30 minutes with Joe Paterno

Being part of Penn State, we have sadly all suffered a great loss. Joe Paterno had impacted many lives around the globe in so many ways.

The common theme when reading tributes to this great man is how he touched those who he had never met.

My husband and I were two of the fortunate people to have met Joe Paterno, and I would love to take this opportunity to share our personal story with you.

I had arranged a surprise for my husband, Dion to meet his hero Joe Paterno. It just so happened to be the Tuesday before Fathers’ Day in 2008.

Dion and Ivy with Joe Paterno.

Having grown up without a father but with a passion for Penn State football, Dion looked to Joe as the man to inspire him and look up to. Dion is the only man in our home, which consists of six daughters and me. He is always the last man in line for anything; always giving and sacrificing for many people. I knew I had to make his dream come true. As a gift for Fathers’ Day and calling in some favors, I was able to get it done and here is where my story begins.

Our meeting took place on June 10, 2008. I remember this date but have trouble remembering my own wedding anniversary. It was about 95 degrees out. Absolutely sweltering.  Or at least that was the excuse my husband used for what I thought was nervous perspiration on his bald head.

We arrived at the football complex about a half hour early. We knew the legend of Joe and his philosophy that late to a meeting was five minutes early. We sat in the parking lot and went inside about 15 minutes before our scheduled time.

Dion announced to the receptionist that we were there to see “Coach Paterno.” We were told to go upstairs where we opened a door to a large common area, full of bowl trophies, pictures and blue and white furniture.  An administrative assistant was sitting behind the desk, in front of the doors that lead to the offices, to greet people.  Again, we said we had an appointment with Coach Paterno. The admin, Mary, was cordial and could sense our excitement. We sat down on the couch; Dion was fidgeting with nervous anticipation.

Minutes passed that seemed like hours. We were whispering to each other but it felt like we were shouting in a cave. All of a sudden, the door that we came through bursts open. It was Coach Paterno, returning from an outside engagement, walking, swinging his arms and clapping like he didn’t have a care in the world.  He said to the admin “Hey, hey Mary, what’s going on?  It is hot out there huh?” He continued past Mary, behind some secret double doors.

I looked at my husband as if to say, “Is he going to come back?”

Less than a minute later, JoePa came back through the double doors and said “So where is the father of the year?” referring, of course, to Dion.  He made his introductions and then asked how the meeting got set up.

He couldn’t believe my story and how much effort I put into this 15 minute meeting. He turns to Dion and said “I feel bad for you; I’m your Fathers’ Day gift? You don’t even get a tie?  You are losing out here.”  We all laughed and he invited us back into his office.

He commented that his mother had moved to Dion’s hometown, Flushing, New York, after his dad passed away. That was the icebreaker for my nervous husband, as they proceeded to talk about Flushing and its history. JoePa asked me where I was from and I told him I grew up in Mamaroneck, New York.  He made this whole high and mighty gesture and said “Oh, my, Mamaroneck,” dancing and waving his arms like it was a ritzy area.  We all laughed.

He then did something very special, which throughout his memorial tributes was very clear; he spoke of his love for his grandchildren. He took us both by the hand like school kids, took us behind his rather large desk, and showed us a picture on the wall of all his grandchildren. He named them all without hesitation.  He asked if we had pictures of our girls.  Dion pulled out an 8 X 10 of the whole family at the Nittany Lion Shrine.  Joe was now in listen mode and asked about each girl as far as education status and ages.

The 15-minute meeting had now passed its allotted time. I feared that he would be late to his next scheduled appointment because of us.  I was nervous. I could see Dion looking down at his watch too.

JoePa then said, “Let’s go back out to the lobby and take some photos.” We went back to the reception area where he asked Mary to take a couple of photos of the three of us.  He told me to “get in the middle of the two ugly guys to make the picture look good.”  Mary took the photos and I thought our conversation would be over. But no, it was just getting started again about the old neighborhood…

His Director of Football Operations, Tom Venturino, came by with the afternoon’s agenda.  JoePa introduced us to Tom, who was from Long Island. He grew up right by Belmont Racetrack. Talk immediately turned to the Belmont Stakes and the horse, Big Brown, who had just lost his search for the Triple Crown.

Another twist to the story was that Tom’s father and uncle were the equipment managers for Dion’s best friend’s college football team when he played there. The world just got smaller.

Each one of them, Tom, Dion and JoePa were now talking over each other.  The chatter was deafening.  I turned to Mary and said, “Doesn’t he have a recruit waiting for him?”  She nodded yes.

JoePa asked what we were doing next. I told him we were meeting Jeff Nelson, the Sports Information Director, over by Beaver Stadium for a tour of the stadium.  Joe asked Mary for the phone behind her desk.  He dialed Jeff’s number from memory, and said “Hey, Jeff.  I got Dion and Ivy over here in my office.  Are you at the stadium?  I am sending them over now.”

He turned to me and asked if we needed a ride over to the stadium.  Before I could respond, he had volunteered “Tommy” to take us over.  Dion declined the offer as we had our car out front.  JoePa said, “Oh, so you were the one parked in MY spot!”

JoePa thanked us for coming by and how enjoyable it was to talk with us.  He gave us both a hug and was now headed to the see the recruit, who was standing and waiting nervously with his mother and brother.

NOT ONCE IN THE 30 MINUTES DID WE DISCUSS FOOTBALL.

As a postscript, Dion and I sent JoePa a tie, with a Fathers’ Day card, to thank him for spending time with us, and making a dream come true for him.  JoePa wore that tie many times after getting it, and each time Dion would excitedly yell at the TV “He has our tie on Babe!!!”  The last time we saw the tie on JoePa was this year’s Indiana game, on September 28, 2011.

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