To Err is Human, To Be a Nittany Lion…

Johanne at Penn State vs. Indiana (November 2010 - FedEx Field)

Roommates: You’re from where?

Professors: How did you end up at Penn State?

Family Back Home: Are you okay up there?

Graduating from high school landed me and my best friend, Johanne, in drastically contrasting collegiate landscapes. Both uniquely different from our New York City upbringing and infamous for their sports history and marquee status in their respective states. 

I headed for the ultra-sunny, ultra-conservative and Confederacy-linked campus of the University of South Carolina. Jo found herself in the snowstorm prone and academically challenging halls of Penn State University.

Between 1997 and 2001, she was consistently asked the three questions above. My experience was equally similar, but more ten years later the most historic people and events to ever mark the University of South Carolina Gamecocks include Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier and a few bowl game wins.

We all know of the recent travesties at Penn State University, its famed former and dearly departed football coach, and the impending trial of its accused sex offender, but not all of us know an actual Nittany Lion who has lived, rooted for and unconditionally loved Penn State, its football coach and its history. 

Johanne is a Penn State alum and these are her words: 

I hadn’t even heard of Joe Paterno before attending Penn State University. I had no clue who he was, how many games he had coached, nor his significance to Penn State.

I didn’t even know what a Nittany Lion looked or sounded like, and why its history should be capitalized. And I didn’t have a clue about football.

My admission to Penn State was accepted without even visiting the school, but all my friends knew I was going to Penn State or bust. The people I looked up to and admired the most went there. My track teams captains who exemplified the notion of the student-athlete and a slew of other intelligent young men and women from my high school went to Penn State. They were smart, confident and carried themselves with respect. And so, my mind was made up. Happy Valley, here I come.

It didn’t take long to learn what mattered at Penn State: school pride, school pride, and oh yeah, school pride. And no one exemplified that more than Joe Paterno – from Paterno Library and Joe Paterno Halloween masks, to the culinary finds of Peachy Paterno ice cream at the Penn State Creamery and Joegies in the student center.

With their sizeable donations, Joe and Sue Paterno helped expand and grow the Penn State campus. They were committed to the students and the school. Joe was ingrained in the institution. We questioned his sanity when we lost games we should’ve won and marveled at  his genius when we won games we should’ve lost.

He was a legend. A hero. The (unofficial) school mascot, historian, keeper of the flame, and all things good and great about State College, Happy Valley, and every Penn State campus. If he grew up in Brooklyn, New York like me and spent 40-plus years in Happy Valley, surely I could get over my homesickness and survive four years.

During freshman year, my roommate and I had a list of things we wanted to do before we graduated – one of which was to meet Joe Paterno.

One day, I was leaving work study still wearing my PSU work uniform: khaki pant and navy polo. I exited through the back of the building so I could take a shortcut to class. From far away I see a man walking in my direction with a familiar outfit: khakis, black shoes and PSU polo shirt. And then I heard it group of guys shout “We love you, JoePa!”. He turns around and responds “I love you, too!”. He waves to them and keeps walking in my direction.

I wanted to say hi or something, but he beat me to it. Joe Paterno walks up to me and holds out his hand and says “Hey, how ya doin’?” My response: “Good. Going to class.” He shakes my hand and tells me to have a good day and get to class before continuing his daily walk to his office. That was my JoePa experience.

For the past few months I’ve told that story more than I’ve repeated it  in the past decade. And over the past few days, that was my memory of Joe as I watched thousands of people line up to pay their respects to his legacy. That’s what I remember when reporters and sports analysts debate and argue  his legacy and life at Penn State after JoePa. And while my story is not as compelling as the encounters or relationships others have had with him, it is the image I will always have of the man affectionately known as Joe Pa.

I was in love obsessed with Penn State before I even heard of Joe and Big Ten football. I loved it after I graduated and I will continue to love it and represent the school’s past, present and future in the best light possible, because Penn State helped shape the person that I am today. It was the long lines at the Penn State Creamery, breaking civic fundraising records with THON, wondering what the Willard Preacher would do or say, and enjoying the first day of spring on the lawn of Old Main.

It wasn’t a perfect experience, but it was my experience.

It was Penn State

I am Penn State



The MLK Jr. National Memorial’s Bookstore: If You Build It, Will They Come?

Child at The MLK Jr. National Memorial’s Bookstore

Seven different conversations with seven different friends: What are you doing this weekend?

Me: Thinking about stopping by the bookstore of the MLK Jr. National Memorial?

All seven friends who asked: The MLK Memorial has a bookstore?!

Me: Uh. Yeah. It’s located next to the Memorial. Directly across the street. 

Their Response: I had no idea. 

The Unfortunate Point: Four friends had visited the Memorial and completely missed the store. The other three had not visited the monument as of yet and had no clue the store existed. 

Much has been said about the newest addition to the National Mall’s tribute to a great American leader and hero – from the now removed wall inscription that took one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quotes out of context to the statue’s likeness of King not being a more accurate likeness of King.

