Graham Spanier, the Jewish president of Penn State ousted during the school’s sexual abuse scandal, opened up about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his immigrant father in a new profile in the New York Times Magazine by Mike Sokolove.
Spanier, whose 16-year tenure at Penn State ended abruptly in November 2011, is awaiting trial on charges he covered up the crimes of Jerry Sandusky, the disgraced Penn State football coach convicted in 2012 of sexually abusing boys.
Spanier has denied any criminal wrongdoing and is fighting to have the charges dismissed.
In his interview with the Times, Spanier described in detail the childhood beatings administered by his father, a Jewish escapee of Nazi-era Germany.
Spanier said that his father sometimes hit him with his hands or fists, “but 90 percent of the time, it was what’s called a strapping. He would undo his belt, double it up and would strap you with it. You’d be cowering in the corner, and he would continue doing that until I assume he got tired. He just couldn’t do it anymore […] Back in the ‘50s, someone like my father would be described as a strict disciplinarian. Nowadays, you’d be in jail for what he did.”
Spanier’s childhood experience, the Times’ Sokolove wrote, “so weirdly evokes the troubles that have found him later in life. He is a victim of child abuse who is charged with tolerating and abetting the same.”
Spanier’s father was born into a well-off Jewish family of cigar producers in northern Germany, but at age 15 was sent to live alone in South Africa amidst the growing Nazi threat.
He eventually settled on the South Side of Chicago, where he worked a menial job in a nut and bolt warehouse. He took out much of his frustration with life on his oldest child, Graham.
“He was a frustrated man,” Spanier said of his father. “I would never excuse what he did. And I have never forgiven him. But I understand it. He’s poor, he is doing a job that — I don’t want to say was beneath him — but it is not what he expected. He has no self control.”
Spanier has undergone four operations to repair the damage his father inflicted on him, and still bears the marks of the beatings on his face. “I didn’t always look like this,” he told Sokolove. “They had to rebuild me from the inside out.”
Spanier has been awaiting trial for a year-and-a-half. He is accused of failing to tell authorities about Sandusky’s abusive behavior on Penn State’s campus, though he maintains that he was not informed about the true nature of Sandusky’s actions.
“I’m an intervener,” he told the Times. “If [university administrators] Gary Schultz or Tim Curley had said to me anything about child abuse, sexual abuse, anything criminal, even had hinted about that possibility, of course we would have said something.”
While president, Spanier was a supporter of the university’s Hillel, helping the Jewish campus organization recruit prominent speakers and attending high holiday services, according to JTA.
Spanier is freed on bail while awaiting trial. However, he was initially required to file an itinerary with authorities when travelling out of state, and was once prevented from attending a conference in Saudi Arabia.
“As if I was going to hide out there,” he said. “A Jewish guy, in the desert.”