Jay Paterno: Good leaders must overcome difficult circumstances

| Friday, May 23, 2014, 1:46 a.m.

In his speech to Burrell High School honor students on Thursday night, Jay Paterno stressed that good leaders must overcome difficult circumstances.

“Your ability, and drive, to become leaders is admirable,” said Paterno, who served as keynote speaker at the school's National Honor Society induction ceremony. “But, remember: When someone stands up to lead, others rush to doubt them, and bring them down.

“You must overcome that and take leadership roles that cause real and positive change.”

Paterno, 45, spoke to the school's 52 members of the National Honor Society, 16 of whom were inducted at the ceremony.

According to the school's National Honor Society President Taylor Lender, the honor students invited Paterno to speak. Paterno is son of the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and a former longtime Penn State football assistant. He is a newspaper columnist who had a short-lived run for lieutenant governor this year.

“Mr. Paterno is obviously a wonderful public speaker,” said Lender, a senior who will be attending Penn State in the fall. “We're more than thrilled to have him here.”

Lender said junior Mike Russo helped the honor society get Paterno to speak. Russo's father, Mike Sr., played with Paterno on Penn State's 1986 National Championship football team.

“When I found out we needed a speaker, I thought (Paterno) would be great,” said Russo, who will serve as the organization's vice president next school year. So with his father's help, Russo succeeded in landing Paterno.

Russo believes that Paterno exemplified the four pillars of the National Honor Society: scholarship, leadership, character and service.

“He's a smart, honorable man,” Russo said. “He possesses all the qualities the National Honor Society looks for in a person.”

Paterno didn't sugarcoat his message to the students, making several veiled references to the struggles he and his family went through when his father was fired in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal.

“You live in a society with a 24-hour news cycle that has little time for facts,” he said. “Some people have nothing better to (do) than try and bring down those we look up to.

“I have many heroes: Joe Paterno, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, my mother,” he said. “All of these people had their faults, well maybe except for my mother — she's always right. I refuse to stop having heroes, and I hope you feel the same way.”

Paterno said he hopes the students could take away something from the team he and Russo Sr. played on that upset a highly favorited Miami team to win the championship.

“We played at a disadvantage at Penn State,” he said. “We recruited people who believed in doing things the right way, doing them with honor.

“Some chose not to come to Penn State because they didn't want to make that commitment,” Paterno said. “But we still had success.

“When you can get enough people to come together behind a common cause, there's nothing you can do to stop them.”

R.A. Monti is a freelance reporter for Trib Total Media.

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