Kentucky voices: Tragic turns raise questions about what's 'significant'

A man knelt in prayer near a statue of legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno on Wednesday, the day of the funeral service.
A man knelt in prayer near a statue of legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno on Wednesday, the day of the funeral service. AP

I am fully immersed in the local food movement these days and thus my writing drifts in that direction. So, what does the legacy/tragedy/death of Joe Paterno have to do with that? Hang with me.

The throngs who gather in worshipful fashion lament that his incredible legacy is now tarnished. The diehards say that while he may have made misjudgments, with hopeful voices they say that his true legacy is how he gave to Penn State University in so many ways — from athletics to saving the classics department with his own money. The die-even-harders say that he was unfairly mistreated by being fired over the boy-abuse scandal.

That debate will continue. But I am reminded of a fellow who said the local food movement spoke to him because growing some of his own food, cooking it and watching family and neighbors enjoy life wrapped around the fundamental act of eating was fulfilling. He employed a strange word to describe the new life he had chosen; his choice to live this lifestyle was one of "insignificance."

But let's cast it another way: He chose an important life where every day he is now doing what we should have been doing all along — taking care of family, neighbors and community so as to cast a big light on what is truly important in the world.

The unprecedented bombardment of entertainment news has turned us into celebrity hounds. If we can't be celebrities ourselves, we attach to everything from the Kardasians to the Paternos to find heros. We look beyond the goofy, silly and even tragic parts to lay claim in desperation.

The better ones among those celebrities seek to leave behind good works. They give, but at the same time crave their names on walls, buildings, glowing obituaries and endowments. At the root of it are, of course, money and power; but it is good stuff most of the time.

Most of us will live our lives with smaller legacies than some in the 24/7 news cycles or some poor soul trying to justify doing the right thing as "insignificant." Caring for our families and our communities is just now getting sexy and thus may yet qualify as "significant."

Michael Bombard, director of the Yale (University) Sustainable Food Project, said food is merely the convener — what people are seeking is re-connection to one another. And, they are seeking it in droves. Look at social media.

Whether the legacy of "JoePa" as a football/classics department legend trumps his tragic ending is an unknown. Life is unfair as most of us have come to conclude at a certain age. But, it would have been a nice touch if his health had held up or he had been younger when all this came down.

Given that he appears to have been a fine man with tons of character, he might have turned this thing on its head and left an even greater legacy than the one we are in the throes of trumpeting. He might have founded a foundation that explored and stopped the horrible epidemic of child abuse in this country or he might have gone on the circuit to discuss his unfortunate alleged misjudgment — if we would have bothered to listen.

Alas, we will never know. But, I do remember a great line by Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind: "You don't know what a burden it was til you lose your reputation."

Hmmm. Living free, not worrying about how many buildings are named for you and doing the right thing every day — no matter the "insignificance."