The Paterno Statue: Penn State Should Have Listened to Harry Truman
By Matthew Algeo
Penn State University officials should have followed Harry Truman’s advice when they were thinking about erecting a statue of Joe Paterno on campus: Just don’t do it.
When the seven-foot-tall, bronze statue was unveiled outside Penn State’s football stadium in 2001, Paterno was regarded as nothing less than a living legend, the benevolent and beloved head coach of the university’s football team. We now know that, by then, Paterno was already involved in covering up the crimes of his pedophilic assistant, Jerry Sandusky.
Paterno is dead but his statue remains, an uncomfortable reminder of his complicated legacy. Penn State officials say they will take their time deciding what to do about the statue, but this small bit of drama inside a much darker tragedy would have been avoided if the university had listened to the last president whose most advanced degree was a high school diploma.
While raising funds to build the library in Independence, Missouri, that now bears his name, Harry Truman was careful to point out that he was not interested in building a memorial to himself. “I’ll be cussed and discussed for the next generation anyway,” he said.
As a rule, Truman opposed erecting monuments to the living. “You can never tell what foolishness they may get into before they get into a pine box,” he said, “and then the memorial sometimes has to be torn down.”
It’s been known to happen. In the 1950s, a tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike was going to be named after Thomas J. Evans, the chairman of the turnpike commission – until Evans was convicted of attempting to defraud the commission of $19 million.
Former Florida State University head football coach Bobby Bowden – himself a living legend and Joe Paterno’s longtime friend – believes the Paterno statue should be removed. “Every time they show that statue on TV, people won’t remember the good years,” Bowden told an interviewer last week. “They’re only going to remember the things with Sandusky.” Bowden speaks from a position of unusual authority: There’s a statue of him outside Florida State’s football stadium.
It has already been announced that Paterno’s name will be removed from a building on the Nike campus in Beaverton, Oregon. The building is named the Joe Paterno Child Development Center.
Of course, if officials at Penn State had followed Harry Truman’s advice, they never would have erected the Paterno statue on campus in the first place. For the time being, at least, the statue stands as a literal monument to the inherent perils of memorializing the living – and to the enduring wisdom of Harry Truman.