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When Heroes Fall

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Grant Fairmount Park.jpgOne of my favorite pieces of public art in Philadelphia is the equestrian statue of Ulysses S. Grant on Kelly Drive in Fairmount Park.  Thousands of cars pass it every day, but at such speeds that it's just a blur.

It would pay to study it closer some day. Unveiled in 1899 - with President McKinley attending - it was the work of sculptors David Chester French, who did the Grant figure, and Edward C. Potter, who did the horse. It wasn't cheap.  It cost $32,500 at the time - with most of the funds raised privately - the equivalent of $875,000 in today's dollars.

What makes it differ from the usual heroic statues celebrating warriors is that it refuses to romanticize its subject. It insists on realism.

It's supposed to represent Grant commanding during a battle, but if it does, you can tell he needs sleep.  He sits astride his horse, leaning back a little, his shoulders a bit slumped.

His face shows determination, but I also see a certain ambivalence - or maybe it's resignation. It's a face that says: "This is a shit job, but it has to get done."


Grant was a relentless general, willing to oversee carnage on both sides of the battlefield, one of the modern creators of total war that would achieve full realization in World War I and II.

To me, the face expresses the fact that he comprehends the ugliness of war.  There is victory, yes.  But is there glory?

On the other side of the coin, there is a Joe Paterno statue at Nittany Stadium at Penn State in a place once was known as Happy Valley. There's a deficit of happiness there today.

The Sandusky sex abuse scandal has done the school great harm. And Paterno's reputation has been shredded.  Once, he was revered as an honorable man, a paragon of virtue in a sport that has its seedy side.  Now, he is reviled as an enabler of a serial child sex abuser who was once his defensive coach.  It was bad enough after Sandusky was indicted and details of the case were made public.  (Paterno was not indicted, as two university officials were, but he was summarily fired and soon died of cancer - or a broken heart, as his supporters chose topaterno statue 3.jpg believe.)

But, the worst wasn't over.  Last week, the investigative task force created by the school and headed by former FBI chief William Freeh released its report. It was devastating.  

It turns out Paterno and other Penn State officials knew of Sandusky's behavior as early as 1998, but did nothing to stop it.  They gave him free access to the school's football facilities - and, most importantly, to its showers - until shortly before he was indicted in 2011.

His protector - usually silent, but sometimes intervening at important moments - was Paterno.  It wasn't a one-time lapse in judgment, as Paterno and his family portrayed his actions when the indictments first came down.  The word "lapse" indicates a momentary 

deviation from good judgment. Eleven years of "lapses" constitutes a pattern of behavior that amounted to a cover up. 

How could this have happened?  Freeh's report mentions an "excessive focus on athletics," at the school.  I'll say.  As anyone who has visited Penn State can tell you, football is a religion and Paterno was God.  I mean that literally, not metaphorically.

The Freeh investigators unearthed an incident in 2000 when one janitor witnessed Sandusky in the locker room performing oral sex on a boy.  Another janitor later saw the legs of the man and boy in a shower stall, apparently having sex.

The two janitors told a third and the three debated whether or not to report the incident.

Ultimately, they decided not to - out of fear of losing their jobs.  As one janitor told Freeh's investigators reporting the incident would have meant "going against the President of the United States....Paterno has so much power, if he wanted to get rid of someone I would have been be gone."

"...Football runs this university," the report quotes the janitor as saying, "and the University would have closed ranks to protect the football program at all costs."

Those janitors were prescient.  That's exactly what the university did a year later, when assistant coach Mike McQueary saw Sandusky in the same showers having anal sex with a 12-year-old boy.

They covered up, though McQueary was not fired. (Arguably, he was too visible a figure to be dismissed. Janitors are not.)

The Freeh report put the nail in the coffin of Paterno's reputation, but what to do?  Unlike in the Middle Ages, we can't exhume the body and put it on trial, as was done with several Popes.  (Though I hesitate to mention that historical precedent for fear it might be embraced.)

The heat has focused on the statue, which is the visible manifestation of Paterno as God.

By heat, I mean the commentators, especially the sports guys who specialize in primal screams.  Of which there are many.  They want it torn down - to meet  the same fate as statues to Lenin and Stalin, Mussolini and, more recently, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. 

For now, the official word is that the statue will remain a testament to the good Joe did.

The problem with that stance is that the Paterno statue - unlike Grant's - hasn't a scintilla of subtlety or ambivalence.  It is a garish - almost cartoonish - tribute to Paterno, who is pictured running from the tunnel, several players behind him, his arms raised over his head, his finger pointing in the air, taking claim to No. 1.

In the name of exaggerating his greatness, the statue exaggerates his features, making him look even uglier than he really was.  Which isn't easy.

On a granite block wall beside this tableau, there are tall letters that read:

Joseph Vincent Paterno

Educator

Coach

Humanitarian

The oddest thing is that the statue was erected while Paterno was alive.  He could pass by this homage every day on his way to work. It affirmed his divinity.

The very clear message of the work -  you could call it drooling adoration - may be hard to correct.  As it is, it is an embarrassment.  But tear it down?

Why not use it instead as an object lesson - one that does not condemn Paterno as much as it condemns the "excessive" culture at the school -- its football as religion ethos. After all, as the Freeh report makes clear, it wasn't just the coaches and the team who were infected with this virus.  It ran through the entire school.

My suggestion is to let the statue remain, but change the legend on the wall to read:

Joseph Vincent Paterno

We worshipped him

We were wrong

Please forgive us

We are Penn State

                                                                                               -- Tom Ferrick


Postscript:  On Sunday, July 22, Penn State removed the Paterno statue to an undisclosed location.  See the story about the removal here. How the mighty have fallen.

 


 

 

 

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