I don’t know why the death of an old man takes me by surprise. But it always does. They pass into the night and suddenly a landmark is gone. Yes, all men are mortal. Joe Paterno, Peter Dorsey, were men. Therefore they die. I get the logic. It’s my heart that is breaking.
Joe Paterno, a football coach at Penn State for longer than many of us have been alive, is no more. The flame, the passion, the character that inspired generations of young men to compete, to excel, to finish what they started, to fight against all odds and never give up, that flame went out this weekend.
Paterno died a scapegoat, exiled from the university he loved by gutless and simpering cowards who were content to profit from his efforts and keep their eyes closed and mouths shut so long as the world was not watching. But once the lid blew off and reports of Jerry Sandusky’s shenanigans went public, the university kicked Paterno aside as though he were little more than a pimp serving Sandusky’s lust. Shame on Penn State.
The truth is of course far more complex that the moral drama we endured this past fall. Paterno led a football program that made the university millions of dollars for decades. His recruits were far more likely to graduate from college than those from many other programs. He coached with passion, modesty and a dedication to fundamentals. Could he have done more about Sandusky long ago? Yes. But who among us is without sin? Why was it necessary to banish him as his twilight beckoned?
I will miss Paterno. My wife and I are improbable college football fans. Each Saturday in the fall, we follow our favorite teams and coaches with a loyalty for which I can give no rational account; perhaps two pagans nonetheless need some communal and public source of ritual and meaning. Paterno impressed me as a good and moral man. Now he is gone.
Peter Dorsey also died this weekend. He was a federal District Court judge in Connecticut, an Article III judge, with clerks, a staff, and a courtroom all his own. I haven’t appeared before him in several years, but many are the fights I had in his courtroom. He was a quirky umpire with a sense of humor and a world weary, sardonic detachment.
I recall one trial years ago in his courtroom. My client was a police union president who had been disciplined for reading a newspaper while on duty in his cruiser. We thought the discipline was pretextual, and that the union president was really retaliated against for being a thorn in management’s side. We were seeking money damages for violation of the union president’s First Amendment rights.
Dorsey was on the bench in his courtroom, a plain rectangle dominated by a chandelier almost too elegant for such a setting. I was questioning the police chief.
"You yourself read non-police related material on the job, isn’t that true, chief?" I asked.
The other side had previously persuaded the judge to prohibit me from naming the publication the chief had once been observed ogling in his office – Hustler, a glossy, pornographic magazine published by Larry Flynt. Judge Dorsey thought it would be too prejudicial for the jury to learn this fact. So I pressed the limits, while Dorsey tried to police them.
"And isn’t it true, sir, that the non-work related publication was, well," and I looked at Dorsey, winking with the eye the jury could not see, "of a certain salacious character?"
"That will be enough, Mr. Pattis," Judge Dorsey said.
But of course it wasn’t. I poked and prodded the witness, all the while dangling on the end of the tether Judge Dorsey kept tugging until the witness finally blurted out that he "was NOT looking at Huslter." I looked at Judge Dorsey, and now he smiled. I won that round, and we won the case, too.
I would visit Judge Dorsey every so often just to talk about the courts and what occurred in them. He had a wry ability to assess the ambitions and attitudes of others. He was a practiced story teller. He did not let the power of the robe get to his head. He seemed to wear it with a wary sense of the power of illusion. He seemed offended by those of his colleagues who took an overly generous view of their prerogatives.
I suspect Dorsey and Paterno would have found a lot of common ground. Both were at the top of their professions, but neither forgot hard work and decency counted for more than brilliance. And both knew that appearances deceive; all is not what it appears, but rather than responding with cynical detachment and the scoffer’s delight in scorn, both kept at their work. They were good examples.
And now they are gone. Just like that. I cannot get used to these departures.
These old men died, and now they are gone. I find it inconceivable. Each were beacons of a sort to me, landmarks upon which I could count as I groped my way along. Their passing unnerves me. Not just because there is now silence where once there was life. But also because with the passing of each idol, each landmark, the weight of time presses a little more nearly on my neck. Time passes, and so do we. Paterno and Dorsey left their marks; I will miss them.