assaults. Among them were university president Graham Spanier, who I interviewed weekly as a student reporter at the campus newspaper; athletic director Tim Curley, who often showed up to participate in our student leadership events; a guy my age named Mike McQueary, then a quarterback and now assistant coach, who I came to know during my senior year through an honor society that recognized us both for service and leadership to the university community; and then, of course, "JoePa," the man who appeared at our annual Penn State Dance Marathon to tell us how proud he was of our work at the largest student-run philanthropy in the nation.

While I wait for the legal process to play out, I won't take guesses as to who knew what and when. There is so much we just don't know. But it is clear that there was an epic failure on the part of many people over the span of many years, and the result of their action and inaction seems to be that a monster roamed freely about our "home," collecting more victims of the most vulnerable kind -- children. I still can't comprehend how this could have happened on the watch of those we had trusted to not only take care of the institution we love dearly, but also to take care of us. As na´ve as that sounds, I believed in Penn State as a safe haven, and that feeling, developed over decades, has been shattered in one heartbreaking week.

It will be a long time until I feel assured that there are capable and trustworthy people in place who will lead "Dear Old State" with the integrity we expect. But this Saturday I watched with a couple of tears as the Penn State family began a healing process in Beaver Stadium, gathering for the first time in 46 years without Paterno. A new era launched in a way nobody would have ever predicted. As both sidelines cleared before the game for prayer and meditation in honor of victims of child abuse, I saw the best in what sport can do. Although the heartbreaking loss to Nebraska capped off a heartbreaking week, the score was never the point of this game. It felt like it couldn't have ended any other way.

My pregame wish was that when the inevitable, traditional chant thundered throughout the stadium -- "We are … Penn State" -- that all of us would stop to remember what that really means. We are about much more than football; we are bigger than any one person or program. We are people who were challenged to be critical thinkers and to make just choices. And what I saw was the Penn State I know and cherish -- the one that understands when it's time to stop talking and issuing statements, and instead figure out how to begin uplifting those whose lives have been devastated by this tragedy. Maybe something did die this week, but in every loss there is also opportunity. There is a chance to grow up and to act and restore dignity to an institution of higher education that through its work, research and people undeniably helps change the world.

Onward, State. That is who we are. That is the Penn State way.