And while the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial is not the first National Park Service (NPS) site to receive a wave of criticism for its design and inscriptions – the World War II Memorial, the Franklin Delano Memorial, and Vietnam Memorial are all members of this club – it’s one of a small number of the National Mall-Tidal Basin properties to have a dedicated standalone bookstore.

The Lincoln Memorial has a bookstore inside its walls, but it’s small enough to fit in the palm of Lincoln’s hand. The statue of Lincoln, not the actual man.

With that being said, along with the conversations I had on seven different occasions this past week, I wondered why more attention has not been paid to bookstore of the the first National Mall property to be dedicated to an African American. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Ambiguous Architecture: Perhaps it’s because the building is so nondescript. At first glance, the store’s bland metal exterior makes it look like storage or work space for the Park Service staff dedicated to maintaining the Memorial’s pristine grounds. And while its large windows should make it easy for passersby to see the inside the store, its location always seems to have a sun glare that reflects the outside of the store more so the inside.
  • Banished Branding: The building lacks actual signage – permanent or temporary – designating it as the official bookstore of the The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. Not even one of these saying “Get Ya MLK Jr Books Here”.

However, for anyone who is lucky enough to actually go inside store, they’ll be greeted with an array of close to 400 books, DVDs, posters and other items that communicate the direct words of Martin Luther King Jr., explore his life’s work or emulate his teachings of nonviolence, social justice and racial equality. The books range from King’s Strength to Love and Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?  to The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas and elementary educational materials on the civil rights movement like This Is the Dream

When I visited the bookstore on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it was of course crowded and I was overjoyed by the number of adults and children browsing and buying books  – here’s a link to the photos I took of the store – but I worried what would be become of the store’s foot traffic after this holiday weekend.

Yes, the store is operated by the same independent contractor that manages all the National Park Service bookstores, but the Memorial’s NPS Web page still lacks information about its exact location and hours, and the foundation dedicated to the Memorial’s creation and funding merely lists information about contributing to the store’s donor wall on its Web site – nothing about the store’s vast inventory of books and other items for sale.

Memorial visitors who miss a chance to join one of the NPS Ranger talks that are started outside the bookstore, might also miss an opportunity to become aware of the store’s existence and actually visit it. Visiting the Memorial is great, but reading and learning about King, and understanding his words and lifestyle is more memorable. More should be done to promote the store.

  • Signage: Adding a sign or banner that’s either affixed to the building’s roof or side exterior, and clearly identifies it as the Memorial’s bookstore, will give it more prominence. If that’s not possible for logistical or economical reasons, a simple sidewalk sign noting the store’s existence and hours will also increase the store’s visibility. To draw in children and families, add some balloons.
  • Literary Support: Authors releasing new books that explore the historical contributions of minorities, analyze the teachings of social and civil activists, or promote a free and just society should make the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial bookstore a preeminent stop on their tours, talks and book signings.

If you build it, they might come, but any bookstore worth patronizing needs a genuine spotlight shone on its existence – not just the Memorial across the street. The bookstore should serve as complement to the Memorial, not an aside. 

Two Years Ago Today: Haiti in Johanne’s Words

Two years today, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the country of Haiti – killing an estimate 220,000 men, women and children, and leaving more than 1.5 million survivors homeless.

My best friend since high school is a native of Haiti. As the crisis communications manager for Sprint, I had to balance the critical role as the spokesperson for the company’s response and aid to the relief efforts, and the role I had lovingly served as Johanne’s friend and always welcomed guest among her mother, brother and other family members.

As news reports and reflections of Haiti’s recovery continue streaming into our culture of 24-hour information, I’m turning over today’s post to Johanne.

Johanne has resided in the U.S. since the age of eight, but has returned to Haiti on a number of occasions. A number of her family members still live in their homeland and the purveyance of Haiti and its rich culture is ever present  in her daily life – from the ease as which she speaks Creole to the way she proudly recounts Haiti’s honor as the first independent nation in Latin America and the first black-led republic in the world.

These are Johanne’s words:

Most people watching the devastating aftermath of the earthquake saw a humanitarian issue. Most Haitians watching it saw their past, present and future staring back at them.

The schools we attended as children before our parents sent for us… gone. The churches we gathered at every Sunday to hear the chorus sing beautiful hymns in Latin… gone. The little stand at the corner where people gathered nightly to buy fried plantain and fish… gone. The brightly painted houses, along with the porches that were cooled down with a splash of water every morning, and served as a meeting place for nightly storytelling… all gone. The hope that maybe someday we would have made it in America enough to return and help our country reach its full potential… gone.

What I saw on TV was what a lot of non Haitians associate with the chaos in Haiti – poverty and hunger beyond comprehension, corruption, and just plain helplessness and hopelessness. What I knew is behind all that chaos, poverty, hunger, corruption, helplessness and hopelessness was an unshakable faith, an amazing resolve to survive, and an extraordinary  level of pride and dignity.

