Some members of the Penn State Board of Trustees broke their week-long silence Thursday over their Nov. 9 decision to fire the university’s president and iconic football coach.
Board member Keith Eckel said that the first he learned of allegations that former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky molested young boys was the day Sandusky was charged with crimes.
Neither he nor Eckel thinks anyone else on the board of trustees knew of the 1998 and 2002 incidents involving Sandusky until that weekend, said Eckel, 64, a Penn State board member for about 11 years. Eckel is a farmer in Newton Township farmer, Lackawanna County, a former president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and board chairman of Nationwide Insurance.
“My memory probably isn’t perfect, but when I tell you that the first time that I was aware of any of this was Saturday afternoon (Nov. 5, when the news widely broke of Sandusky’s arrest), that is precisely true for me,” he said Thursday.
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The (Harrisburg) Patriot- News first reported the investigation of Sandusky in March, and Eckel said he heard of “writings” about it, but top university administrators such as then-President Graham Spanier never brought any details before the board.
“I absolutely believe that we should have had earlier knowledge of this,” Eckel said. “Within a couple of hours, I did have the (grand jury) presentment emailed to me and I read it. I read it two or three times. ... The presentment is troubling and graphic, so I recognized the gravity of the situation immediately.”
Board members met by telephone conference call that Saturday evening. By then, Spanier was already making public statements in support of Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz, who were also arrested. Both are accused of lying to a grand jury investigating the case.
“I was pretty much a listener,” he said. “But I was very disappointed the president came out with public support for Tim Curley and Gary Schultz. I know them both, I like them both, I respect them well, but we didn’t know enough to be able to say that we were standing behind them. ... I was very uncomfortable. ... We didn’t have all those facts and the presentment, although it is only one side of the argument, is extremely damaging, troubling, upsetting.”
From early on after the arrest, board members were thinking mainly about “the best course of action to take for the future of the university,” he said.
“And we all recognized that we were wrestling with the careers of people who had devoted years to Penn State,” Eckel said. “I honestly think there was more of a focus on how the university was to proceed effectively rather than trying to figure individuals out.”
For him, Joe Paterno’s statement that “I wish I had done more” to stop Sandusky was “probably the most telling as far as us moving forward and looking at the coach.”
Barron L. “Boots” Hetherington, a Ringtown farmer who is also on the board of trustees, echoed Eckel’s sentiment.
“We felt those people should have done more,” Hetherington said, referring to Paterno and Spanier. “And there’s been 13 years of questioning and investigation by the grand jury, and it looks like some people didn’t do enough. People did the minimum required by the laws of Pennsylvania but, in most cases, it didn’t pass the moral test.”
Hetherington is owner and operator of B&R Farms and was elected in 2006 to the Board of Trustees for a three-year term by delegates from agricultural societies and has been re-elected for succeeding terms. His term is scheduled to expire in 2012.
Hetherington said casting the votes to oust Paterno and Spanier was “difficult” and he expressed sorrow over the situation.
“It seems a shame that this whole focus is about the football program and not about the institution itself. We also lost a great university president over this fiasco. After last Thursday, Spanier was forgotten. How many times have you seen Paterno’s name in headlines but you don’t see much about Spanier,” Hetherington said.
Hetherington, who earned a degree in agriculture engineering from Penn State in 1975, said Spanier was once one of his teachers.
“He was a professor of individual and family studies. He was a great teacher. I have no reason to believe he wouldn’t be today,” he said.
Eckel addressed Thursday why the board has not fired either Curley or Mike McQueary, the assistant football coach who told the grand jury he saw Sandusky sodomize a 10-year-old boy in a shower at a school athletic facility in 2002.
Those decisions are normally up to the president of the university and the board decided to leave them up to Spanier — who decided not to fire either — and now to interim President Rod Erickson.
Eckel pointed out that Curley has not been convicted and McQueary, as a whistleblower in the case, could sue the university for retaliation if he were fired, Eckel said.
“I believe that ought to weigh heavily on Erickson’s decision,” he said. “As I would interpret it, he (McQueary) is the primary witness.”
Eckel said the meeting when the decision was made to fire Paterno and Spanier ended late and there was little time to get the word to both before news broke publicly.
“I don’t think there’s any of us that would not have wanted that done in person,” he said. “There was no one who wanted to show a lack of respect for Coach Paterno or President Spanier.”
So instead, a courier gave them a phone number to call. When they called, they were informed they were fired.
Hetherington would not comment Thursday on why the board acted so quickly in making its decisions or why the board had not conducted its own investigation first.
“If you ask me specific questions about what the board did or said, that’s confidential information that’s privy to the board. We’re not going to say what was said at a meeting or how we came to a decision. We’re not going to discuss that. We made a promise to each other not to do that,” Hetherington said.