The band R.E.M. once sang, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
After the bomb that was the Jerry Sandusky case exploded a year ago, it often felt like the lyric — only not so fine.
Sandusky’s arrest for child sexual abuse turned everything upside-down, inside-out and topsy-turvy. Joe Paterno, practically a deity, was dumped with a phone call like a high school break-up.
Graham Spanier, until then a nationally respected university president and a local titan, also got the sack, the start of a fall from grace that led to an impending perjury trial.
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Topping off the Wednesday night massacre, thousands of Penn State students reacted to Paterno’s firing with all the class of European soccer hooligans. They ran amok downtown, upending a TV van, their destructive riot a giant black eye beamed nationally to the community’s shame.
For the next weeks and months, life seemed only slightly less crazy inside our newsroom. Like all the media — and it seemed that every outlet short of Al-Jazeera had either TV trucks lining East College Avenue or reporters milling about town — we scrambled over long days to stay on top of a chaotic story that broke more often than hurricane waves.
It didn’t help that initially during a swirling, truly 21st-century scandal — with cable networks, Twitter and other social media going supernova and new twists flaring by the hour — Penn State’s trustees and communications corps apparently holed up in secure bunkers somewhere.
To be fair, university officials were besieged by a howling, monster crisis. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in their shoes. But the early breakdown of a normally well-oiled public relations machine was more evidence of a world gone mad.
Time and again, the surreal became reality. How else to describe the Old Main lawn ablaze in light from a sea of candles at a vigil Penn State students organized for Sandusky’s victims after the riot?
Or Bellefonte illuminated in the pre-dawn darkness by a forest of TV lights in front of the Centre County Courthouse before Sandusky’s first hearing.
Or the obsession that gripped us through the end of the trial.
Anger, recriminations and sorrow filled conversations daily. We wallowed in conspiracy theories. We bristled at national stories that presented fun-house versions of ourselves as a dark, football-crazed, pedophile-harboring Peyton Place. We couldn’t believe The Second Mile, a popular charity Sandusky started for troubled children, unwittingly or not provided a pipeline for victims and may have enabled its depraved founder.
Paterno died. His statue vanished. Penn State reeled in disgrace.
We were shaken to the core.
Over this year, I have heard people grieve for State College. They bemoaned the end of an era, a way of life, as though the harsh spotlight cast on the town burned off golden tones and left a bitter residue. Bye bye, Miss American Pie.
Then a funny thing happened: We remembered who we really are.
We remembered the beautiful countryside, good schools and other charms that existed before Sandusky and will keep drawing people long after he departs. We remembered the caring people who sustain a safety net of nonprofits and social service agencies other communities can only imagine. We remembered a Penn State of Thon, elite departments and talented students.
And we realized we’re not immune to evil — and not infallible. Children suffered on our watch, and we’re learning how to protect them better.
Things are different now for sure, from names on Penn State football uniforms to growing initiatives to address child abuse. Our eyes are open more. Maybe we’re wiser, more humble, less myopic. We’ll see.
It was the end of the world as I knew it when I moved here 18 years ago.
And, now, I feel fine.