Why Joe Paterno’s Death Makes Us Feel Bad

Joe Paterno’s death at 85 would not be nearly so sad to us—after all, 85 is not young—if it weren’t for the fact that he was fired just two months ago in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky fiasco. I think it’s fair to admit that not a few of us wonder and fear that—amidst collective anger at Sandusky—Paterno deserved better than to be a fall guy whose last months were spent watching a career’s worth of good deeds get trampled on by a scandal he didn’t create. Legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant was likewise dead within weeks of his retirement, but this feels different. It feels incomplete, wrong.

I can only imagine how blindsided Paterno must have felt to be caught up in this saga in late 2011, nine years after his assistant coach informed him about what he saw in the locker room. To be sure, Paterno regrets how he handled what he heard. But a pair of statements he made during his last interview, just days ago, continues to haunt me. When describing his assistant’s revelation of Sandusky’s actions, Paterno said, “You know, he (the assistant) didn’t want to get specific.” I understand that, having interviewed many dozens of people about their own sexual behavior. People prefer to speak in vague generalities about sexual matters, and will tend to do so unless asked to get specific. But what Paterno said next was even more telling: “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good (if his assistant had been specific), because I never heard of, of, rape and a man.” With this jumbled assertion, [Read more...]

When it comes to Death, we’re the Biggest Liars

I’ve always been the kind of person who reads the obituaries in the local newspaper. I don’t believe I have an unhealthy curiosity about death. I just think it registers and I pay attention to it. It could be that being a PK provided me with elevated exposure to the reality of death. And I lived for 12 years about 50 feet from a cemetery, next to the country church in Iowa that my father served from 1972-1984. It didn’t much bother me, except of course on those nights following a burial. (For the record, nothing ever happened.) Regardless of the exact etiology of it, I’m an obituary reader.

Obituaries often hide the cause of death, leaving readers to speculate (sometimes wildly) about the nature of the death and life of the deceased. And, to be honest, whether their own choices played a role in bringing about their death. As I get older, this part interests me more than it used to. Most of the time, we’ll never know. We say they “passed away,” as if death is typically painless and gentle. Hardly—having witnessed it twice. (Even my mother-in-law, God bless her, was telling a slightly different story about it within hours of my father-in-law’s death.) Now many people just say “passed,” as if they’re not even “away” at all. In the local newspaper yesterday, there were at least three references to passing away “peacefully” or “quietly.” While preferable no doubt for the dying and grieving, I’m not sure this is information for the public. Nor have I ever read of someone dying “painfully” or with considerable aggravation, even though it’s a safe bet that those occur with a great deal of regularity. Speaking of peaceful, suicides are sometimes subtly indicated by phrases like, “John is finally at peace.” (Is he? How would we know?)

So obituaries tend to lie, or at least harness the truth and run off with it. Sometimes they report that the deceased “never met a person he didn’t like.” (Obviously he didn’t get out much.) I recall a student here who died a few years ago in a car wreck; while his obituary spoke of [Read more...]


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