Joe Paterno’s Glasses

Ta-Nehisi Coates, my favorite public intellectual, has a good post at TheAtlantic about Penn State. In the wake of the grotesque and appalling child abuse scandal, they’ve elected to take down the statue of Joe Paterno that stood outside the football stadium. Coates thinks they should leave it up, and put explanatory text around it.

I agree with Coates, but think it’s pointless, because in less than twenty years no one will know who Joe Paterno was.

College professors are acutely aware of how quickly memory vanishes. This September’s incoming college student, for example, was seven years old when 9/11 happened. What  does he or she know or remember of that horrible day? I can tell you from experience: practically nothing, and most of it wrong.

Here in DC we have a “McPherson Square.” There’s a metro stop by that name, serving a lovely little urban park, with an imposing statue of the eponymous McPherson perched majestically on a horse. No cheating now–does anyone out there know who Mr. McPherson was and what he did?

“Some Civil War dude” is about the best answer I’d expect to get. It’s in fact pretty much the answer I’d give myself: some civil war guy.

Is there a way to memorialize that accounts for the complexity of the person, the flaws as well as the strengths, and resists our tendency to indifference? One answer is to go big with abstraction–the Washington Monument doesn’t depict the man, or tell you anything about him, it just makes the idea of George Washington large and inescapable. Another approach is plaquery–more and more text, as in the Franklin Roosevelt memorial on the DC mall.

One of my favorite memorials of all time is the “boot memorial,” a memorial to Benedict Arnold, or rather, to the part of him that was good. Arnold was a brilliant soldirr and a true hero at the battle of Saratoga–courageous and effective. Then he turned traitor, and betrayed his country. The back reads “In memory of
the ‘most brilliant soldier’ of the Continental Army, who was desperately wounded on this spot…winning for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution…”

It acknowledges both Arnold’s heroism and his treason. And it does it in a way that invites attention and incites thought. You want to know why there’s a statue of a foot. And the text, by making Arnold a mystery, invites you into the mystery of his treason.

If I cared about football or Joe Paterno, which I mostly don’t, I’d remake that statue, maybe to simply a pair of Joe Paterno’s glasses, sitting on a table. His thick, horn rimmed glasses were iconic during his career; they symbolized his resistance to fashion and his scholarly pretensions. Sitting alone on his desk they’d symbolize those things as well as his failure to see what mattered the most: a failure to see and a failure to use the instruments at his disposal.

If we adopted this approach, what would the Jefferson memorial, for example, look like?  A slave shackle, with no key? Maybe just a quill pen.


UPDATE: a lot of people have told me that I’m wrong, and that people won’t have forgotten Joe Paterno in twenty years. I should put it this way–in 20 years, nobody over 30 will remember Joe Paterno, and people over 30 will have fading memories. My favorite example was the most popular female singer of the 1920s and 30s, made 4 feature films and dozens of shorts, and starred in five Broadway shows. She married a gangster, got a celebrated divorce, then re-entered the news when the gangster ex-husband tried to murder her accompanist/boyfriend. A feature film of her life, Love Me or Leave Me, starred Doris Day and Jimmy Cagney in 1955. Anyone out there ever heard of Ruth Etting?



  • Meredith wrote:

    A minor quibble:
    In 20 years, people up there will still know who Joe Paterno was. I can’t say what will happen in 50 years, but I do know that he will be remembered for the next 20. The reason is that the average Pennsylvanian’s connection to the Penn State football program, if s/he has one, is not something that s/he came by during the freshman year of college. It is handed down from parent to child and grandparent to child, starting in infancy. I’m not kidding. So, as long as there are parents and grandparents who remember JoePa, the children of rural Pennsylvania will grow up knowing who he is. I’m not saying that’s a good thing; it’s just the way it is.

    For the benefit of your readers who might not know me, I spent 11 years living in Happy Valley and graduated from Penn State in ’04. I was like Margaret Mead among the Samoans, if she had gotten her PhD from Samoa U.

  • Matt Henry wrote:

    I agree with Meredith: my dad went to PSU and so did my cousins and their kids. There were multiple shout-outs for Penn State at my cousin’s wedding – like from the preacher during the ceremony.

    My guess is that there will be a narrative about how Paterno was a saint and some of his people tarnished his stellar reputation with creepy and illegal behavior. I’m curious to what extent that story will be an accurate reflection of what went down all those years. But Penn State families need to keep believing and I that will require a kind of remembering.

  • Hmm..Maybe you and meredith should go on a date after all

  • Mark Bower wrote:

    My name is Mark, and I am a Penn Stater….

    Sometimes I feel like that lately. It’s an odd feeling, because although Penn State football is why 17 year old me decided to go to college there, it was not such a big deal to me in the end. After my freshman year I worked long hours football weekends and didn’t see many games after my that. I still have many fond memories about the place, though it was not all good times.

    Should a life be judged by its best, its worst, or maybe an average of its acts in its time here? Or, should judge acts, and hold people responsible for them. None of us wants to be remembered purely for our worst moments.

    I think it’s really peculiar there was a statue at Beaver Stadium for a living coach. Memorials are about “remembering,” but this one was erected before anyone knew the whole story about the life of the man.

    These are things I learned during my time at Penn State. There’s more going on there than football, but football is a pretty big deal there. People who love Penn State, and especially Penn State football are likely to get really defensive, to the point of stupidity, in defending the program when people are attacking like they are. Their identity is tied into it, and it’s like they’re being attacked.

    Seems to me that what we really need is some precision in defining what’s good and what’s bad here. Child abuse– bad. Penn State, Joe Paterno…that’s more complicated to judge.

  • Having grown up in PA, and spent a lot of time as an undergrad on the main campus visiting my girlfriend at the time, I’m not totally immune to cult.

    The guy was kind of a force for good in many ways, at least compared to his peers. Other coaches are typically not a very appetizing bunch unless you really love football.

    I’m inclined to suspect that Paterno’s failure in the child abuse scandal is typical of football itself, which combines intense homoeroticism with intense emphasis on hierarchy, which is why McQuery tells his coach and not the cops.

    But like you say, there’s a really complicated person there.

  • Nathan wrote:

    Your post reminds me of one of the more remarkable places I’ve ever visited – a statue “graveyard” outside of Budapest where dozens of monuments constructed by the Soviets sit surrounded by farmland. It’s a great example of how a monument’s meaning can be altered – even inverted – by the context in which it’s placed. Rather than simply removing and destroying these statues, the Hungarian approach makes them into new monuments. Stripped of their prominent locations in city squares and partially defaced, they tell a different story. Along those lines I would propose keeping the statue while changing it’s context.

    Your post also reminded me that a couple weeks ago, the comedian and filmmaker Albert Brooks darkly joked that the university would keep the statue, but they’re going to have him look the other way. I actually think that’s not a half-bad idea. Keep the statue, but have it face some out-of-the-way corner with a plaque that explains why Paterno was honored with a statue and why it was moved.

  • Mark Bower wrote:

    That’s a really good idea about moving the Paterno statue. Use it to tell a story about what a powerful man did, and should have done (but failed to do) with his power. The statue graveyard outside Budapest also sounds very interesting.

  • Meredith wrote:


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