While recently driving across the Susquehanna River on the Pennsylvania Turnpike Bridge that links York and Dauphin counties, Representative Mike Regan (R-York/Cumberland) had what he calls an epiphany.
“It was a bright sunny day,” Regan recalls. “It looked like they just painted it. The rails were blue. The concrete was white. I thought somebody ought to name this bridge after Joe Paterno.”
Regan turned a blue-and-white epiphany into black and white reality in the form of House Bill 1247. He wants to honor Paterno the coach, mentor, humanitarian, philanthropist and Pennsylvania ambassador.
“I just think he’s deserving because the guy obviously accomplished a lot over the years,” said Regan, who insists he was not prodded by the Paterno family or Penn State supporters.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike does not name bridges, according to spokesman Carl DeFebo, who said it’s not unusual for lawmakers to do so. DeFebo estimates that in the past 15 years, about six bridges have been named for various people.
But none of those span such troubled waters.
In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, Paterno was fired, his statue removed and his legacy tarnished.
“I always thought that he did not get due process and I thought it was a knee-jerk rush to judgement,” Regan said. “Unfortunately, he died before it could get resolved.”
Regan says he conducted an informal poll on his Facebook page and estimates supporters outnumbered detractors by about 5 to 1.
“I think he doesn’t deserve to have a bridge named after him,” said Jeanne Barnhart of Lebanon. “I think he had a roll in everything.”
Harrisburg’s Jessica Waller says leave the bridge – and the issue – alone.
“Why bring up more things that are gonna cause more pain, more memory, more anything to the victims?” she said.
Debra Barnhart agreed.
“Penn State, he did wonderful things for them, but to name a bridge after him? No,” Barnhart said.
But Regan is undeterred. He said he’d like to talk to the naysayers. The former U.S. Marshall is a law-and-order guy. He doesn’t exult criminals. He says he personally believes Paterno could have done more, but thinks it’s terribly unfair to link Paterno to Sandusky’s heinous crimes.
“He (Paterno) may have made mistakes, but I don’t think they were intentional and what he’s done good for the state outweighs that,” Regan said.
Regan said the Turnpike bridge is appropriate because it is close to Penn State Harrisburg. It’s also near Harrisburg International Airport, which the Nittany Lions used to fly out of during Paterno’s heyday.
Of course, lawmakers can only rename bridges in their legislative districts.
The bill has only just been introduced and has a long way to go before there’s any bridge renaming ceremony.