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2018-12-01 / Features

Giving Back

Sue Paterno’s Lifestyle of Service Hasn’t Let Up
Robyn Passante

When you’re in Sue Paterno’s home for more than a few minutes, the cookies come out. The gracious hostess might cut into whatever story she’s telling to ask whether you’d like a cookie, but they’re coming out regardless of the answer.

Often chocolate chip, since that’s her favorite, the cookies are piled onto a paper napkin and placed on the round oak table Sue’s father, August Pohland, built for the family decades ago.

“I always stay a batch ahead, because I don’t do well without them,” she says, beginning to nibble. And whether you feel hungry or not, you start to eat too, dropping crumbs unceremoniously onto a table that has held countless family meals, university donor dinners and sweet snacks for people who’ve just dropped by.

Sue’s cookies are twice the size of regular ones, a fact you can’t help but notice yet don’t dare ask about, since getting more delicious cookie in fewer technical servings is not a thing to question. It turns out that’s exactly why they’re big.

Photo by Matt Fern.Photo by Matt Fern.

“Joe thought the kids should only have one cookie after dinner. So I just made ’em bigger,” shrugs the mother of five and widow of the late Joe Paterno, Penn State’s longtime football coach, who died in January 2012. “I used to make five rows of four; now I get four rows of three. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

That pragmatic attitude and hint of humor is Sue Paterno: equal parts dutiful wife and loving mother, tireless hostess and problem solver. She’s the kind of woman who does things for others without making a fuss, whether that’s painting a mascot’s statue Syracuse orange in the dead of night to drum up school spirit, or baking cookies the size of pancakes so everyone leaves the dinner table happy.

“She cares so much,” says Brandon Short, a former Penn State and NFL linebacker and current university Board of Trustees member. “When you talk to her and you’re around her and she’s speaking to you, you can tell it’s not lip service. She genuinely wants to see you be successful. And she would do anything she could to help you meet your goal, whatever it may be.”

At 78, Sue has spent more than two-thirds of her life as a full-time mother and equally full-time philanthropist, and she doesn’t seem to be slowing down despite all evidence that maybe she should.

She’s had four back surgeries over the years and has four fused vertebraes, two rods and a plate in her neck. “I got knocked down at Ohio State in ’75 and it smashed some vertebraes,” she says matter-of-factly, her limp evident when she ambles into the kitchen for more cookies. She also fell and broke her hip once, her leg another time. And in recent years she’s had two rotator cuff surgeries that took nearly a year of recovery each.  

“You learn to live with pain,” she says. “When it flares, you grit your teeth. It can rule my life, (but) I made up my mind the pain wasn’t gonna rule my life.”

All smiles after Penn State's football team won the 1982 national championship.All smiles after Penn State's football team won the 1982 national championship.

What has instead ruled her life is an enduring commitment to give back. The proud matriarch’s brood now includes 17 grandchildren, and their “Grandma Cookie” is co-chair of the university’s Libraries Development Board, which is halfway through a $46 million campaign. She’s also co-chairing Special Olympics Pennsylvania’s (SOPA) recently launched Inclusion Revolution campaign, a three-year,
$4 million effort; organizing the annual Paterno Family Beaver Stadium Run, which last year raised more than $420,000 for SOPA’s Summer Games; and will set sail as honorary captain of the Happy Valley Charter Cruise’s maiden voyage to the Bahamas in March 2019, also to benefit her beloved Special Olympics.

“When somebody takes care of others for as long as she has, good luck getting her to slow down,” says David Paterno, Sue’s middle child whose recovery from a serious head injury when he was 11 is what lead his mother to start volunteering with Special Olympics so many years ago.

Posing with students during Homecoming week's Greek Sing in 2008.Posing with students during Homecoming week's Greek Sing in 2008.

“I felt David was a miracle and we owed,” Sue says of her son, who spent eight days in a coma after falling off a trampoline and fracturing his skull. “We had to give back.” That sounds a bit ironic for a woman who already was shouldering the lion’s share of parenting five children, tutoring freshman football players, and cooking and hosting dinners for university donors. But Sue found the time and energy to become one of SOPA’s biggest supporters, inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2008 along with Joe, and she is a familiar fixture at the annual Summer Games on Penn State’s campus.

Matt Aaron, CEO of Special Olympics Pennsylvania, says when he met Sue 10 years ago he was struck by her resemblance to Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics. “There’s not only a physical resemblance, but her personality, her mannerisms and her love of our athletes are very similar,” Aaron says. “Her love for our athletes just radiates from her. It’s not just ‘This is a nice thing to do’; she truly loves the athletes of Special Olympics.”

That affection is mutual, and has buoyed her in recent years under the quiet and enduring strain of grief.

“People that got (my loss) more than anybody, and still get it, are the athletes. I bet I had 30 athletes at Summer Games that said, ‘We really miss Joe. How are you doing? You probably miss him really more than us.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I do,’” she says. “I can say it to them.”

Sue and Joe were married in May of 1962, after a long friendship and a short secret courtship during Sue and Joe Paterno were married on May 12, 1962.Sue and Joe Paterno were married on May 12, 1962.Sue’s last semester in school, when it would have been trouble for the 34-year-old assistant football coach to be dating a student.

