Penn State alumni rail about how scandal was handled

Many among the 650 were angry that Paterno was let go, want new trustees.

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Penn State president Rodney Erickson got an earful. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)

Hundreds of Pennsylvania State University alumni packed the Radisson Hotel in King of Prussia on Thursday night, many proudly wearing blue-and-white jerseys and brimming with criticism of the university's handling of the child sex-abuse scandal that has gripped the university for more than two months.

Many demanded answers on why famed football coach Joe Paterno was fired by the trustees before an internal investigation, and several called for the removal of the trustees for taking that action and failing to protect the university from such a scandal. The large majority of the comments and questions centered on those issues.

Taking the brunt of the anger was Penn State's new president, Rodney Erickson.

"It feels like the board of trustees, you, everyone just bowed to this media firestorm," a 1973 graduate said. "It was just so disturbing with how we were perceived and what we did in response to that."

"We must demand a change in the board, the full board," another said.

It was the second town-hall meeting in as many days held for alumni by Penn State. Erickson has pledged more openness and communication while he strives to rebuild the university's image in the aftermath of sexual-abuse charges against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. The Philadelphia region is home to more than 90,000 Penn State alumni.

Poll

Whose scandal is it?

The first meeting was held Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, where many of the same questions were asked. A third session is scheduled for Friday night in New York City.

Sitting before the crowd of 650, Erickson encouraged alumni to question the board "hard" about its decisions but "to try to understand the whole context in which decisions were made and not to rush to judgment." The comment brought a chorus of groans from alumni, who contend that is just what the trustees did in the case of Paterno and former president Graham B. Spanier. Paterno was fired and Spanier was forced to resign Nov. 9, days after disturbing grand-jury testimony in the Sandusky case became public.

"Joe Paterno was the brand for Penn State," one alumnus said. "It's really put a knife through my heart."

A 1976 graduate said of Paterno: "He's the single most important Penn Stater in the history of the university."

Anthony Lubrano, a 1982 graduate, told Erickson he spent an hour with Joe and Sue Paterno on Tuesday.

"Joe said, 'Kid, remember, this is not about me. This is about our school,' " Lubrano said, affectionately mimicking Paterno's distinctive voice. "Despite how we treated him, he's still thinking about us."

Erickson pledged that the university would honor the Paternos at an appropriate time.

"You haven't even called the man yet," Lubrano said.

"I fully intend to sit down with Sue and Joe when I have a few minutes and it's convenient for them," Erickson told the crowd.

Lubrano, who runs a financial-services firm and said he had donated millions to the university, said he had not expected satisfying answers. He organized a rival meeting at the hotel, hosted by former football star and Penn State graduate Franco Harris. That event, called "Real Talk," ran from 8 to 11 p.m.

Lubrano, of Glenmoore in Chester County, also is seeking a seat on the trustees board through Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a recently formed alumni group upset about the trustees' handling of the scandal and looking to make change.

Erickson reminded the crowd that some trustee seats are voted on by alumni. Only 11,000 alumni - out of more than 190,000 - voted in the last election, he said.

Some came to Thursday night's meeting just to listen. Among them was Connie Long, a 1982 graduate from Exton. Her great-grandmother took classes at Penn State. Her grandmother graduated from the school in 1925 and her mother in 1955, and now her son is a chemical-engineering major.

"I have a very long history with the university. This has been very traumatic," she said. "I'm just hoping to see we're on a path to some kind of recovery and healing."

Erickson promised the crowd: "We will do better in the future."

"We cannot forget that Penn State is and historically has been one of America's great universities. Under my administration, I will not allow this great university . . . to be defined by this horrible tragedy. Nor should this tragedy define our outstanding football program."

Several speakers thanked Erickson for having the courage to face the crowd in Philadelphia and at the other events.

After the meeting, at least some alumni - who later attended the session organized by Lubrano - said they remained unsatisfied.

"The board of trustees needs to come out and be more clear about some of the reasons they handled Joe Paterno the way they did," said Bob Fiori, a 1979 graduate from Berwyn.

Two of his children graduated from Penn State, as did his wife, and his third child has been accepted to the school.

"We are blue and white," he said.

Barbara Berger, a 1980 graduate from Devon who met her husband, Mark, also a 1980 graduate, at Penn State, said the trustees should hold a town-hall meeting with alumni and answer questions.

"It would have been more satisfying if a member of the board were here tonight," she said.

Though most of the meeting was tense, one question - presumably inspired by the famed Peachy Paterno ice cream at the Creamery on Penn State's campus - brought laughs.

If you had to name an ice cream flavor for your next two years, Erickson was asked, what would it be?

"Something chocolate," Erickson said.

Someone in the audience suggested a more descriptive flavor. Erickson took it in stride.

"I hope that's not the case, that it's death by chocolate," he said.

 


Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.