Many years ago, when I chose to go to college at Penn State, I did it mainly because it was so different from what I'd been used to.
The town in which I'd grown up was lower middle class. A factory down at the end of my street made powdered laundry soap, and all day long it would spew impurities that put a daily coat of white dust on the neighborhood's parked cars. The walkway that led from our front brick steps ran smack into a transformer telephone pole that fronted the street. Looking out my parents' dining room front window, I viewed daily a labyrinth of electric and telephone lines jutting from that transformer.
The lines obscured my view of the Ukrainian Social Club, directly across the street from my house, where inebriated older gentlemen on a cheap whiskey buzz would exit to their beat-up cars in a gravel parking lot. On the other side of that parking lot was a popular bar that occasionally would bring in "Go-Go" girls on Friday nights.
For me, Penn State was just . . . well . . . sanitized.
The streets of State College are pristine, and the air there feels as if it has gone through some kind of natural filter. On a clear day you can see forever - they had to have written that song about Penn State. On a clear day, a sun-splashed day, with the Nittany Mountains on the horizon, the place seems as if it's been touched by the hand of God.
Penn State is an addictive comfort, with its venerable buildings and tall oaks and ivy walls, and where its students deliver a daily cultlike mantra of "We are . . . Penn State!"
To the outside world, that chant is a little weird, but Penn Staters never take the time to even consider the strangeness, because they are so caught up in the spirit of a setting that is so idyllic. When students get their degrees at Penn State, when their time has finally run out there, many of them try to invent ways to stay - grad school, a job at the university, slinging hot dogs at a storefront eatery. Anything to remain in utopia.
When I was at Penn State, I remember pondering what it must be like to grow up in the Rockwellian existence of State College, Pa. Raised in State College, you might not ever gain any kind of appreciation for the real world. We are surrounded in life by war, famine, pestilence, terrorism, global warming, and crime. Open your window in State College, you hear only the sweet sounds - sparrow tweets and cricket chirps.
Where in the world is all this other stuff going on?
Which brings me to Tim Curley.
The Penn State athletic director, snarled in perhaps the biggest college scandal in American history - said to have covered up multiple acts of child sexual abuse and then lying to a grand jury about it - is a State College man. Curley's family is a Penn State family. His father was a senior administrator at the university. Tim Curley was born and raised there, and graduated from State College Area High School, where he was a quarterback. He was a decent talent, maybe decent enough to play in Division II. But the lure of becoming a Penn State man was too great.
Curley made the Nittany Lions as a walk-on before suffering an injury that ended his playing career. He would then become Joe Paterno's handpicked protege, serving for years as a graduate assistant, then working his way up the athletic administration rock wall, climbing until he was positioned in 1993 to succeed Penn State's longtime, old-school athletic director, Jim Tarman.
When it was decided, with much lobbying from Paterno, that Curley would be chosen as the next AD, at Tarman's retirement event Paterno got up and told Tarman, "The best I can do for you tonight, Jim, is to give you Tim Curley."
The relationship between Curley and Paterno thus became akin to that of Haldeman and Nixon, only with a Penn State brand.
It is this Penn State brand - the image of the sanitized university that always did things the right way, an image that has been cultivated for years with Michelangelo precision - that suddenly, violently has torn the institution down.
Sometimes, even the most intelligent, caring human beings lose their focus of reality. The men involved in this scandal - Curley, president Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz, a university vice president who was in charge of the campus police force (which, by the way, carried the same law enforcement jurisdiction as the State College municipal police), and Paterno himself - thought more about protecting the image of Penn State, its athletic profile, and the legacy of Joe Paterno than protecting the welfare of abused children.
Think about that for a second. It's unspeakable. But it's a culture cultivated by years and years of drinking the Penn State Kool-Aid. In the mid-1970s, when Nixon was covering up crimes in the White House, the American people were held hostage, but we weren't really victims. Penn State's cover-up put innocent children at risk, and that's a stain on a great institution of higher learning that unfortunately will never fully be removed.
In the late spring of 2004, Curley arrived at the home of Paterno, along with Spanier, in an attempt to persuade Paterno to retire, or at least formulate an exit plan. Paterno all but chased them out his door - no other coach would have that kind of power. From that moment on, Curley became persona non grata with Paterno, a man Curley had looked to as a second father. Is it possible that Curley's noncompliance with the Jerry Sandusky affair was a perverse way of making it up to his beloved JoePa?
There was no other satisfactory solution than the one reached Wednesday night by the board of trustees - that both Paterno and Spanier had to go. Everybody associated with this mess had to be cleared out in order for healing to start. Paterno's presence on a football sideline - in a football game that is meaningless in the context of this raging inferno - would have been only a second-by-minute reminder of scandal.
Think of it as an excavation: tear up the top level of a plot of earth and plant all new seed. New grass had to start growing.
There comes a time when even the proudest people realize the jig is up - that for the fighter, it's time to throw in the towel. Paterno just couldn't bring himself to do it. On Wednesday, he launched a preemptive strike, telling the world that he'd retire at the end of the season, to buy himself the rest of a football season. As if a football game, or the three Penn State had left this season, could possibly mean anything.
The fact that he didn't announce his resignation on Wednesday afternoon, before the Penn State board had to do its dirty work and fire him that night, was Paterno's final selfish act. The board's announcement sparked among students a mini-riot.
It was appalling that Paterno had the audacity to revel in a pep rally (the "We are . . . Penn State" thing again) in front of his home, organized by students not yet wise enough to know any better.
Penn State's utopian tried to fool us until not one man was left standing.
My vision of a telephone pole transformer wasn't that bad after all.