A number of years ago, I enjoyed my first lengthy conversation with John Black. We’ve had many more since, though that first one I still recall in detail. We were at the Hintz Family Alumni Center, sitting opposite one another on seat cushions embedded into the stairwell, with a glass table between us and a nearby window that opened to the south side of campus, facing the Hammond Building.
We talked about Penn State football (of course), the Nittany Lions’ history with Maryland (a recent opponent), and the significance of John preparing to cover his 475th football game for The Football Letter.
It was 2014, James Franklin’s first year with the team, and for the final two home opponents, I mirrored John in the press box to get an up-close look at how he covered the games. He was the only one who jettisoned a laptop in favor of a legal pad and pens. Well, that was true for the first game, when I brought my laptop and felt foolish for that decision as I sat next to John. I learned my lesson and left my laptop at home the next time.
As we chatted at the Alumni Center, he said this about serving as editor of The Football Letter: “I think a tremendous responsibility comes with that, because you’re doing your job and following through on trying to be the eyes and ears at the game for all avid alumni and fans.”
John did just that for 46 years, admirably carrying on the legacy first brought forth by Ridge Riley in 1938.
Here’s a story I’ll share that embodies John’s positive attitude, along with his love and adoration for both the football program and the University. It’s also an example that shows how the responsibility he mentioned is one that goes beyond covering the team.
During our stay in Tampa for Penn State’s recent visit to the Outback Bowl, the Alumni Association had our annual service project, one in which we partnered with the Arkansas Alumni Association to clean up Gandy Beach in nearby St. Petersburg.
It was early in the morning, well before lunchtime. Within a half hour of arriving, the sun’s warmth started to assert itself as volunteers picked up debris, carrying grabber tools and trash bags along a busy highway, over dry and rough sand, and in between thickets of brush. It wasn’t glamorous, which made the scene all the more inspiring.
Here were alumni who spent money and used vacation time to travel to Florida over the holiday to cheer on the football team. And here they were, early in the morning, under the hot Florida sun, giving back to a community in which they’ll spend only a few hours.
In the middle of the action, I noticed John walking along, pitching in the same as everyone else. I smiled to myself, slightly shook my head in disbelief, walked up to him, and said:
“John, you don’t need to be out here.”
The implication being that John didn’t have anything to prove, had already devoted his life to Penn State. He had rightly earned certain privileges, one being that he didn’t need to wake up early to take a 60-minute roundtrip bus ride and physically exert himself. His response will stay with me forever. He said, smiling of course:
“Why not? It’s a beautiful day. I’m getting some exercise …”
His voice trailed off, and he looked out at the scene of Penn Staters volunteering, and the expression on his face said everything I needed to know. In reality, what I already knew before I approached him.
When you’re a lifelong Penn Stater, you give back and get involved not out of a sense of obligation, but out of a sense of service, a sense of wanting to help, of wanting to be part of the team. Out of a sense of responsibility, one that you accept willingly. John did that for nearly half a century. And along the way, he set an example that will last forever.
When John learned that I’d be succeeding him as editor of The Football Letter, he told me that he hopes I break his record of 46 years. I’m not sure of the chances of that happening, though John’s positivity and optimism has a way of making you believe anything is possible.
As I prepare for my first season, one thing I am certain of is that I’m ready to accept the “tremendous responsibility” that comes with serving as editor of The Football Letter, in no small part because of the example set by the Penn Stater I’m following.
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