Meadville Tribune

February 15, 2012

‘JoePa’s legacy’ offers rich debate

Gary DeSantis
Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE — Jim Irwin’s excellent column concerning Joe Paterno and his legacy (“Joe Paterno leaves legacy of integrity, decency and honor,” Feb. 3) got me to thinking about the Penn State coach and man’s need for legacy. Irwin made a strong case for Paterno and his appropriate actions related to the alleged Sandusky sexual assaults on children.

I must confess that, like many people, I may have rushed to judgment when I asserted that Joe could have and should have done more. Of course, had he done more, the whole discussion and Irwin’s brilliant argument would have been unnecessary. Who knows?

No one was more acutely aware of personal legacy — what will be left in others’ minds about us and our actions — than Joe Paterno. I think everything he did for the last 20 years was done to establish a positive legacy. He probably should have retired from coaching five years before he was forced out, but hung on tenaciously to secure the most victories by a coach in the history of Division I football.

He and his wife made a huge donation to Penn State for a library and also funded a scholarship for Penn State students. The finances, by the way, were from their personal savings and presumably would have gone to their children. While his kids are well established and were doubtless well taken care of, he literally took from his family for the well-being of his beloved Penn State and its students. Only God knows how many other things the Paternos did for Penn State.

Unselfish acts no doubt, but also an investment in the Paterno legacy. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, there is much right with that. All of us are trying to leave something behind that will reflect positively on our presence and time spent in this life. Some of us have the potential to do things that will have a greater impact than others. Some of us will fritter away that potential on our own selfish needs. Others, like Paterno, will put their resources to something that will effect the lives and memories of generations to come. I guess you could say that in some ways these acts of generosity might ultimately be self-serving, but in other ways they are acts of human nobility.

All that being said, I was struck by the fact that men more than women think about “legacy.” I have struggled with the validity of my observation as well as the causes for the male preoccupation for this rather abstract principle. I have asked others and gotten some interesting possibilities. The biological imperative to procreate over the greatest number of recipients is both cause and effect of a primal need to establish “legacy.” Another suggested that our society enforces a patriarchal need to lead, support and be concerned about the future of the family. You and I know many families where that is not the case, yet the men in those families are more likely to consider the elements of “legacy” than the very dominant women in those families.

A third person observed that women are more concerned about the present and the very immediate future of family and career than men. “My mom,” he said, “baked bread every day; and my dad, though very old, planted hardwood trees he would never see mature.”

I’ll bet a man invented the granite tombstone in hopes of securing a small piece of immortality. I believe men get in trouble when their grasp exceeds their reach — when they try too hard to do things that are inconsistent with their morality or good judgment in the present or when their present makes any hopes of “legacy” difficult or impossible. In terms of this whole idea, Emerson said it best when he wrote, “Leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.”

That advice is something we all can strive for and achieve and it makes infinite sense doesn’t it?

DeSantis is a Meadville resident.