Pride and dignity at the scene of people digging their family and neighbors out of rubble with their bare hands. Pride and dignity at the thought that somehow after 200 years of surviving hurricanes, storms, coups, occupations and not being acknowledged by neighboring and foreign countries, we still existed.

We were wounded, traumatized, and a bit overwhelmed, but hopeful. Hopeful that we can rebuild our nation, make it through this unspeakable tragedy, and that maybe one day I will get to take my friends to visit the green house that I grew up in and sit on the cooled porch and enjoy some fried plantain and fish while listening to my uncle play his guitar while other tell tales of people and places gone by.

And that maybe we can visit the schools, churches, food stands, roads, and houses that have been rebuilt and will help shape a new generation of resilient, faithful, and  proud Haitian boys and girls.

I Love You, Jon Stewart. You Bookworm You.

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Not sure which joke in the above interview is better – the one about “The Help” or the references to the founding fathers’ penchant for enslaved labor. 

Among the cast of late night television show hosts, very, very few include much substance in their daily shtick other than Charlie Rose, Stephen Colbert, and Colbert’s comical kindred spirit, Jon Stewart.

In addition to stalking,, and my local library for literary recommendations, I have come to rely on Jon Stewart’s consistent guest list of award-winning writers, historians and biographers to keep my handbags well stuffed with new books – despite the expert judgement of Dr. Oz.

This week, Stewart interviewed author Elizabeth Dowling Taylor about her new book – “A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons” – which tells the story of Paul Jennings, a slave of President James Madison who was  forced to purchase his own freedom and, as well as the freedom of his children, following the deaths of President Madison and his wife, Dolley Madison.

I’m adding this book to my early 2012 reading list and also hope to catch Taylor discuss her latest work at Washington, DC’s literary haunt, Politics & Prose, on Sunday, January 29 at 5pm ET.

Another great recommendation from my favorite late night bookworm. Thanks, Jon!

Reading Is Not Optional

Photo courtesy of

Walter Dean Myers is the newest and the third literary great to serve as the Library Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

A great honor for a man who dropped out of high school, but never lost his passion for the written word and continued to pursue and succeed at this interest for over four decades.

In his new position, Myers will work over the next two years to “raise national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education and the development and betterment of the lives of young people.”

I had the pleasure of reading Monster (1999), Myers’ New York Times Bestseller, many years ago, but very loosely recall why the book is such a stirring reminder of the hard-scrabble tales I heard daily growing up in New York City. Nevertheless, I know the importance of sharing books like this with young readers.

One of the Christmas presents I recently gave to my SOHO mentee, Makaylah, was a copy of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Makaylah is twelve years old and at the time, I thought mature enough to objectively absorb the story’s controversial themes of racism and sexual abuse.

But upon hearing that her mother was reading the book before Makaylah, I instantly imagined a scenario where I and Morrison’s book would be banned from ever seeing or speaking to Makaylah again.

Three of Myers’ books have been banned in the libraries and school districts of two states due to their profane language and adult content. Similar attempts have been made against The Bluest Eye. Thankfully,all these attempts have failed, and Makaylah’s mother enjoyed and endorsed the book.

Myers has deemed “reading is not optional” as the theme for his two-year term. I look forward to seeing him at the 2012 Library of Congress National Book Festival and using his campaign as a springboard to making reading a new book a constant part of Makaylah’s life.

If you’re unfamiliar with his work, two of Myers’ most recent books – Game (2008) and Sunrise Over Fallujah (2008) – were eloquently reviewed in The New York Times

J-E-T-S, Jets, Je… Oh, Why Do I Even Bother?

As I slowly emerged from a “The New York Jets Blew It Again” funk yesterday, HBO (a favorite hub for sports documentaries and programming), brightened my day by airing an extended version of this teaser for “Namath” – an upcoming documentary about the only New York Jets quarterback to lead the team to a Super Bowl win and quite possibly, the greatest Jet to ever play the game.

When the Jets were the HBO “Hard Knocks” team for the show’s 2010 season, Namath stopped by the training camp to lend a helpful ear and some seasoned wisdom to coach Rex Ryan. Although it ultimately lost a chance at the Lombardi trophy, the team gave a really solid season performance and competed in the NFL’s AFC Championship game.

This year was a completely different story. No winning season. No playoff berth. A few are pointing the finger at Santonio. A few more are blaming Mark. Most are blaming Rex.

HBO will air “Namath” on Saturday, January 28 at 8pm ET and like every other loyal, but, dejected Jets fan, anticipating its premiere is probably the only thing that will help me stomach the remainder of the NFL season.

Joe’s a member of the NFL Hall of Fame; a humanitarian; a defender of African Americans during his Crimson Tide days; a pseudo actor slash Broadway star and a snazzy dresser (see the flipped polo shirt collar above). Why is he not a member of the Jets executive team?

He’s probably turned down repeated offers to join the team’s front office. If I were him, I’d probably do the same. His post-NFL life is one to be admired. Why trade the sunny skies and lush fairways of coastal Florida for the frozen turf of New Jersey’s unforgiving Meadowlands?

Keep popping your collar, Joe. You’ve earned it.