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July 30, 2012I wonder what the jovial old professor Pat O'Brien would be thinking about his Happy Valley these days.
Surely, he'd be happy there is a namesake and perhaps a long-lost kin of his now coaching his favorite college football team.
But the man who coined the famous phrase Happy Valley to describe the pastoral beauty, the low-key lifestyle and the apparent serenity of the bucolic geographical area surrounding Penn State would probably be as disturbed, heartbroken and angry as many of us who have fallen in love with the university over the decades.
There's been a black cloud over Happy Valley for months now and, unfortunately, it will never go away. Happy Valley seemed to stand for all that is good and pleasant about life. Now, because of a horrific sexual child abuse scandal ignited by a man who was considered almost like a saint, the perception of this once Happy Valley is dark and foreboding.
Some of the more ignorant and intolerant critics in the media and the public have gone so far as to taint anyone ever associated with Penn State with the evil perpetrated by this one man and the handful of others who enabled him. Our lack of knowledge about what was going on in secret does not matter to these detractors. Nor does our continuous vocal, moral and financial support for the victims of child abuse.
The football team has been singled out by the most insufferable of the media as part of a "culture of corruption" in the Penn State leadership, including unsubstantiated allegations and definitive assertions of cover-ups strictly to protect the football program. Indeed, it appears there was some type of cover-up at the university's highest administrative level, but to what degree it involved safeguarding the lily-white image and financial machine of the football team has yet to be proven.
Yes, this maligning criticism is a minority view. But, nevertheless, Penn State and Happy Valley will never be the same.
Of course, the inner soul of Happy Valley was always myth, like the fictional Brigadoon of the theater and movies. Penn State and the State College area were and are no different from the rest of the country - with their own conflicting social problems, behind-the-scenes personal and professional shenanigans and deep hidden secrets. There just seemed to be less of that disharmony here than elsewhere, maybe because of the geographical isolation and picturesque splendor of the area.
In fact, that's what Pat O'Brien thought in the early 1950s when he began driving his wife and two children around Centre County on weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings. A native of northeastern Pennsylvania's coal region, Pat had been wounded in World War II before finding his life's work as an educator.
The fields, hills and streams of central Pennsylvania were an escape from the big city turmoil, and Pat shared his feelings about "this happy valley" with friends, especially Ross and Katie Lehman. Ross was close to being Mr. Penn State of his generation and eventually became director of the Alumni Association. Katie wrote a popular family-oriented column for the Centre Daily Times entitled "Open House," and starting in June 1961 she began referring to "happy valley," first in lower case and then with caps. Slowly the sobriquet caught on and then went national via the media with the success of Joe Paterno's Penn State football teams in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Even from the start, not everyone at Penn State bought into the Happy Valley myth. Political science professor Dr. Ruth Silva became widely known for her disparaging description of Happy Valley as part of her formal curriculum. "Her definition was somewhat lengthy," recalled former student Ben Sinclair, "but basically it referred to the little universe inhabited by most Penn Staters, who pass through without serious thoughts, with parties, fun, drinking, extracurricular activities, etc., until they are forced into the real world."
Lee Stout, the retired Penn State archivist, also was on campus in the late 1960s: "We were using the term 'Happy Valley' sarcastically to describe residents of the area who seemed oblivious to Vietnam, civil rights, the women's movement and all the rest, and we didn't feel the residents knew anything about the outside world."
Much of the fun is gone, but the partying and drinking will continue as they always have since the first students arrived in 1859. Residents now know a lot about the outside world and much, much more about the devious inside world of Penn State and especially it's most notorious citizen. It's not pleasant and it hurts - deeply.
Penn State's Mother Theresa has apparently turned out to be a serial child predator of the worst kind, and just about all of us have been fooled. Our beloved university has been tarnished, and it will take years for it to recover, if at all.
And, most important, the lives of young children and their families have been ruined forever, and for that we are all incensed, remorseful and sad.
As for Happy Valley, it no longer exists, even in our minds. One man created the legend of Happy Valley and another man destroyed it.
Penn State NEWS