During the past week, the airwaves have been filled with tributes to the legendary Penn State coach, Joe Paterno. As I watched with sadness, I recalled the night I met Coach Paterno in the fall of 1975 in Delaware County, Pa.
Charlie Keeler, Frank Hazel and I were running as the Republican “New Look” team. The party was reeling from major defeats in 1974 and had recruited me and the new young faces of Charlie Keeler and Frank Hazel to replace the old “War Board” that had proved unacceptable to many voters. The old guard was only willing to risk running me, in particular — but also Charlie and Frank — because they were determined to retain Republican control of Delaware County government.
The party usually arranged its big fundraising dinner to highlight the county government candidates and finance the election, including the “street money” needs of loyal party workers manning the polls.
Joe Paterno came to our dinner at the Brandywine Club to speak on behalf of the New Look candidates. Not only did he sell out the room, but it was literally filled to capacity with standing-room supporters. Loyal Penn State alumni who might not have been enthusiastic about a county Republican dinner came to see their hero, Coach Paterno, and were willing to pay to do so.
As I learned later from Charlie Keeler, Joe was being recruited quietly to run for governor of Pennsylvania by some leading Pennsylvania Republicans. What better place to give him a taste of the political spotlight than in the largest Republican county in the commonwealth!
Having lost big time to Democrat Milton Shapp in 1974, it was imperative that a winning Republican candidate be recruited early for the 1978 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election.
I remember sitting at the head table with Coach Paterno and also attending the smaller cocktail reception with him before the larger dinner. He was articulate, smiling, easily mixing with not only the large donors at the reception, but also with the ordinary party faithful at the dinner.
He spoke for almost an hour without a prepared speech. During his talk, you could hear a pin drop in the room. The applause was wildly enthusiastic.
I didn’t know much about football, much less Penn State football, but I was deeply affected by the man’s high intelligence, character and personal charisma. He was also very charming and gracious to me.
Obviously, he did not accept Republican overtures to run for governor, but our New Look ticket in Delaware County won in a landslide and — big surprise for me — I led the ticket. The party machine had been inspired and fired up by Joe.
I did not see Joe Paterno again, but I am eternally grateful to him for aiding my candidacy in winning a very important election, which put me on the road to the Reagan White House.
Because I acquired significant political stature in Delaware County as a result of the 1975 election, as one of the earliest supporters of Ronald Reagan in Pennsylvania, I was able to influence the Delaware County Republican convention delegates in 1976 and 1980 to support Ronald Reagan, first against Gerald Ford (where we lost), then against G.H.W. Bush (where we won).
In the 1980 spring primary, Ronald Reagan won most of the Pennsylvania convention delegation, and in the ensuing election I was honored to serve as co-chairman with Drew Lewis of the Pennsylvania Reagan for President statewide campaign.
Drew Lewis’ son Andy is currently a member of the Delaware County Council. Pennsylvania went for Ronald Reagan in 1980 by over 300,000 votes.
I don’t know that Joe Paterno ever knew his appearance that night in Delaware County would have meaning for the election of a future President of the United States, Ronald Reagan.
So, thanks, Joe Paterno, for launching me as a newcomer in Delaware County Republican politics 37 years ago.
May Joe Pa rest in peace.
Faith Whittlesey served as ambassador to Switzerland under President Ronald Reagan.
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