She borrowed her sister’s wedding dress, not because she couldn’t afford her own but because the dress itself mattered little to her. “After I went bridesmaid shopping with my bridesmaids I said, ‘I’m not going through that again,’” she says. “I said, ‘I’ll wear my sister’s dress, I do not want to go shopping.’ And I didn’t care.”

She still lives in the same house the couple bought in 1969. It’s where they raised their children, and where Joe spent his last weeks. Most of the drapes that cover the windows are ones she sewed herself, and a smiling portrait of her husband hangs in the living room.

Though the bitter memories of how it all ended are linked to the modest ranch — the hasty late-night firing of Joe, the media vans camped outside, the cancer they at first felt sure they’d caught early enough — Sue feels closest to Joe at home. A life-sized cardboard cutout of him, the same likeness that adorned so many college apartments and dorm rooms over the years, stands in her bedroom, and she talks to it every morning and every night.

“I say ‘Good morning, how you doing today?’ Or ‘When are you gonna answer me?’” she says with a smile that fades quickly. “And sometimes I’ll say, ‘I don’t think I can take much more, I need help.’”
Then she answers her own plea by helping others.

“My grandmother used to always say, ‘Behind every strong man is a strong woman.’ And Sue is that woman behind that legendary man in Coach Paterno,” says Troy Drayton, former Penn State tight end who went on to a nine-year career in the NFL. Drayton is one of the many players Sue tutored in English during his freshman year.

“I felt when we recruit people and we tell the parents we believe in education, we better do everything to help them succeed,” Sue says. So the Literature major rolled up her sleeves and began teaching struggling students how to structure an essay, how to use free writing as a tool, and that their academic ideas had as much value as their athletic abilities. “I started the year we got married in ’62. When I was in the body cast, they brought the players (to the house). When I had two, three, four little kids and Joe was on the road recruiting, the freshman coach brought the players to the house. When I was nursing, I’d get them started and say, ‘I’m going upstairs for a little while, I’ll be back down.’”

A 1973 portrait of the Paterno family.A 1973 portrait of the Paterno family.

Drayton says Sue was a no-nonsense teacher with a softer side that gave players like him what they needed in and out of the classroom.  

“She was hard on me, she didn’t cut me any slack, but she had a very kind way about her. It wasn’t in your face but it was ‘I know you can do better, you’re better than this. And I want to be able to show you how to do things the right way.’ And that in itself formed that bond between Sue and myself,” he says. “She was like my security blanket if I ran into any troubles at school, but she was also a great person to talk to if you had any personal problems. She was always there to give you great advice. And to me it was deeper than that tutor-to-student relationship. I looked to Sue like she was a surrogate mom.”

When Drayton chose to enter the NFL draft a semester shy of graduation, his surrogate mother didn’t stay silent. “I chewed him out. Because every kid I tutored graduated, except him,” she says. “I said, ‘Troy, you owe me six credits.’ He said, ‘I’ll get them!’ And I said, ‘No no. You get them. You owe me.’”

And 15 years later, he made good on his promise. He sent the Paternos an invitation to his graduation, and Sue invited him over to the house — but wouldn’t let him inside until she’d seen the diploma.

“Coach said, ‘The fact that you came back and were a man of your word means more to me than you getting drafted and playing NFL football,’” says Drayton, who has since earned a master’s degree with a 3.81 GPA. “It was a profound thing to me because I think the only person who realized how much work I put in, not just being a good football player but working on myself academically, was Sue. She was the person that was there the whole way.”

Photo by Matt Fern.Photo by Matt Fern.

Sue’s kitchen was renovated in the mid-’90s, a move that accommodated her growing extended family and allowed for even more entertaining. Scott Steinhauer, Libraries Development Board chairman and a retired executive with Johnson & Johnson, remembers being invited to a reception after making a large donation to the university in honor of his parents. He was told the reception would be at the Paternos’ house, and Steinhauer, who’d been to many similar fêtes, assumed that meant a catered affair under a big tent in a side yard, with the host and hostess perhaps making a brief appearance.

He was wrong.

“It was inside their house, Sue cooked the dinner. They had tables set up to feed us. Joe had just got beat 6-4 by Iowa on a Homecoming rainy day. He showed up and was the life of the party, and she couldn’t have been nicer,” Steinhauer says. “There is nobody in my life who’s that committed to a cause that they would be willing to do that. It had to have been a labor of love for both of them, and it certainly was a lesson in what genuine commitment looks like to all of us.”

Similar tables will be set up this month when Sue hosts the family at Christmastime. There will be oneA painting of the late Joe Paterno by Armenian artist Gagik Ghazanchyan, a gift from the Sahakian family, hangs in the living room.A painting of the late Joe Paterno by Armenian artist Gagik Ghazanchyan, a gift from the Sahakian family, hangs in the living room. large makeshift table in the living room for her 10 oldest grandchildren; their granddad will smile over them as they feast. A dining room table set for another 10 will hold her children and their spouses. Sue will sit at that kitchen table her father made, along with the seven youngest members of her family. “I sit with the little kids,” she says with a big smile. “I have a blast.”

Only she knows how many cookies they’ll get to eat. •SCM

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