Joe Paterno

A coach, a friend and a neighbor

The pallbearers carry the casket of Joe Paterno to the hearse on the Penn State University campus, in State College, Pa., Wednesday, January 25, 2012.  A procession followed the funeral leaving the pasquerilla spiritual center on the Penn State University campus and driving through campus and town before ending at a cemetery.  Centre Daily Times/Nabil K. Mark
The pallbearers carry the casket of Joe Paterno to the hearse on the Penn State University campus, in State College, Pa., Wednesday, January 25, 2012. A procession followed the funeral leaving the pasquerilla spiritual center on the Penn State University campus and driving through campus and town before ending at a cemetery. Centre Daily Times/Nabil K. Mark

It seems as if it were only yesterday that we College Heights kids would meet after school to go sledding through the backyards of College Heights, including a very nice stretch of ground through Rip Engle’s backyard.

Summers were spent at Sunset Park, where wonderful programs were offered year after year — softball, basketball, box hockey and tetherball (not to mention the plaster cast dogs we endlessly made and painted during the quiet and warm State College summer art session afternoons

at that park in the late 1950s and early 1960s). Within stone-throwing distance of where Parkhills and Curleys (and Fitzgeralds) spent endless and simple summer days, the Paterno home was just a part of the fabric of everyday life for us.

As I remember those sweet days, I understand more deeply than ever how much these folks in my life were not mythical characters but simply my neighbors, common people sharing a common place. Penn State coaches and players sang hymns with us at our church. Our pastor, the Rev. Nelson Frank, intentionally gave of his time and peaceful spirit to the football teams of the day.

In a time before texting and emails — and in a time when you needed a parent’s permission to use the black rotary telephone — football news came after Christmas vacation when the coaches’ kids came back to school after the bowl season.

As a United Methodist pastor for 35 years, my church assignments took me from West Virginia to Washington, D.C. and to York, Williamsburg, Hopewell and St. Thomas in Pennsylvania.

With every trip home, my family and I spent time in the old neighborhood and introduced our children to the sidewalks of College Heights during Christmas, the 4th of July and Grange Fair. We often saw our neighbor walking by and offered our warmest greetings. The Paterno home for Halloween was a destination for blue and white candies happily given.

Now a minister in State College, I am home again, and not only in spirit. Every Saturday night my wife, Jill, and I walk those sacred sidewalks after preparing our St. Peter’s Church for Sunday worship. The ancient rhythms of the neighborhood are so familiar.

Loss is so very difficult. I understand that change is the only constant in life. I know that if one dips a toe in the river, that toe will never touch that specific water again, ever. I truly have respect for grief.

I watched in silent amazement, these past few weeks, as the old stomping grounds became somewhat of a sanctuary, if I may say. At night, hundreds of people, young and old, walked silently along the tree-lined streets of our historic neighborhood. There were police officers at the street corner. How strange. How unsettling. How sad. How strangely comforting. I was a bit surprised at the quiet dignity of the whole thing and thank those who honored our holy places, we who name this College Heights our home and heart.

And for the pastor in me, it reminds me of all of my neighbors in the Biblical sense of the term, especially in the story of the Good Samaritan. Joe Paterno was a very special neighbor. Yet, truth be told, just one among many.

From my childhood, which I now know was quite privileged in so many ways, I journeyed into a real world of suffering, joy, celebration and heartache as a pastor meeting people from the factories and coal mines of Pennsylvania to those who held positions of high authority and wealth.

I come home with eyes wide open.

I would imagine that neighbor Paterno received top care and utmost respect during his illness, as well he should have. I am quite certain that his medical bills will not be a burden to his family. When I saw television coverage of him being walked to a building exit by a physician, I nearly gasped.

You see, I have been with people who are seriously ill who take a taxi home from the hospital because they have no car. I know many neighbors in this common life who have no teeth, live poorly with chronic diseases, have no food, no heat, no family. When they are suffering they go to clinics and stand in line at food banks.

I know teachers who buy clothes for the children in their classes. I know construction workers who build grand buildings on college campuses and yet, at age 40, have such chronic pain they cannot work and are forgotten. I know of high school football players and of high school girls’ tennis players who have come face to face with cancer and domestic violence.

I must just passionately express how much good I see in so many people, including some very special physicians I have known, who do such heroic and unselfish things all their lives. Then, when tragedy or illness or frightening circumstances come their way, they are cast away or aside. No doctors walk them to doors. No pensions come their way. No tributes fill the pages of local newspapers. They have no statues.

Our Scriptures teach us so many valuable life lessons. We learn about serving, not thinking too highly of ourselves and being careful to understand how difficult it is for camels to go through the eyes of needles.

In York in 1992-93, I was nearly destroyed as a pastor as I served a church where notes were left in the offering plates on Sunday mornings that read: “You are the worst preacher we have ever had.” “I read Time while you are preaching so that I can learn something at church.” I was so broken in spirit that I could hardly walk or eat.

In the midst of that suffering, I drove home one night to watch Penn State play Indiana in basketball at good old Rec Hall. I just had to be home for a moment to regain my composure and my bearings. I needed some hometown-cooking reassurance.

In that I was his neighbor for a long time, had worked at the College Heights Exxon station (like every boy did at one time or another) and had been, with my dear brother Richard, a gate person at Gate One at Beaver Stadium for quite some time, I knew Coach and he, at that time, knew me.

Miracle of miracles, at that game on that winter’s night during the winter of my life, my neighbor Joe came walking up the aisle right where I was seated, on his way to the track level I suppose. He stopped. He was handsome, well dressed and full of life and energy and as disciplined as ever as many greeted him.

He looked my way and pointed his finger approvingly, and with acknowledgment, toward me.

I drove back (not home) to York with new resolve to be the best minister I could be.

In the end, the day we die is just another day. It’s the same life, different room. These days of loss and grief are difficult and, yet, renewing.

May I please remember my good neighbor for that one day of difference? As I will continue to walk at home, in my mind I will still see him on the sidewalks of College Heights and say, as I have said before, “Good game, Coach.” And he will say, “Thank you.” No, thank you.

Pastor Charles Fitzgerald is the permanent pastor of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ at Pine Hall since 2005. He was formally a pastor in Tyrone, where he coached the girls tennis program for 10 years. He grew up across from the College Heights school.