Years ago, when my husband and I were still living in NY, we went down some familiar highway only to discover it had been renamed for some local politician. I remember my husband asking why we would rename a highway for someone still living. I’ve had reason to come back to that question many times, but lately it’s as clear as day that it’s a bad idea.
Living where I do, the Penn State-Sandusky affair has been especially big news. Over the course of this year, Joe Paterno has gone from a figure embodying the Penn State Football Powerhouse and fatherly fun to a man representing the triumph of an Old Boys Network over the welfare of children. Earlier this week, the newspapers were ablaze with reactions to the removal of JoePa’s statue from the campus, out of apparent concern that it was an overly divisive symbol (and cynical speculation that it was done to appease the anticipated NCAA sanctions. If the latter, it was a miserable failure).
I don’t know what I think of Joe Paterno overall, though I’m inclined to think he was a great man, with some serious flaws. But I do know what I think of putting up a statue while a man is still living. It’s a not a good thing to do—for many reasons. First of all—since we usually have the decency to wait until someone is dead-- it makes it seem like the person has already passed. So a living person gets to pass in front of his statue regularly. Weird. But more importantly, it tends to make him see himself as larger than life. A famous man, who feels loved by everyone can be easily tempted to arrogance. If we want to keep our leaders great, we need to keep them humble. And putting up statues while they’re alive is temptation to arrogance if ever there was. If we love our great men—and I hope we do—let’s help them stay that way. Finally, putting up a statue is a testament to a person’s legacy. Presenting that legacy before that person’s death is jumping the gun. We know not to build structures on ‘projected’ inheritances—the market can deliver nasty surprises and so we wait for the real thing. To do otherwise is presumptuous—and always a bad call.