by Brett Harrison
Not long ago, Jerry Sandusky was finally sentenced. He would be in his 90s before he even gets a chance at parole, but Penn State will take a very long time to get over this, especially the role Joe Paterno and other higher-ups played in the cover-up.
As heinous as Sandusky’s crimes were, though, not to mention the complicity of Paterno and company, the fact is many families have shared proud moments on graduation day at Penn State. My family was one of them in the mid 1980s.
I grew up in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, just a little more than an hour’s drive from State College. Because we were four to five hour’s drive from any major city with a sports franchise, Penn State football was a big deal in our city, if you want to call it a city, and many people also went to school there.
Of course, just as many young people want to get as far from their small town as possible and go to school out of state. Such was the case with my sister, Wynne, who was accepted at Mount Ida Junior College in Boston. After getting her associate’s degree, she went to several schools before finally ending up at Penn State way past the age of 21.
Since Wynne had so many credits when she finally did graduate from Penn State, she had two bachelor’s degrees: one in art education and one in sculpture. She still has some of her work proudly displayed in the house where I grew up. My favorite is a ceramic sugar bowl with a gargoyle head for a handle. Cool stuff.
I’m 54 years old, and Wynne’s graduation is still the only college graduation I’ve ever attended. I’d like to say “except for mine,” but I never did graduate from college. I was already living in Philadelphia when my sister finished her Penn State education, so I had to travel to Williamsport, then drive with the family up to State College.
If my memory serves me well, Wynne graduated in the summer, not in the spring with the whole class, but it was still a good-sized graduation class. But what struck me was the camaraderie Wynne had with her classmates.
The graduation seemed like a shared accomplishment, a collective feeling of good will. Like the graduation scene in “Officer and a Gentleman” but much larger and without the hat-tossing thing at the end. Naturally, we were all proud of her and enjoyed meeting her classmates, most of whom we were meeting for the first and last time in our lives.
If I had any complaints, it was that summers in Central Pennsylvania tend to get hot and muggy and this was no different. Don’t get me wrong; I would have withstood a monsoon to see my older sister graduate college, but it’s always a little nicer when the weather is optimal.
Some aunts and uncles also made the trip and maybe even cousins. It was almost 30 years ago. When the graduation ceremony was over, we all went to an Italian restaurant in town where a room had been booked in advance. Also joining us were some of Wynne’s classmates and their families. Naturally, the good cheer followed us into the restaurant, and I’m sure other families were celebrating graduation in the main room. I grew up in a Kosher home, but we weren’t particularly religious beyond that and often ate out at non-Kosher restaurants.
Wynne went on the get her master’s degree in film at San Francisco State and eventually made a documentary about the ordeal she went through having her first child in her late 30s. Before that she made a short film about a hearing-impaired stripper whose brother accidentally runs into her at a strip joint.
To make it funnier, Wynne actually screened it the night before her wedding at a dinner for the out-of-town guests. Far from being shocked, most people loved it, with the older female guests almost unanimously adding, “Hey, honey, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”
I might add that Wynne was born with a hearing disability of more than 80 percent, which makes her accomplishments all the more incredible. But even with just 20 percent hearing, she was still able to hear about all the sickening, tragic revelations at Penn State over the past year, which has depressed us all but has not lessened the appreciation Wynne still has for the great experience she had at Penn State.