What the Jesuits taught Joe Paterno

It’s an acknowledged truth that when the clock of life turns past 60, yesterday slips easily out of recollection, while five decades ago come magically back to life.

This has become clear as I’ve read about the life and death of Joe Paterno.

Paterno was not only a legend at Penn State but also at a place called Brooklyn Preparatory High School, a Jesuit institution of rigid learning that opened its doors in 1908, at 1150 Carroll St. between Rogers and Nostrand Aves. in Crown Heights, and closed in 1972.

Paterno graduated in 1945, and I graduated from there in 1966, the year he became head football coach of Penn State.

Though we did not know each other, Paterno and I shared certain attributes. I believe we both carried a commitment to building strong bodies within active minds, an inheritance that many other Prep alumni can claim.

The exhortation to maintain a sound mind in a sound body — or as any decent Prepster could have said, mens sana in corpore sano — was the pedagogical foundation of the school.

On my first day of classes — 50 years ago this coming September — I was intimidated to learn we would have Latin for eight periods a week.

In fact, I went on to study not only Latin but ancient Greek and French, in addition to math, science and other subjects.

For Paterno, this academic rigor led to a life-long appreciation of classical literature, and he even endowed a Penn State scholarship in the name of a Brooklyn Prep Latin teacher, the Rev. Thomas Bermingham.

For me, the exposure to Latin and Greek meant I would become easily fluent in Spanish and French as I traveled the hemisphere for different news organizations.

It’s only in recent years that I’ve come to understand what I owe the Jesuits, though something tells me that Paterno knew all along what he got from them.

The Jesuits wanted their students conversant with good literature and big ideas. This was clearly reflected in the academic successes of Penn State’s football players, who had consistently high graduation rates under Paterno.

But Paterno also seems to have taken a page from the Machiavellian quality of the Jesuits, a mundane cleverness that made them priestly advisers to European royalty two centuries back. Look it up. Jesuitical means “cunning” and “deceitful.”

By intimidating college administrators and politicking, the aging Paterno stayed in his position way beyond the time Penn State’s president and other top officials would have preferred. [more]


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