PA

Friday Column: Home

I'Il should start calling this the Friday Evening Column. It is still Friday.

I went to the mall today with Mom. It is December 23. Not good planning.

Home again. Really, really nice to be here. I got in late Sunday night (or early Monday morning depending on your perspective). It is chilly here now, but not cold, certainly not cold enough for December, but it feels better than the tropical Caribbean sun. 

We Are Penn State...They Are Not


I was the last person in the world that thought I would end up at school at PSU. I hated it. I hated the idea of it. Joe Paterno and football on Saturdays and that stupid cheer and those stupid blue and white jerseys made my skin crawl. I just did not get it. I could not understand how so many people could get so caught up in something so unimportant.

After a semester at Coastal Carolina University my freshman year – where I went for Pro Golf Management, one of the few schools in the country that had such a program – I decided to leave there. I hated the golf thing and I did not like being that far away from home. The honors program I was in at CCU was a joke, the classes too easy and the lifestyle down there unappealing.

By December of 2002, I was set to transfer. Villanova was high on the list, one of the four school’s I had originally applied to. But they probably would not take me mid-year. Lehigh was a go. I did good enough on the transfer application that they would take me mid-year – one of only five such students, out of about 100 who applied – and I was set to go there. Though I had no idea what my major was to be, it did not matter – Lehigh was a top-notch school, close to home and should have fulfilled my immediate needs.

And then I went to a PSU football game. Penn State versus Michigan State (*just added this, my mistake). Larry Johnson’s 2,000 yard season, and the game he broke the record. My best friend Nate Bauer took me, along with Dane Miller, my other best friend. We were hammered before the game, trying to hurdle over the road blocks on the walk over from East Halls. We sat in the student section. I was excited when the drum major guy did his backflip. The ‘We are – Penn State!’ chant, as heard from inside the stadium, finally made sense.

Before the end of the first half, my voice was hoarse from shouting LAAAARRRRRRYYY! as loud as I could into Dane’s ear. I was only visiting Nate and Dane that weekend, but it was clear on the drive home that I would be transferring here, not Lehigh.

Conveniently, I had already applied. PSU was my ‘safe’ school, even though I never intended to go there. However, my application was still active, and they would take me at any time of the year.

I got a room in North Halls. And my first girlfriend. I was that guy (along with Nate, even moreso than me) in high school who all the popular girls liked as their best friend, but who never had a girlfriend. For whatever reason, that stigma did not follow me to college (which was okay with me).

I met some great guys that first year, and we founded PSU Skiers. Eight of us took the inaugural pilgrimage up to Mont Tremblant in French Canada, an 11-hour ride with all of us and our gear piled into my mom’s white minivan. The place lived up to its reputation as one of the coldest east-coast ski resorts. The worst day temperatures at the summit were minus-44 – the temperature at which Fahrenheit and Celcius are the same – and the clear-coat on my new Rossignol’s actually cracked (the company sent me a replacement pair). The baskets on my poles shattered in the cold.

Our week up there started a tradition. Several times a semester we would find someone with a big apartment and throw parties for the membership. I had an old ski that we glued shot glasses onto – five of them  - so we could communally drink vodka together. For some reason (probably a lot to do with The Big Lebowski – our unofficial drink amongst the founding members was a white Russian.

By the time I graduated, our club went from a ragtag, non-recognized organization of skiers and friends into one of the larger clubs on campus. We fought – and won – for recognition by the student government, were able to apply for funding and got our website (which we designed on our own) onto the universities official list of student organizations. My last trip as President (and actually my last big ski trip period) was Spring Break of my senior year. 40 of us flew out to Lake Tahoe for six days of serious skiing. Jeff Oshnack, one of my best friends and an original member, rode the lift with Glen Plake at Squaw Valley. I lost $800.00 at the casinos that week, which I justified to myself because I did not pay much for the actual skiing. It was the last time I have ever gambled.

Just recently, five years after graduation, Jeff got back in touch with me. He is living in Alaska now – he followed the snow after school, did a grad year in Colorado and took an internship in Alaska so he could ski. Jesse Ritter, another founding member, found me on LinkedIn only a few days after I got an email from Jeff. I have since gotten into the sailing world and have not skied since that Tahoe trip with those guys. Jeff and I are planning a backcountry trip to Sweden this winter now, and Jesse lives a half hour from my family’s house in Pennsylvania.

