Idyllic turns to horrific in Happy Valley
There is now horror and heartbreak in even the small things in Happy Valley.
This is what happens when a well-thought-of man like Jerry Sandusky, a retired Penn State football coach and one-time heir apparent to Joe Paterno, is charged with sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year span. When the school’s athletic director and a senior vice president are charged with failing to report the abuse and perjury in a subsequent grand jury investigation.
This is how a place changes when Paterno himself, and other men who should have known better, seem to have allowed something so vile to continue on, even if they covered themselves legally. The world shifts. What once struck us as gracious becomes grotesque; what seemed selfless seems suddenly the height of evil.
And for the people here, what once brought deep pride — a football team with a moral center — instead ushers in only shame, regret or denial.
Horror, at every turn, in a place so idyllic and beautiful it seemed somehow even more shocking Monday.
At The Second Mile — the foundation for children that Sandusky created — a sign outside its squat-brick building boasted words that now mock its mission: “Providing Children With Health and Hope.”
Sandusky is charged with using the foundation, and its ready access to high-risk, easy-target children, to find victims. There are things in the grand jury findings that turn the skin cold. That could make you sick to read. Anal intercourse. Repeated abuse. Using the esteem and power Sandusky accumulated in a successful coaching career at Penn State to allegedly enact the worst kind of abuse on the most vulnerable among us.
Horror. I cannot find another word, either for what is said to have occurred to these children, nor for the accusations that other men covered up such things to protect some game or legacy or reputation, nor to sum up the emotional reaction in this previously esteemed college town.
And so the part of that sign at the foundation Sandusky created that reads The Second Mile is as hard as anything to look upon. The “I” in “Mile” is a rendering of a boy, looking up as if in need. Once innocuous, the image made me, again, sick to the stomach.
Horror everywhere. In the look on faces when a reporter simply gets to the words “Joe Paterno” or “the football program” in a question that has yet to mention anything sinister. In the scared faces of people who whisper, insisting for off-the-record protection, that they cannot talk but journalists must keep telling this story for the sake of the children. In the voice on the other end of the phone — it is a woman at the residence of John McQueary, one of the men who supposedly knew of the accusations but never took them to the police — when I ask why those who knew didn’t do more.
And certainly there is horror in the fact that 50 yards from Sandusky’s home, in clear view of his outdoor deck and upstairs windows, sits Lemont Elementary School. There is, two days after he was arrested and released on bail, the sound of children’s voices coming from a playground a stone’s throw from the alleged child molester’s home. Night is falling, a gorgeous night, and yet there is only the numbing thought that too often Sandusky simply could have watched the children playing. What in any other circumstance would be the lovely sight of kids enjoying their innocence becomes awful.
Why didn’t someone call the police? Why not Joe Paterno, who passed allegations brought to him in 2002, to his athletic director? Why not the athletic director, Tim Curley, or the senior vice president, Gary Schultz, both who turned themselves in Monday? Why not Mike McQueary, identified as the graduate assistant who according to the grand jury finding saw Sandusky having "anal intercourse" with a young boy in a shower at the football facilities in 2002? Why not his father, John, whom the grand jury findings claim the son went to with what he’d seen?
Why, why, why?
On Monday, 88 miles away, state police commissioner Frank Noonan pointed out that everyone but Curley and Schultz did their legal duty. Their legal duty. They passed on the information to those they were supposed to: McQueary to Paterno, Paterno to Curley.
But why not do more? Why not bring the police into it? Why not ensure, if there were crimes against children, they end?
“But somebody has to question about what I would consider the moral requirements for a human being that knows of sexual things that are taking place with a child,” Noonan said. “I think you have the moral responsibility, anyone. Not whether you're a football coach or a university president or the guy sweeping the building. I think you have a moral responsibility to call us.”
Yes. It’s clear to most folks.
It’s why, at Fraser Street Deli near campus, there was even horror on the menu. They all have a sandwich or salad named in their honor — Paterno, McQueary, Curley, even university president Graham Spanier, who this week said Curley and Schultz “operate at the highest levels of honesty, integrity and compassion.”
“I can’t say I sold any of those sandwiches for today,” said deli owner Josh Guiher. “A few people questioned what we’d do with the menu. I don’t know …”
There are sides being taken here, to be sure. At least with Paterno. Many said Paterno must go. Many others said it’s too soon to pass that judgment. Almost everyone interviewed looked pained as they discussed JoePa. Disgrace is a strange thing. Love a man you don’t know for what he’s done, say, on the football field, and you share in his glory. But you also share in his mistakes when they drop on you like some waking nightmare.
Some express that in embarrassment or anger. Others in clinging to the hope he is morally innocent, that there is some good reason — and I cannot see it — that the most powerful man in the Penn State athletic department did not ensure that an allegation as serious as this one found a quick and moral conclusion.
“I find it disgusting,” said Jaime Underkoffler, a junior at Penn State. “Everyone playing the blame game — everyone. Just passing this off.”
Students cringed Monday. Parents cringed. Business owners and football supporters cringed. Over and over, across Happy Valley, was a spreading feeling of failure: moral, legal, human, one of fairness or one of decency it did not matter.
Yes, there was horror everywhere, and it could be felt at Sandusky’s home as much as anywhere. It was a perfect night, and just past the backyard were the children playing, and out front, on a small sign, under “Welcome,” were two words inside the shape of a heart: “The Sanduskys.”