"What do you want on your tombstone?"
It's a question some of us contemplate . . . a question asked during the closing scenes of an old Western shootout . . . a question mocked in frozen pizza commercials.
But seriously, what would you want on your tombstone?
It's a daunting task, really, to come up with a life summary in just a few short words. And with the poor economy and rising cost of funerals, most of us don't have the money to etch long, flowing Faulkner-esque sentences about our life. So most of us usually stick to the oldies-but-goodies: name, birth, death.
Yet, the general public has no problem writing the epitaph of someone else, particularly Joe Paterno.
Cheater. Liar. Enabler. Morally-deprived.
That's how we sum up 85 years of living. But is it really that easy?
Joe Paterno spent 62 years wearing dark royal blue and white, but according to the general public, it's much easier to see him in black and white. Paterno was a sleaze, a man who ignored his alleged morality for the sake of winning. An ethical icon who took off his signature thick glasses when it came time to see the truth in his friend Jerry Sandusky.
But is that all he was?
Joe Paterno did what was legally required of him when he first heard of the sexual abuse allegations involving his assistant coach and friend, Sandusky. He reported them to his superiors. Clearly, that was not enough. Joe Pa later admitted that himself.
I have zero doubt in my mind that if the victim had been Paterno's grandson, he would have taken a different course of action. If those young boys shared Paterno's last name, he would have done more than the minimum. Yes, it is despicable that Joe Paterno became a coward when young people needed him to be brave.
And that's why he was fired. Deservedly so. I'm not here to debate that. But that's not where the public discourse ends. It goes much further than that, as one of our 13abc Facebook viewers said, "I hope Paterno burns in Hell."
Really? For one cowardly lapse in judgment? Burns in Hell?
Are we really living in a world in which one mistake deserves that sort of reaction? Where an 85-year-old book is only defined by the last sentence on the final page? Am I supposed to ignore the $4 million dollars the Paterno family donated to Penn State? The thousands of young men who were mentored by his staff? His 78% graduation rate, which placed him ahead of every Big Ten school except Northwestern? The way he ran a program free of recruiting scandal, while still winning an NCAA-record 409 games?
He is not Jerry Sandusky. Please let us not forget that. It's easy to blur the lines and judge them together. I find Sandusky's alleged actions as disgusting and inhumane as anything you could do to another person. I find Paterno's actions disappointing and cowardly, especially for a man who prided himself on his character.
But "Burn in Hell?" Certainly not the three words I would put on Paterno's tombstone.
If nothing else, let this be a lesson to us all. A reputation is a house of cards. It takes a long time to build, in Paterno's case 85 years. Yet it only takes one poor decision to knock it down.
Just as I hope I'll be forgiven for my weak moments, I will choose not to summarize a man's life based on his.
"Paterno was wrong." Nope, not the three words I would put on his tombstone. Too simple. Too black-and-white.
So what should it say?
"Reputation is fragile."
That sounds more like it.
Ironically, a man who spent his life teaching lessons, gave us the greatest lesson in his final days.