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A Loss of Innocence, Redux
I lost my innocence in the early afternoon of 22 November 1963 in the shower of my high school boys’ locker room. We’d finished a strenuous gym class, the kind which broke an honest sweat, and were showering, naked, guys I’d known since kindergarten and I.
The speaker box in the locker area blared with the principal’s voice, which was a unique mid-day interruption. We couldn’t hear what Mr. Hoffman said in the shower, but the locker room went dead silent. A couple of us stepped to the shower entrance and asked what he’d said.
“President Kennedy’s been shot. He’s dead,” was the response. There were a number of “Yeah, rights” and “That’s not funny” and “What really happened?”
The gym instructor repeated the news, advised us to get dressed and go home. School was over.
The world changed in that afternoon for me. It was no longer innocent.
Youthful, personable, vibrant, JFK was my president, the first one elected when I was able to understand politics and elections. He challenged us to do for our country. We responded. He challenged us to become fit and led 20-mile walks. We walked. He challenged us to become better citizens. We did all we could to respond.
He faced down the Russians during 10 days in October. We were relieved, but proud. We were right and righteous and blessed as a country.
Following the death of my innocence, sensibility took a beating until it was all but inured to the violence.
Three young civil rights workers were working to register black voters in Mississippi in 1964 were murdered. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. Four of my high school friends died in Vietnam.
MLK and RFK were assassinated in April and June 1968. By then I’d been in the Air Force two years, was world-wise, not the innocent teenager of 1963.
I spent in year in Nam as a Rear Echelon MF (non-combatant) and saw the aftermath of a rocket which killed four co-workers. During and after college, I worked as a news reporter covering some of the most dreadful examples of man’s inhumanity to man, corruption and local politics. There isn’t much which can surprise or shock me.
When some of you read the first paragraph about young men in showers, your mind immediately leapt to a sexual abuse scenario. That’s the way our collective minds work today. We’re jaded.
I thought I’d become inured to stories about sexual predators whether sociopaths, clericals, educators or the everyman living next door.
Then the Jerry Sandusky story broke. And I found myself shocked on a variety of levels; not only because of the heinous violation of trust, but my belief based on experience that there had to have been people in State College who knew what was going on.
Eventually, the story shifted to how Sandusky’s crimes came to light, who knew what when, and what had or hadn’t been done.
Joe Paterno’s role was dissected, trisected, quadrisected, poked, prodded, electron microscoped until you either believed or disbelieved that he knew or didn’t know about his long-time assistant and, by all accounts, friend. Given the information presented, I gave him the benefit of doubt — innocent until proven guilty.
Then I heard and read Louis Freeh’s statement and the Freeh Report. “The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized,” Freeh reported. “. . . (the former PSU president, the senior VP-finance and business, the athletic director and Joe) Paterno never demonstrated, through actions or words, any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky’s victims until after Sandusky’s arrest.”
And I had a “Say it ain’t so, Joe” reaction. My innocence took another blow.
I don’t get it. We’ve tried to raise our two kids to be ethical, to do the right thing. We’ve had long discussions about conducting oneself ethically, not just because you might get caught, which was our kids’ rationale, but because there is a difference between right and wrong.
Our family mantra has been, “The character of a person is defined by how s/he behaves when no one will ever know.”
I also teach an ethics section in each of my university classes, not only because ethics has become de rigueur in business schools especially since the Enron and WorldCom fraud scandals, but because students will constantly be faced with ethical situations throughout their careers.
Cover-ups and lying are integral to the discussion.
Would Nixon have been forced to resign if he’d just admitted his paranoia, which drove him to OK the Watergate break-in? Would the House have voted to impeach Clinton if he’d simply admitted his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and said it was a private matter between him and his wife? Would Martha Stewart have been convicted if she’d simply admitted that she’d had direct knowledge of the ImClone stock decline before she dumped her stock?
Paterno can’t explain how or why he decided not to report Sandusky.
As Christine Brennan wrote in USA Today on Friday, 13 July, “Paterno should be seen first and foremost as the willing enabler of a convicted child molester, and never be held in high esteem at Penn State or around the country again… his reputation is ruined, and there is no one to blame for that but Joe Paterno himself.”
The scandal cost Paterno not just his career, but ultimately his life, roughly 10 weeks after being fired from the university to which he had committed himself. To say that the two aren’t linked is an innocent’s view. And I’m no innocent.
- Image: Screenshot from the Freeh Report.
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