My old PSU friends coming out of the woodwork only a week or so before the scandal broke is an odd coincidence. Watching news of the riots this morning pissed me off. Students are idiots and do not fully understand the situation. Plus, what is rioting going to get us other than an even worse reputation.

My hatred of all things Penn State made a full reversal by the time I graduated. I was accepted into Schreyer Honors College my sophomore year and I understood what Colin Cowherd was saying on the radio yesterday when he referred to PSU as a ‘public Ivy’ school. I never fully got into the fervor surrounding the football team, but the ‘We are…’ cheer still gives me chills just thinking about it. And that drum major doing his flip is still pretty awesome.

It is sad that JoePa is taking the blame for this, but the university did not have a choice. I am happy they got Spanier too, because nothing short of that would have been enough. But what is really lost to current students and former students alike is the notion that PSU is above other schools.

I realized on graduation that saying I was a PSU alum meant a lot. It meant, first of all, that people knew where I was talking about (as opposed to CCU, for example). My network of people with things in common was instantly enlarged. Even though I still cringe a bit thinking about the things I hated about the idea of Penn State in high school, I still felt proud to say I went there. Traveling as much as I have, people all over the world know where I came from.

The most annoying thing in this whole mess is that the actions and inactions of a handful of people have affected the hundreds of thousands of us out in the world and the student body still there. It is a lot like the world in general – I do not want nuclear war, for example, but if Iran decides it does, it will undoubtedly affect me and there is nothing I can do about it. Pollution is so widespread now you cannot escape. Geographically, there are few places in the world to ‘opt out’ of modern society and it’s ills.

The students and graduates alike at PSU have nothing to do with this story, and yet we are the ones affected. As it turns out, JoePa, Spanier and the rest at the top are no better than the Section in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy. The giant coverup has exploded in their faces. They will go down in flames, are going down in flames, but it is the rest of us (most notably of course, the victims of Sandusky) that are bearing the brunt.

The idea that I feel shame now when telling people I went to PSU is something I never considered, even way back in high school, is incredible to me. Ironically, I had packed a ‘Happy Valley’ dark blue t-shirt with me this week in Hampton, and I wore it this morning on my run. I almost did not, again out of shame, but it was the only clean one I had. Why in the world should I – and the rest of the students – feel like we need to explain ourselves with drooping eyes when we tell people we came from Penn State?

But it is not the leadership necessarily that makes an organization great. Penn State, and "Penn State" is great thanks to its students and faculty, the organizations on campus, the town, THON. All of that stuff is still there, will still be there. Bringing down the few guys at the top will not change any of that, and it does not need to. What is good about "Penn State" remains good about Penn State. Separating the few that brought "Penn State" down, and distinguishing the many that remain to make Penn State what it really is, should be the ultimate goal going forward.

What needs to come out of this whole mess is the idea that we are still Penn State. Those at the top who betrayed those kids, have since betrayed the entire student body, the entire network of graduates and alumi, the entire aura – what it was, for better or worse – and in fact all along were never "Penn State" - and all that the phrase used to imply - to  begin with. Even when, for 60+ years, JoePa represented everything that phrase ever meant.

For the handful of those at the top of the coverup, may they never utter those words ever again. But for those of us who really matter – the victims, the students, the alumni – may we – and the rest of the world – forever remember, that WE are Penn State.

Support your local...

I talked Kate into buying the new Coldplay album from a real record store in West Chester. The idea of a record store is appealing, as convenient as it is to buy from iTunes. But if nobody supports them, that idea will disappear. She bought two.

I pre-ordered a book from the local bookstore in West Chester, The Nerdist Way. For the same reason. On the way to Hampton from Oxford, I stopped at a little place called the Book Bin on the Eastern Shore and bought War, by Sebastian Junger (the guy who wrote The Perfect Storm). I didn't even want it really. But I felt like they deserved some of my money, and the book is really good.

So support your local everything. That stuff will not be around if we don't, no matter how much we like the idea. So go to Dane's gym. Go to Schell's. Enjoy it. Spread the word. Oh, and buy my book too! I'll send you a personalized, signed copy. Email me at andy@fathersonsailing.com.