A state grand jury investigation into a charge of child sexual abuse by retired Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, the founder of The Second Mile program for underprivileged children, has stunned his friends and supporters in Blair County.
"It's almost like a nightmare to me," said Michael Irwin, president of Michael Irwin Financial Inc. of Altoona, who played defense with Sandusky in the 1960s as the Joe Paterno era was beginning at Penn State.
Steve Seltzer, who owns a Honda dealership in Altoona and has known Sandusky for decades, called the news "unbelievable."
Tyrone resident Harry K. Sickler, the owner of Harry K. Sickler Associates, said Thursday he is "at a loss for words."
Sickler said he knows Sandusky "extremely well" and said he worked with him for 30 years as The Second Mile program grew into a multi-million dollar agency.
Sickler said Sandusky, 67, who retired from the organization last September, turned down a head coaching job with the University of Maryland and other coaching possibilities in order to remain active in The Second Mile.
"I never regretted anything I ever did for the guy," he said. "They [The Second Mile] provide hope for kids from all walks of life."
Many of the children have no desire to do anything, and Sandusky's mission, Sickler said, "was to bring out the best in them."
He estimated that 7,000 or 8,000 Blair County children have been involved with The Second Mile over the years.
The timing of the grand jury investigation couldn't be worse, he said, pointing out that The Second Mile is on the cusp of a major construction project to create a campus where children can live and receive services. The site is near the University Park Airport, not far from Penn State's University Park campus
"I have little to say. I am so heartbroken over it," Sickler said of the allegations.
Jack Raykovitz, president and CEO of The Second Mile, issued a statement Thursday which said, "All of us at The Second Mile are shaken by the article appearing in the Harrisburg Patriot-News. While The Second Mile is referenced in the Patriot-News Article, we have been advised that neither The Second Mile nor our programs are the subject of any investigation.
"Out of respect for all parties, we cannot discuss, speculate, or comment further," Raykovitz said.
He went on to say that The Second Mile "is committed first and foremost to the safety and well-being of the children we serve. We have zero tolerance for abuse."
He said the program includes policies and procedures designed to protect children, such as background checks, training and supervision.
The Second Mile last year served more than 100,000 children in its programs, providing the youngsters with mentors, foster families, leadership training, school counselors and classroom programs.
The investigation does not not involve a Second Mile client.
It began, according to the Patriot-News story, in 2009 when a 15-year-old boy from Clinton County's Central Mountain High School reported that he was inappropriately touched by Sandusky, who was serving as a volunteer assistant football coach at the time.
The school was informed and referred the case to the county's child welfare agency. From there it went to the Clinton County District Attorney's office.
Kelly Hastings, who became Keystone Central School District superintendent subsequent to the allegation, answered a rumor that Sandusky was banned from the school.
She said there is no record of such an order and that she did not issue any orders to that effect.
According to former Centre County District Attorney Michael Madeira, the case was sent to his office because it was determined the incident allegedly occurred in Centre County.
State police at Lamar and Rockview investigated the case.
Madeira, who was prosecutor for former Attorney General and now-Gov. Tom Corbett, told the Mirror on Thursday he read the reports of the investigation and determined there was a conflict of interest with his office. He would not discuss the conflict, but he referred the case to the Attorney General for further investigation.
The charges have been under investigation for the past 18 months, according to the Harrisburg newspaper.
Irwin said he knew about rumors of the investigation last fall.
"I've known [Sandusky] for a long time. I just can't believe it," he said.
He first met Sandusky in Penn State's North Halls when both were student-athletes. They played together on Penn State's football team and on various basketball teams.
"He was the type who never drank, never smoked and never swore. He was an excellent student. He is a role model for most people," Irwin said.
He said Sandusky was a very competitive individual.
"I don't know if I can believe it. It's such a shock. If you had a kid, you would want him to play for Jerry," Irwin said. "I want to believe it's not true."
Seltzer, a member of The Second Mile board, agreed, saying, "I've known Jerry for a long, long time. To anybody who knows him, it's pretty unbelievable."