IT’S A WEDNESDAY IN EARLY JANUARY, a gray afternoon, but not bad by State College standards. It’s not too cold. There’s no snow. And there’s smoke drifting up into the bare oak trees out of a chimney toward the back of the rancher on McKee Street, a couple blocks north of campus. Sue has got the wood-burner going, so I know the Paternos are home. I walk up a wood ramp—built a few weeks earlier for Joe’s wheelchair—to ring the bell at the front door. Nothing. I ring again.
Through the narrow vertical window next to the door, I see someone coming. The door opens, and there’s Sue Paterno. She’s normally as willowy and blond and handsome as Joe is swarthy and hook-nosed and nearsighted, but now she’s wearing a gray sweatshirt, with no makeup, her hair up in curlers. Four very large red curlers, to be exact: two on top of her head, two along her temples.
I tell Sue my name, then say: “I’m an old Penn Stater—I went to school here back in the ’70s, and lived around State College for a decade. … I wonder if I can have a conversation with Joe.”
These things are true, though of course I will have to tell her I’m a reporter—but not yet.
“He’s resting right now,” Sue Paterno tells me. Joe, I’ve heard, is exhausted from the chemotherapy he’s been getting for his lung cancer.
“Could I come by later?”
Sue Paterno thinks for a moment. She has, I know, an enormous amount of influence on Joe. She actually seems to be considering that her husband might make time to speak to a onetime PSU student who shows up at their door, and given everything that’s happened in the past two months—starting with the allegations that over many years former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky sexually abused eight young boys, which led to Joe Paterno’s swift dismissal as coach—I’m amazed. Not to mention the lung cancer, and the broken pelvis from a fall heading to the bathroom …
“We have an appointment at four,” Sue tells me. A chemo treatment.
“Would tomorrow be better?”
Sue Paterno considers. “Why don’t you call first?” she suggests.
“The number in the phone book?” As everyone knows, it’s listed.
“I hope Joe is doing well … ”
“He’s … ” She hesitates. Sue Paterno looks tired. Her face is lined. She’s physically fragile herself, with a bad back. “He’s getting there.”
In fact, her husband is gravely ill. That next morning, when I call, Sue answers, and before I tell her what I’m really up to, she beats me to it. “Are you a reporter?” Sue asks. “I am.”
She tells me, pleasantly, that they aren’t talking to the media just now.